SAN ANTONIO DE LAS ALAZANAS, Mexico
— He’s an American by birth.
He’s a Mexican at heart.
Friends of Rick Owens — a former Alaska oilfield worker who has helped build more than 150 churches all over Mexico — will tell you he’s a bit rough around the edges, even cantankerous.
But they’ll also tell you he’s a dedicated disciple of Jesus Christ whose tender heart melts with compassion for his brothers and sisters south of the U.S. border.
“Rick has that same zeal that most of us had when we first became Christians and we wanted to go out and save the world,” said Joe Bright, minister of the Sunset church in Springfield, Mo.
“He’s not very tolerant of things that he views as a waste of the church’s time and money and effort,” added Bright, who has made 30 trips to Mexico to help. “He’s found his niche, and he thinks everybody ought to jump on board with both feet.”
WORSHIP UNDER A TREE?
On a recent Monday, vanloads full of volunteers from three Missouri churches arrived in this community of about 2,500 in the Sierra Madre mountains.
The volunteers paid their own way, drove more than 1,100 miles and slept overnight at a modern Hampton Inn in Saltillo, about an hour north of San Antonio De Las Alazanas.
They wore work gloves and carried shovels as they gathered in a two-story, cinderblock church under construction in this village where locals still recall a preacher named Matilde Silva, who shared the gospel 50 years ago.
The Missouri members had come — as many of them do once or twice a year — to help however they could.
Some would pour concrete steps. Some would install steel rebar. Some would toss footballs with curious children in the street.
But before starting work, they prayed and sang songs such as “Make Me A Servant.”
Sunlight peeked through the dimly lighted auditorium — filled with construction equipment and a small wooden table with two communion trays on it — as Owens stood to speak.
He thanked the workers for their dedication to the kingdom, not to mention their impending sweat.
And he explained why he’s so passionate about this ministry of mortar sponsored by the University church in Las Cruces, N.M.
“Just imagine you’re a member of the Church of Christ,” he said, “and you’re meeting under a tree somewhere.”
Before the tall American with the black cowboy hat came along, many Mexican churches were too poor even to dream about constructing permanent places of worship.
But that all changed nearly 20 years ago, thanks in large part to Owens, even if he refuses to take any credit. He’ll tell you quickly that God deserves the glory.
“He’s a no-nonsense, ‘git-r-done’ type of guy,” said Robert Kerley, an elder at the Union Hill church in Nixa, Mo.
Kerley sported overalls and camouflaged shoes as he worked on the roof of the San Antonio De Las Alazanas church. On vacation from his job as a labor union negotiator, he brought two teenage granddaughters with him on his ninth trip to help build churches.
“Rick has made a lot of unbelievable sacrifices for this work,” Kerley said. “It’s really his passion.”
Since the late 1980s, Owens and his wife, Sherry, have shared that passion with hundreds of churches and thousands of volunteers — from youth groups to older Christians such as Lloyd Ratts, 93, an elder in St. John, Kan.
“Rick and Sherry Owens are a real inspiration to us,” said Steve Mahoney, minister of the Newark, Del., church.
Once again this summer, the Delaware congregation — with the Glen Rock, Pa., church and the Three Chopt church in Richmond, Va. — will send a group of about 50 youth and adults to help.
A FRESH START
The blue-eyed, freckle-faced boy from Colorado did not grow up in the church.
As a young adult in the mid-1960s, Owens was exposed to Hispanics when assigned to Army basic training at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, across the border from Juarez, Mexico.
“He developed a real love for the Mexican people at that point,” said Sherry, his wife of 38 years. “He was the only white boy in his unit, and he really got to understand the culture.”
After his military service, Owens and his young family of five moved to Alaska to seek their fortune. They built a home near Homer. They were “agnostic leaning toward atheist” when a neighbor in Anchor Point invited Sherry to church, Rick said.
Norman and Libbie Lowell began studying with Sherry, and she was baptized in April 1978. Rick studied with Norman for an additional seven months, then accepted Christ himself.
In 1985, the couple’s middle child — 12-year-old Quinton — died in a car wreck. When Rick flew to El Paso, his son’s birthplace, to have a headstone made, he and a friend crossed the border and worshiped at a small church south of Juarez.
“It was a horrible little building with a tin roof and dangly electric lights,” Sherry said. “Rick couldn’t believe that these little ladies — 80 years old — were sitting on cinderblocks.”
Touched by the experience, Rick bought wooden benches and arranged to send them to the church.
In April 1988, with 20 feet of snow outside, a fire sparked by kitchen grease destroyed the Owenses’ home.
“All our earthly possessions were gone,” Rick later wrote. “Worst of all, the pictures and keepsakes of Quinton were destroyed.”
With insurance money and a few belongings stuffed in suitcases, they resolved to make a fresh start.
“I told my wife, ‘I’d like to go to Mexico and help people who’ve got less than we do for a couple of years,’” Rick said.
THE MINISTRY GROWS
With si, no
the extent of their Spanish knowledge, the Owenses moved to Monterrey to help with medical missions.
Rick began coordinating one-week trips by volunteer medical professionals. Mexican evangelists taught and preached while the doctors and dentists provided medical care.
In 1989, in the mountain village of Zaragosa south of Monterrey, church members asked if Owens could help them construct a building. About the same time, Owens welcomed a visit by Bright, then minister at the Holmes Road church in Memphis, Tenn. As Bright recalls, he flew to Monterrey and met with Owens, who drove him to Zaragosa, where the congregation owned a corn field.
“They said, ‘We need to build a building right here in this corn field,’” Bright said.
The Holmes Road church assembled a work crew. The group slept in barracks-style rooms at an old hotel with a clogged toilet. Rather than use a trickling shower, most bathed under an ice-cold waterfall.
“We had the best time ever,” Bright said. For the Holmes Road church, building Mexican churches became an annual endeavor.
Other congregations followed, with Rick organizing the volunteers and Sherry providing care and support.
“A big part of Rick is Sherry,” Bright said. “She is gracious and loving and hospitable, and she has an effervescent personality. She just fits in so well with the Mexican women; they love her to death.”
‘THE CHURCH HELPING THE CHURCH’’
The way Rick Owens describes it, the ministry does not involve Americans helping Mexicans — or rich people helping the poor. Rather, he said he views it the way God does: “the church helping the church.”
During the recent effort, Owens’ love for the Mexicans was obvious.
Obvious in the way he pulled a handful of crisp $100 bills out of his wallet to help a young woman battling headaches and sudden blindness. She had been unable to afford to see a specialist until Owens collected money from supporters in the U.S.
And obvious in the way Owens greeted Arturo Paz, a college professor in a wheelchair. Paz, who suffers from crippling arthritis, came to Owens several years ago and asked him to put ramps for the handicapped in a church. Owens did — and hasn’t built a church without one since.
“These are the people I have time for,” Owens said.
He chuckled at a joke told by a minister in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, the previous Sunday.
The preacher, Manuel Rada, had welcomed the Missouri members to worship. He told the congregation the Americans were headed to Saltillo, where “brother Rick Owens is going to work them like a bunch of Mexicans.”
ALL PART OF GOD’S PLAN
Minister Humberto “Beto” Bazaldua grew up in San Antonio De Las Alazanas and encouraged Owens to build a church in his hometown.
Bazaldua, a graduate of the Monterrey School of Preaching, was converted to Christ as a teenager.
He started a church in a house in Saltillo with five members in 1991.
The house church grew to 50 members by 2002, but it doubled in size after volunteers organized by Owens constructed a church building, Bazaldua said.
“The mentality in Mexico and Latin America is that when people want to listen to the word of God, they think of a church building,” said Bazaldua, speaking through a translator. “When members invite people over to the listen to the word of God, they say, ‘Where?’ And when they say, ‘It’s in my house,’ they don’t think of that as a church.”
Before Owens began his ministry, only one of a half-dozen Churches of Christ in Saltillo had buildings, Bazaldua said.
Now, all but one do.
Trying to communicate with an English-speaking reporter, Gordiano Cerda Ladislao, an evangelist in Monterrey, drew a postage-stamp-sized house to demonstrate the church in Mexico before Owens’ arrival.
Beside it, he sketched a house the size of a child’s New Testament to illustrate the church now.
“We think highly of Rick Owens, but we understand that he does not like to be placed on a pedestal,” Ladislao said through an interpreter.
Both Rick and Sherry Owens said they have no doubt that God led them here, that the tragedies they endured were a part of his greater plan.
“I’ve often said that God took one son from us,” Sherry said, “but he’s given us back thousands of young girls and boys that we’ve been able to touch through this work.”