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It was a Saturday morning and a group of men were reading the Bible together. North Langley Community Church (BC, Canada) was hosting a team from Colima, Mexico, which included Carlos Ortega, President of the MB Conference of Mexico. Rob Thiessen, BCMB Conference Minister, was leading the session. “We all read silently,” said Carlos, “long chapters from the Old and New Testament, and a Psalm. When we gathered to share, Rob and I discovered we had both been moved by Psalm 3:9, ‘Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing.’”

Carlos paused, remembering the moment. “Out of all that we read, God spoke that one verse to both of us. We were two brothers, being comforted and challenged by our Father.” 

Carlos had not always felt this kinship. When, seven years ago, North Langley began a church-to-church partnership with his church, Pan de Vida, Carlos struggled with viewing North American churches as somehow superior. 

“When the first team came to Mexico from Canada, I thought, ‘Ai ai ai! What do I do with these people?’” Carlos grimaced at the memory. “Yes, we did outreach together, but it was exhausting!” 

The well-meaning Canadians had a surplus of vision, energy and resources, but little understanding of the cultural and social context in which they were serving. They were eager to get things done, and impatient with a culture that preferred to linger over coffee and spend time getting to know their new friends. In the midst of the exchange, Carlos realized that the North Americans needed the Mexican church to teach them how best to serve when in Mexico.

Teams sent from North Langley came back to Canada humbled from having spent ten days with a people that they had assumed to be needy, only to have been profoundly impacted by their wealth of wisdom, generosity, patience and good humor. 

Rob recalled how the vision for mutuality in mission slowly gained traction at his home church of North Langley. “We started sending pastoral staff down to Colima, and bringing leaders from Pan de Vida up to Canada. When Carlos became president of the Mexican MB Conference in 2017, we were excited to invite him and his wife, Karla, to come and stay at our home.” Admittedly, there was some awkwardness between the two leaders at the beginning.

“At first, I just asked questions,” said Carlos. “There was so much I didn’t understand. I didn’t speak English. My church was so small. It was hard for me to feel that we were actually peers.” 

“At first, I just asked questions,” said Carlos. “There was so much I didn’t understand. I didn’t speak English. My church was so small. It was hard for me to feel that we were actually peers.” 

But both men came to realize that each church had much to offer the other, and much to learn together. “North Langley showed us at Pan de Vida how to be more of a presence in our community,” said Carlos. “We are learning from their many years of experience. But we, in turn, offer them something: new experience, different cultural perspectives, and insights into challenges faced by churches outside North America.” 

In 2019, the two men attended the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB) conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, which gave Rob another window into who Carlos was as a leader. Afterward, Rob and his wife Janet visited the church in Colima. For Carlos especially, it was a significant step forward in his relationship with his visitors. 

“At ICOMB, there were pastors from all over the world,” said Carlos, “many like me, untrained, struggling to build a leadership team. It mattered to me that Rob saw this. Then, when Rob and his wife came to my town—to my house, to eat at my table and worship in my church—for me, that changed our relationship. Rob and I conversed as president to president, pastor to pastor. More, we conversed as fathers, as husbands, as friends.” 

Over the last eight years, these two partner churches have cross-pollinated frequently. Each church does proportionate fundraising for short-term mission exchanges, and team members are hosted by families in both countries, giving rise to myriad opportunities for grace, confusion, and hilarity. Pan de Vida has sent interns to work at North Langley and provided volunteers for their summer camps. This past summer, Pastor Carlos brought his men’s team to serve at the camp. 

“Those men blew me away with their willingness to take time off from their jobs—without pay—and serve in this way,” Rob confessed. “We learned a lot from their humility and sacrifice. Our Colima partners are willing to come and wash our feet. We want to do the same in return.”

For Carlos, the friendship with Rob has become deeply impactful. “As a pastor and as president of the Mexican Conference, I often feel stuck. I get busy doing many things. My wheels spin, but I do not advance. Rob challenges me to devote more time to my marriage, to my personal devotions, to building a leadership team, to sermon preparation. I do not always like being challenged!” Carlos laughed. “I tell Rob, ‘I am husband, president, preacher, administrator. At times, I am the church custodian!’ But I feel his empathy, and his friendship.”

For Rob, the learning has also been significant. “This year has been a bit of a crossroads for us both. I realized that to see myself only as a mentor is fraught with problems. Friends press in and challenge without bulldozing. Friends are sensitive, but not tentative. There are big issues to face as our church-to-church partnership is now also a conference-to-conference partnership, so we both need to challenge each other, to lean into the hard conversations together. Otherwise, how are we being good friends?”

When asked what advice or encouragement they would have for churches that might be considering entering into a similar partnership, Rob responded, “Pray! Look for what the Holy Spirit is already doing. Does someone in your church already have a connection somewhere? It may be overseas, or it might be in your own backyard.”

“Be willing to invest time,” Carlos added. “Don’t rush. Respect the pace and values of other cultures. For us, it is not about trips and projects. It is about trust and friendship.”

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