Worthy of Their Love and Confidence

by Bettina Krause

Prostitutes, criminals, the homeless—these are not just charity cases for workers at one Seventh-day Adventist Center of Influence. Each person who crosses the threshold of the Hope Center in Mexico City is treated as a beloved child of God.

Historical downtown district, Mexico City

It’s a large, plain room with a cement floor and whitewashed walls, illuminated by the severe glow of fluorescent lights. The room is filled with a series of plastic trestle tables set close together, each surrounded by a mismatched collection of metal and plastic chairs.[1]

Every seat is taken. There are old men, teenagers, middle-aged women, and children. One elderly man leans his elbows on the table and rests his head on his hands. He has short-cropped hair and is wearing a gray sweatshirt that has seen better days. His face is etched with deep lines. At a nearby table sits a family: a mother and father with three young children. The youngest boy—no more that two years of age—sits on his mother’s lap. She looks tired.

A pastor calls out from the front of the room and asks everyone to stand to give thanks to God for the food that’s about to be served. As the pastor prays, most people in the crowded room stand with bowed heads, although one young man with unshaven face and dirty shirt stares straight ahead, face expressionless. At the end of the prayer, he murmurs, “Amen.”

There’s a vinyl banner strung up on one wall of the room with the name of this Center of Influence spelled out in large letters. It’s the Hope Center, or Centro de Esperanza. And many of the people gathered here tonight for one of the regular hot meals served by Seventh-day Adventists volunteers are in desperate need of hope.

An urban leviathan

“I walk and do not move forward.

I am surrounded by city. I lack air . . .”[2]

This is how renowned Mexican poet Octavio Paz described the sensory overload that is Mexico City—the largest urban center in the Western hemisphere. It’s crowded, chaotic, and claustrophobic. Or as another writer puts it, more prosaically, “Life in Mexico City is a contact sport.”[3] It’s a city of extremes—of wealth and poverty, religiosity and secularism, youthful optimism and human wretchedness.

It’s difficult to adequately describe the immensity of this city, which has become synonymous the world over with scarcely restrained urban growth. In the words of one visitor, its sheer size “hits you in the face before your plane has even landed.” The greater metropolitan area of some 9,600 square kilometers (3,700 square miles) embraces almost 23 million residents—roughly equivalent to Australia’s total population, or to the populations of Portugal and Belgium combined.

Tourists to Mexico City tend to make a beeline for its historic center, with its eclectic collection of grand architecture—a mix of everything from baroque to neo-classical to Art Deco—spanning six centuries of urban development. At the heart of this historic center, tourists and locals walk through the massive square known as Zocalo, the largest city plaza in Latin America, which is edged by some of the nation’s most important public buildings.

Another building not too far away, also located in the historic downtown, is not included in any tourist guide. Behind the unremarkable façade of the Centro de Esperanza, faithful Seventh-day Adventists are putting Christ’s method of ministry into practice and demonstrating in practical ways Christ’s unwavering love for this city and its residents.

Location, location, location

Like real estate, the first consideration of a Center of Influence is location, and by that criterion, the Centro de Esperanza is perfectly positioned. This small Adventist Center of Influence lies at the crossroads of a vast human tragedy—part of which is visible but much of which is hidden.

To the east is the well-known La Merced Market, a centuries-old marketplace still in use today. It’s a chaotic world unto itself, filled with stalls displaying fresh produce and goods of all descriptions, resounding with the shouts of vendors, and bursting with the press of customers and tourists.

Visitors to the market will also see hundreds of children and youth. Some are juggling, others peddle snacks, some perform acrobatics or even put on fire-breathing shows—all in the hope that they can convince passers-by to toss them a peso or two.

These are some of Mexico City’s estimated 30,000 street children. They live—or rather, survive—in loosely formed groups of homeless children. What shelter they have is sometimes as rudimentary as a few dirty sheets strung together to screen themselves from passing traffic. They have little or no education, few options for earning money, and no prospects for anything better. An estimated 90 percent of these young street children are addicted to industrial solvents or other drugs. For them, it’s a temporary escape from a daily cycle of hopelessness.

To the west of the Centro de Esperanza lies the district of Tepito, notorious for centuries as a center of criminal activity. It’s called locally Barrio Bravo or “fierce neighborhood.” Most crimes today revolve around petty theft, counterfeiting, and product piracy rather than the robberies that gave the area its reputation, but violence in the area still often flares. For residents of Tepito, poverty and crime are ever-present.

Encircling Centro de Esperanza is a series of red light districts, where prostitution is rampant. Many of those being abused are just children. It’s a tragedy of immense scope. Accompanying the exploitation of these women and children is a catalog of social ills—various diseases, alcohol and drug addiction, and more crime.

The neighborhoods around Centro de Esperanza are also filled with the homeless. Some are second- or even third-generation homeless who only know life on the streets of the city. Others are Mexicans from rural areas who are drawn to Mexico City in search of new opportunities yet find themselves without work or a place to live.

The Gospel of Matthew describes Jesus going through all the cities and villages, teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness (Matt. 9:35). The next verse records that as Jesus saw the crowds of people, “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This is the compassion that Adventists in Mexico City are striving to bring to the harassed and helpless men, women, and children who walk the streets of the historical downtown district.

“Our special friends”

The Centro de Esperanza project, launched in 2014, is the first of what local Adventist leaders hope will be many Centers of Influence scattered throughout Mexico City. It has its roots in a project of the Central Seventh-day Adventist Church, which in 2010 planted a new church in the downtown historical district. Led by church members Ignacio Rosas and Santos Gomez, the new congregation rented a facility and set it up with a dual purpose—it would serve as both a church and a place where indigent men, women, and children could find physical and spiritual help.

Their outreach and restoration project grew, and of the many people who came to the church for help of various kinds, some ultimately found something far more valuable: their Savior. A number of these once-homeless men and women are now active in local Adventist churches, and one is even leading out in a new church plant in another part of Mexico City.

By 2013, though, local Adventist leaders felt that even more could, and should, be done to bring Christ’s love to the forgotten people of the streets of Mexico City.

The church’s Metropolitan Conference, supported by the Central Mexican Union and the Inter-American Division, purchased the property on Ferrocarril de Cintura Street and appointed a full-time manager, Pastor Raul Moscoso. The overall coordination of the center was entrusted to Pastor Jaivez Munoz and Pastor Tomas Torres of the Central Mexico Union.

Their first task? To survey the territory surrounding the center and identify major needs. After study and prayer, the leadership team chose to focus on four groups found within a short radius of the center—prostitutes, homeless children, criminals, and indigent adults.

For these people, Centro de Esperanza provides services that help restore a sense of dignity and comfort. The center has built two full bathrooms for the use of the homeless, where they can shower and care for personal hygiene. The center also provides haircuts and runs health workshops aimed at the specific challenges of these impoverished men and women.

The center distributes donated clothes and warm blankets, and twice a week, on Tuesdays and Sundays, local churches and charities help the center provide a full hot meal for the homeless of the district.

For prostitutes, the Centro de Esperanza’s long-term goal is to provide classes to train them in a trade that generates income and allows them to break free of a lifestyle that seems as inescapable as it is hopeless.

Workers at the center soon realized that many of those involved in crime in the area are addicted to various substances—anything from illegal narcotics to solvents to alcohol. Therefore, leaving behind a life of crime means first tackling a daunting task—breaking addictions. This is where Centro de Esperanza is focusing, offering emotional and spiritual support, health programs, and job listings for those who want to find a way out of their current lifestyle.

Beyond physical help, the center also holds regular spiritual meetings, such as the Ten-Minute Devotions, which attract many who come to hear more about the Creator who loves them. The facility also still operates as a church, and members meet each Sabbath in a hall on the property. But the signage and set-up of the facility are all aimed at drawing people in and making them feel at home. Pastor Javier Munoz, one of the coordinators of the project, explains that people who come to the center see it not primarily as a church but as a place where they receive kindness and care. And these are two functions he sees as entirely complementary.

Perhaps one of the most profound gifts the center gives those it serves, however, is the gift of acceptance. To the staff and volunteers of Centro de Esperanza, the people who walk through the front door seeking help aren’t clients, customers, or even visitors. Each team member calls them, affectionately, “our special friends.”

Lessons from the past

There’s a poetic symmetry to the fact that Seventh-day Adventists in Mexico City are now focusing on Centers of Influence as a way of sharing Christ in the city. More than a hundred years ago, three Adventist missionaries to Mexico founded a small Center of Influence—an English language school—and thus established the first permanent Adventist work in Mexico City.

George W. Caviness was an educator and linguist who had been president of Battle Creek College. He traveled to Mexico in 1896 as part of a group of interdenominational scholars who were revising the Spanish translation of the Bible. Later, Caviness moved on to the Adventist Church’s Guadalajara Clinic, where he helped develop the fledgling publishing ministry.

For Caviness, though, Mexico’s largest urban area beckoned, and he, along with two assistants, moved to Mexico City in 1899 and opened an English language school. From this small beginning, the Adventist Church gained a foothold in this city of then around 500,000 people. In 1903, Caviness organized the Mexican Conference.

Caviness and his fellow missionaries regularly wrote back to the “home field” with reports that were sometimes published in the Review and Herald journal, describing the challenge of this mission territory.

So many statements by these early Adventist workers in Mexico seem to echo today’s discussions about urban mission. As you read their letters to the church members back home, it’s clear that, without explicitly naming it, they had adopted Christ’s method of reaching people—mingling with people, caring for their needs, showing sympathy, gaining confidence, and then bidding people to follow their Savior.

“It is an impossibility to reach people [here] by the ordinary methods in vogue in our native land [America],” declared one missionary to Mexico in 1900. He suggests that Adventist Church members could move to Mexico and be “living epistles” and “by words of kindness and deeds of love, the true Christian life would be illustrated before the people.”[4]

He advocated “close contact with the afflicted and the destitute, leading them, as we may be able, to the Lamb of God.” Adventists should “by loving service prove that we are worthy of love and confidence.”[5]

Today, the Centro de Esperanza follows in the steps of these pioneers and is offering “loving service” and winning confidence in the heart of Mexico City.

Winning trust

As the reach of Centro de Esperanza grows, it is helping transform more than the lives of those it serves. Seventh-day Adventists from surrounding churches who volunteer here are catching a fresh vision for ministry and service, and they’re sharing their discoveries with their fellow church members.

“This ministry differs a lot to what has been done in the past to reach out to people,” say Pastor Javier Munoz, co-coordinator of Centro de Esperanza. “The church usually focuses on preaching the gospel through evangelistic campaigns only. Now there are many church members involved who have decided to use their God-given gifts to serve others and share God’s love.”

Javier says the ministry “allows us to come close to people, meet their needs, and once we win their trust, show them the way to salvation.”

He says church members have changed their attitude about ways to relate to the community. They’re volunteering to serve in the center, and the presence of Centro de Esperanza has ignited a desire to open other Centers of Influence in the city—perhaps focused on reaching people within different socioeconomic groups.

Love in action

At the Centro de Esperanza, the pastor has finished thanking God for the food, and dinner is now being served. There’s controlled chaos in the small kitchen area at one end of the hall as three Adventist women ladle bean and vegetable soup into bowls, loading up the trays for volunteers who are waiting to serve their “special friends.” Dessert has already been prepared—one bench of the kitchen is covered by scores of plastic cups filled to the brim with cut fruit.

The elderly man in the old gray sweatshirt reaches up to take a large, steaming bowl of soup from a young woman carrying a serving tray. She moves to the table with the young family and places bowls in front of the mother and father, then in front of two of the children. One of the little boys looks up and smiles.


Extending More Than Charity

Lessons from the front lines of urban mission

  • Location and mission must be intertwined. The needs of those who live immediately around the Center of Influence should determine the services that are offered. Don’t neglect demographic research.

  • Attitude matters. When we serve others, we’re not condescending or “doing them a favor.” No matter what their background or current circumstances, we all share a common Father.

  • Extend friendship. It is not just charity; it is key to winning trust.

  • Build a strong and wide base of volunteers. By involving Adventist members from nearby churches, you’re sharing a vision for urban mission and may help to seed new Centers of Influence.

[1] Special thanks to Samuel Telemaque, director of the Office of Adventist Mission for the Inter-American Division, and Libna Stevens, assistant director, communication department of the Inter-American Division, for their assistance with this chapter.

[2] Octavio Paz, “Immemorial Landscape,” in A Draft of Shadows and Other Poems (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1979), 61.

[3] Daniel Hernandez, Down and Delirious in Mexico City (New York: Scribner, 2011), 2.

[4] A. Allen John, “Mexico,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, May 8, 1900, 12.

[5] Ibid.