“Here I am, Lord.
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.”
— from Hymn #593 “Here I Am, Lord”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”— Matthew 5: 10
Manuel Acuna Velazquez is a rural pastor. He didn’t plan it that way. He grew up in the city, in the area surrounding the world’s largest metropolis, Mexico City. Then one day, while in a seminary, a missionary visited to speak of his work in a remote indigenous village called Huitzapula. The missionary had tears in his eyes as he spoke both of the beauty of the people, of their simplicity of life, of their deep faith, but also of their deep need, of their lack of good drinking water, health care, education and basic necessities, as well as their need for formation in the Christian tradition. The missionary asked his hearers to consider serving in remote, out of the way country places like Huitzapula.
Manuel’s heart was touched at the missionary’s words. The two students behind him, however, snickered. Manuel heard one of them say, “I would only go to Huitzapula if I were being punished.”
Something in Manuel rebelled against their condemnation. “In my heart,” Manuel later said, “I told God, if you want me to go to Huitzapula, I will go to Huitzapula.”
Fast forward to seminary graduation. The bishop meets with Manuel and tells him that regrettably, he has no appointments available for him. Well, there is one: but the only possible appointment would be a full time pastorate in the remote, rural indigenous village of Huitzapula, which is a five hour bus ride from the nearest city of any size. “I’m sorry,” the bishop says, “that we don’t have anything for you.”
“I will go to Huitzapula,” says Manuel, to the Bishop’s surprise.
So Manuel becomes a rural pastor. He relocates to a place that is nine hours away from his grown children and his small grandchildren. He moves into a simple two-room concrete parsonage, the best thing about which you can say is that at least it has running water. He has no television, just a couple of radio stations to listen to: he can’t even watch his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers play football. He comes to an area where a sizeable number of the people don’t even speak his language: many of the native people speak “Paneco” or “Mekpa” rather than Spanish, as he does.
Soon after Manuel arrives in the village, he sees a boy carrying a baby. He watches the boy put the baby down on the ground and begin sobbing. He realizes that the baby is dead. His parents had stopped taking the baby to the local health clinic, and had begun consulting the services of a local witch doctor instead. This tragic moment was the eventual result. Manuel cries his own tears. The congregation Manuel comes to is as devastated as that little boy. Only a short time before, only five weeks after it had been proudly completed, their newly built church by the river had collapsed due to a flood. So Manuel goes to work, seeking to rebuild the spiritual temple, the faith of the people. Manuel goes to work, teaching the people about the blessing of the clinic, about how God can use the doctors and nurses there. The local witch doctors, upset at the loss of business, begin to threaten him. A few members of the local Catholic church, angered by the Protestant presence in their midst, make veiled threats to him as well. Manuel continues on. On some days he hikes a fifteen mile round trip in the mountains in order to preach, pray, and lead worship at a another rural mission remote from the already-remote rural mission in Huitzapula. The roads, where assaults often occur, are dangerous, but Manuel carries on. He preaches, prays, cares, pastors. He holds the people in his heart. He does all of this from a place of deep humility, love, and dependence upon God. He admits that it is, at times, a deeply lonely work. But his sisters and brothers help him. God helps him.
Manuel does not serve the people of Huitzapula because he seeks career advancement, a more comfortable life, or the adulation of others. Manuel serves in Huitzapula because God has called him there, and because he loves God and he loves these people, and he holds God and these people in his heart.
Today, whether he realizes it or not, Manuel is the pastor of a thriving rural church. La Iglesia de Rio de Agua Viva (The Church of the River of Life) in Huitzapula meets in a small, simple structure that looks like an extended thatch hut. About 50 to 70 people will attend on a given Sunday, mostly women and children. Every evening a gaggle of children gathers outside the church to play and sings songs, because the church is a center of their life and a center of the community. Almost every night there is some gathering or Bible Study or worship service that will be held there. The church has launched two small satellite missions (“new church starts” or “satellite campuses” we would say) up in the mountains. They have nothing materially. They have everything needed to be the church.
Manuel Acuna Velazquez is a rural pastor. And for those of us who have recently come to know him, we were reminded there is no higher or holier calling than this.