After nearly ten years serving in student ministry in Mexico City, it strikes me that beginnings are hard to pin down. You might say that it began with a boy from Bendigo who grew up with a passion for world mission. No, I wasn't born and bred in Bendigo, but Stacey Woods, the founding General Secretary of IFES, was. Stacey Woods travelled to Mexico in 1944 and returned to the USA, where he was living then, with reports of small groups of evangelical students who could form the nucleus of a student movement. In 1945 Edward Pentecost moved from the USA to Mexico City and enrolled at the National Autonomous University, where the first student Bible studies took place in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. Compa, as the Mexican movement is affectionately known, became an affiliate of IFES in 1953. The movement became established and grew during the 1960s and 1970s, first through the agency of foreign missionaries and then through national leadership.
How have you seen Compa change?
I came to Mexico City with my family in 2001, sent by CMS-Australia at Compa's invitation, and we've been privileged to be part of a very exciting time in the movement’s history. After a crisis in the 1990s when Compa almost disappeared, the movement has enjoyed a period of renewal in the last decade, and currently works with over 1600 students in more than 160 small group Bible studies spread across 22 of the country's 32 states, with stable national leadership and a growing staff team of 25 paid workers and nearly 50 volunteers.
Compa has grown not only in numbers, but also in maturity. One sign of maturity is the movement’s increasingly outward-looking character, seen in the strong emphasis on pioneer work to open new groups around the country, in the inauguration of a major student missions convention, in plans to send a team to North Africa to explore mission among Muslims, and in the sending and supporting of a member of Compa staff to work with the Honduran IFES group. Another encouraging sign of maturity is the growing concern to invest time, money and energy in staff training, this in a setting where leadership formation is a weak point among evangelical churches and ministries. A third sign of Compa's growing maturity is the smooth leadership transition that took place when there was a change of General Secretary three years ago. Leadership transitions in Latin America are too often the cause and/or the result of conflict and division, and it was a mark of God's grace to live through a process of change characterised by unity and transparency.
How is student work in Mexico different to that in Australia?
This growing student movement looks rather different from AFES. A strict interpretation of non-religious public education means that religious activity is largely banned in Mexican schools and universities. Large group public meetings with Bible exposition, so common in AFES, are unheard of. Compa's main activity is student-led small group Bible studies that meet on campus lawns and in cafeterias, or off campus if needs be. Add to this the mega city logistical and security issues here in Mexico City where I work, and the result is that almost everything we do on a week-to-week basis happens in small groups on campus during the day. While this situation certainly imposes limitations, at one level it's a blessing, because it means that all you need to start Compa on a new campus is a Christian student or two willing to invite their friends to read the Bible. It's about students meeting around an open Bible; that's it, and that simplicity is a strength. The emphasis on small groups and student initiative has fuelled Compa's rapid growth over the last decade, with the staff playing a vital role in coordinating, training and caring for the students, especially the leaders.
Two other differences between the Compa and AFES contexts highlight the challenges of student ministry here. First, the biggest challenge from within the Christian community in Mexico is the suspicion and lack of support displayed towards interdenominational and para-church ministries. By way of an extreme example, I know of one local church whose constitution forbids members from meeting with members of other Christian congregations! In this climate, it is difficult for Compa to raise support locally.
Second, the biggest challenge from the wider culture for student ministry is Mexican Catholicism. On the one hand, Mexican Catholicism is profoundly nominal (90% on the census, 10% in church regularly), the kind of cultural religiosity that inoculates people against true religion. On the other hand, popular Mexican Catholicism centres on devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe (a supposed sixteenth-century appearance of Mary the mother of Jesus in the form of an indigenous Mexican woman), while Jesus is popularly represented as either a baby in the Virgin's arms or a dead man. The Virgin is a symbol not only of popular religion, but also of national identity. This year Mexico is celebrating the bicentenary of its independence, and a new 200 peso note shows the priest Miguel Hidalgo delivering the call for independence beneath a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Indeed, Hidalgo's original call for independence apparently went along the following lines:
"Long live the Catholic religion! Long live Fernando VII! Long live the Fatherland, and may our sacred patroness, the Most Holy Virgin of Guadalupe, live and reign forever on this American continent! Death to bad government!"
Nevertheless, the gospel is spreading in Mexico today, not least through student ministry.
How can we pray for student ministry in Mexico?
At the end of a decade here, Paul's letters to the Corinthians stand as bookends to our Mexican years. Our commissioning service reminded us that God places his gospel treasure in clay jars to show that the all-surpassing power of gospel ministry is his, not ours (2 Cor 4:7). That has been a constant encouragement in moments of weakness and inadequacy. Now, at the end, we leave with humble thanks for this season of planting, watering and reaping, and with humble confidence that the gospel will keep spreading here, because it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor 3:5-7).
Please pray for a multiplied gospel harvest in Mexican high schools and universities in the coming decade. Please also pray especially for Blas López, Compa's General Secretary, and for Mexico City staff Ana Miriam Peralta and Mario Martínez, to whom we pass the baton as we leave.