Accion began in the early 1980’s under the direction of the Rev. Oscar Dorantes of Merida, Yucatan. Oscar, a native of Yucatan, was educated at Birmingham Bible College in Birmingham, Alabama in the 60’s. After returning to Mexico, he was ordained and served a number of small churches in the peninsula, including First Presbyterian in Merida. While serving the Presbyterian Church, he maintained contact with a number of friends in the US, and as his network of contacts grew, Oscar received a number of requests to organize trips from US churches for mission projects in the Yucatan. As these requests grew, Oscar left full time church work to form a local Board of Directors and begin Accion Ministries. His efforts multiplied both in requests from local villages and interest in US mission teams. First Presbyterian’s involvement with the ministry began with an initial fact-finding trip in the fall of 1988. Many groups from First Presbyterian as well as other groups from the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, as well as others as far west as California, have traveled to the three states of the Yucatan (Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo) to complete work projects. Teams have included team members ranging from 8 to 80 years old, and teams ranging from 6 to 50-some members.
First Presbyterian’s first two trips working with Accion were summer youth trips in 1989 and 1990. The 1989 team consisted of 34 youth and adults who stayed in the Merida facility that now doubles as the ministry’s office and CEM, a residential facility for village boys who are completing their education in the city under the care of Accion. The 1989 team roofed a village church and led Vacation Bible School activities in San Pedro, a small community on the outskirts of Merida. A unique aspects of this trip was that several years later, one of our adult teams returned to visit the church and see the completed sanctuary with Mayan tile floors, hand made pew benches and beautifully painted walls.
Having successfully completed the initial trip, the 1990 team ventured out of the city and stayed in the large village of Motul, northeast of Merida. Housing for this group, along with many subsequent teams, included living in the homes of church members and villagers. In most instances, families moved out of their extremely modest homes or huts, and allowed mission teams to live in them for their time in the community. Following the second successful youth trip to the Yucatan, many adults wanted to participate in the experience, and adult teams were formed, some of whom included families as well as college students and senior citizens. The first adult trip visited the very small village of Bacabchen in Yucatan. The entire team of 16 stayed in a cinderblock home on the major highway, while the Mayan family homeowners slept in hammocks in the yard or other homes. Many of the adult trips since 1991 have included team members from other churches, both in Charlotte and other communities. They have provided a meaningful way to get to know a wide variety of people as well as an opportunity to spread the message of Accion and its ministry to other church communities.
With Benevolent funds created through two most recent capital campaigns, Building Futures and First Things First, First Presbyterian has been the catalyst to start two programs with Accion. Casa Estudiantil Merida (CEM) was started near the heart of the old city of Merida. Using a building formerly known as El Refugio in the 80’s, the property has been converted to offer shelter and food for village boys completing higher education, as well as house the current office for Accion. With a gift from the Building Futures capital campaign in 1993, work began on a two-story structure at the back of the property which provided sleeping space and bathrooms for up to 20 students. A First Presbyterian adult team of twelve participants traveled to Merida in February 1994 to work on the new building. The older front part of the facility includes the kitchen and dining area, a study hall, additional bathrooms and office space.
A second program Villa Infantil Maya (VIM) was started with a contribution from the 2001 First Things First capital campaign. VIM is located close to the border of Quintana Roo and Yucatan and provides residential care for both boys and girls from villages where there are no middle and high schools. The children receive room, board and extra activities at VIM and attend schools in the nearby villages of El Ideal and Ignacio Zaragoza. Since the ground breaking in 2002, the facility now includes boys’ and girls’ dorms; a director’s home that accommodates the directors and their family; a kitchen and dining room; several gardens; a large courtyard for basketball, soccer and other games; and a water purification system. The program receives monthly support from Friends of Accion, Inc. (established in 2003), as well as additional teams and churches. Daily life for the students at VIM encourages Christian growth through education, worship and role models. At this time, several students have graduated from VIM and gone on to further their education living at CEM in Merida.
Whether our work teams in Mexico have been primarily youth or adults, or a blend of both, the lessons in servanthood remain the same. Team members are forced to a slower pace of living; of sharing time with one another without the interruptions of phones, computers, TV, jobs, carpools, meetings, and the host of many things that occupy our time. Team members have an opportunity to be immersed in a culture and way of life strangely simplistic, but richly filled with faith and love. Sleeping in hammocks and cold showers, if there is running water available in the village, become the norm. Team members all participate in fixing meals together, and village kitchen “equipment” has varied from small electric stoves, to gas camp stoves and coolers for refrigeration. It is quickly noted that materialism is not in the Mayan vocabulary, but rather a richness of faith and love of the Lord provide their life focus. The church is the center of life for the congregations, and gathering to worship 3 to 4 times a week is common. Team members gather at the end of each day to pray, sing, share experiences and discuss observations/lessons learned. Without exception, the first night in the village includes team members’ discussions of the incredible happiness of the people amidst a life of material poverty and hardships relative to our own lives in the States. We quickly discover, however, that we sing some of the same hymns but in different languages, we smile in the same language, and we worship the same Lord.
Our mission trips to Mexico have each been unique. Our teams have built roofs, created cement courtyards, laid cement floors, built and painted walls, planted gardens, created roadways and many other projects. We have led Vacation Bible School to small groups of several dozen children, to up to 200 men, women and children gathering together at the end of the day. Teams have stayed in homes, small inns, churches and VIM/CEM dormitories, to name a few. The experiences however varied do have many common threads. On the surface, we return to work and share faith with our Mayan brothers and sisters in Christ, and our teams have made a difference in many Mayan lives. The real draw, however, is the experience and witness of faith to all team members who have been involved. One does not participate in a mission trip to the Yucatan and return with the same mindset.
Through gifts dedicated to our Global Mission Partners in the current capital campaign, Opening Doors, funds will be provided to start a CEM for women in Merida, giving women the opportunity for room and board while attending college, universities and/or other professional schools in Merida, typically free of charge. There are some young women completing work living at VIM who hope to participate in this new program, again creating opportunities for professional education for Mayan youth who might not otherwise have completed elementary school in their home communities.
Written by Elise Barksdale