Gunfire interrupts church mission trip
A group of nine men from Church for the Harvest in Alexandria got more than they bargained for during a recent mission trip to Mexico.
They not only helped remodel a soup kitchen, visited with an orphanage and brought supplies to families living in squalor, but the men were also caught in the crossfire between drug cartels and the Mexican military.
They had to run for cover during a shootout in a border town that left at least two people dead.
Because this was a working mission trip, the men did not want the tragic shooting to define what they had accomplished or the good that came out of the experience, but they also said in an interview Monday night that they couldn't ignore what happened or what they lived through.
The group, including Pastor Mike Bartolomeo, Justin Godfrey, Toby Weibye, Jeb VanEps, Tony Loween, Mark Middendorf, David Larson, Joel Boutain and Brad Beyer, returned back to Minnesota on Sunday - exactly 24 hours after the shootout.
On Monday evening, six of the nine men sat down with the newspaper, sharing stories, photos and a nearly eight-minute long horrific video taken by Godfrey with his cell phone while the shootout was taking place.
Weibye explained that the group, which also included two other men and one female interpreter, were housed at a mission in San Juan, Texas. Staying there, the group had to cross over the border at least twice a day, sometimes more.
Most of the work they did was in Matamoros, Mexico.
Weibye's uncle, Alan Weibye from Detroit Lakes, works with a Christian service organization, Net Menders, which is where the group learned about this mission trip.
He said his uncle has been doing mission work in that area of Mexico for the past 17 years. Typically, groups go in February, but Weibye said the Church for the Harvest group did the trip now.
The group flew out on November 29 and returned on Sunday, December 6. They worked Monday through Friday.
They helped remodel a soup kitchen that serves about 2,500 meals per month and helped to remodel another building that will be turned into a soup kitchen.
They also visited with children in an orphanage and brought supplies, such as money, food, clothing, water, toys and other items, to families they met.
The nine men scoped out other projects that they could go back and help with at a later date.
They visited two locations where families were living. One was a settlement in La Colonia along a canal where the families could live for free in shacks that didn't have power, sewer or running water.
The other was a settlement at a landfill or what is commonly known as "the dump," said Weibye. This location housed more than 100,000 people.
"We were really in the slum areas," he said. "There was no sewer and the people lived in shacks with dirt floors."
When asked what the reaction was to the donations that the group distributed during their trip, Weibye said, "Without a doubt, the people were willing to accept and were always thankful and very gracious."
One of the other men added, "And they were seemingly always happy."
Bartolomeo said, "It was heart-wrenching to see such abject poverty."
Middendorf said, "It was amazing to see how happy those kids were. Our hearts really went out to them. But at the same time, the people were happy. They were normal. And the kids were always amazingly clean despite the conditions. The parents were doing their absolute best."
While on the trip, Godfrey, who is a chiropractor in Alexandria, visited a prison and performed free adjustments on the employees and prison guards. He noted that he couldn't see any of the prisoners because it would have been too dangerous.
With all their mission work completed for this trip, the men decided to visit Nuevo Progreso, Mexico on Saturday to buy some souvenirs and have lunch. A winter Texan event was taking place in Nuevo Progreso, which is known as a "safe spot" along the border.
Reports indicate that border violence has long plagued the neighboring cities of Reynosa and Matamoros, but that Nuevo Progreso is more Americanized and safer for tourists and snowbirds.
Weibye noted that in the 17 years that his uncle has been visiting this area, there has never been a problem.
When the Alexandria group arrived in the town, they parked about five blocks from the border between Mexico and the United States.
They began walking toward the main strip where all the shops and restaurants were. They heard what sounded like gunshots, but some thought it could have been fireworks for the winter Texan celebration. Others thought it was actual gunfire, but for some type of "OK Corral" stage show.
They noticed that as the people around town were walking and milling about, they were all looking in the same direction - the direction of the gunshots.
About a block and a half down from where they started, they became a little more cautious and started moving a little more slowly, explained Weibye.
They could see a white pickup truck moving toward them, driving very slowly. Then they realized that what they were seeing were guns being fired out of the truck.
The group agreed that it seemed surreal, like they were watching a movie.
"The reason is because it was business as usual. There were no people running or screaming," said Weibye.
As they watched the truck make its way slowly down the street, they realized that more shots were being fired, but that those shots were coming from the north and that it was the military or border police firing back at the truck.
One of the shots hit the driver of the truck and the truck then veered off the road and into a pole, stopping dead in its tracks.
"OK, we have got to go," Weibye said the group all realized within seconds of each other.
He said at that point, they all took cover.
"We just dove into wherever we could find that looked safe," he said, adding that seven of them went into one shop, one went into another and the last four went a different direction.
Bartolomeo added that everything - the shots, the truck veering and the military arriving on scene - all took place within three to five minutes.
"We realized that this is pretty serious, " said Bartolomeo.
After the truck hit the pole, there was a slight pause or cease in shots being fired, the group explained. But then, after they had all taken cover, within a matter of seconds, there was a barrage of shots fired over and over again.
In the video taken by Godfrey, the sound of the gunshots could be heard loud and clear.
"It's chilling because you can hear how close the shots really were," he said.
Bartolomeo interjected and said that he was proud of the men he was with and that they did what they needed to do.
"They prayed, they comforted those around them, they did what they could to protect everyone," he said. "It felt like we did the right thing."
All together, the men guessed they were "pinned down" in the shops for about 45 minutes. Throughout this time, they were in contact with each other via cell phones.
At first, they said it didn't appear that there was much military presence, but they couldn't see the whole situation.
"We truly didn't know who had the advantage - the drug cartel or the military," one of them said. "The enemy strength was unknown."
During the heat of everything happening, Weibye said he picked up a mop handle and Bartolomeo said someone handed him a nail file.
"We were expecting someone to come into the shops," said Godfrey.
Weibye added, "We stayed out of sight, but if someone came in, my plan was to hit them as hard as I could with the mop handle."
In addition to not knowing who or where the enemies were, there was another obstacle - the language barrier between the men and the people in the shops as well as the military men outside who were shouting.
"We couldn't understand anything that was being said," one of them commented.
Another one said, "We were helpless, clueless really. We heard the yelling, but we didn't know what they were saying. We didn't know if it was bad or if it was good."
After everything settled down and no more shots were being fired, the men made the decision to get out. Once they assessed the situation and realized they could get across the border, they did - as quickly as possible.
One of them said the feeling was eerie because there wasn't a car in sight at the border crossing. Every other day that they crossed the bridge from the United States into Mexico, there was a string of cars and at times, it could take nearly two hours to cross over.
But not now. They made it over in a matter of minutes.
One of the border patrols, a woman, told Middendorf right before they crossed, "I knew it was only a matter of time before it [the violence] would come here."
Media reports of the incident are still sketchy. The Monitor, a newspaper in McAllen, Texas, reported that at least two people were killed and it is unclear whether rumors of higher death tolls are unfounded or if any bystanders were harmed.
After crossing back over, the men said they regrouped, collected themselves, prayed and then made some phone calls home - although the details given were sketchy.
"It was a traumatic situation," said Pastor Bartolomeo. "There was still an element of shock. It was so surreal. We just kind of pondered what had just happened. And we were incredibly thankful."
Middendorf surmised that the people in Mexico, the ones who they helped, are the same type of people as those in Alexandria. But he said that Alexandria is an exceptional community in that there is order and the churches all work together.
He said the Mexican people have the same love in their hearts, but their lives are, unfortunately, in disorder.
The men have an opportunity to go back on another mission trip to Mexico in February.
When asked if they all would go back, most immediately answered yes.
"We won't let the spirit of fear stop us," Bartolomeo said. "We will go back."