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COBDEN -- More than a thousand miles away in Cobden, Matt Hartline’s thoughts rarely wander very far from a desert in Northern Mexico.
Each year Hartline leaves the village of Cobden, where he serves as associate pastor of First Baptist Church, and travels with members of his church to El Coyote, a small remote village in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico.
For him, it’s more than just a trip out of the country, though, referring to it as a calling from God.
“We are called to missions, but we are called to go to El Coyote, Mexico,” Hartline said. “We are not just doing random missions, but we’re called to go there. All of us have a heart for the Mexican people, for these people.”
Beginning a dental ministry
Brian and Sherri Lukes, members of First Baptist Church of Cobden, began making the trip to Mexico more than 14 years ago after hearing a woman speak about using what God has given you to do ministry.
“Sherri had taught dental hygiene at SIU for 25 years, and so she wanted to clean people’s teeth, meet their physical needs and while they’re waiting in line, share the gospel,” Brian Lukes, her husband, said.
The mission work began meagerly, with Sherri setting up a lawn chair at a garbage dump in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas, and cleaning teeth while her husband and others built a soup kitchen in the dump.
They expanded their ministry over the next four years, going deeper into the heart of Mexico to Palmillas. While Brian and others from the church did construction work, Sherri cleaned teeth with the help of three to six of her SIU dental hygiene students.
But after hearing about Octavio, a missionary from Mexico City, and his wife, who is a dentist and has a dental operatory and a dormitory for mission groups in El Coyote, the Lukes and others from the Cobden church have been returning each year to the tiny desert village.
Dental hygiene students
The trip is a popular one among Sherri’s dental hygiene students, forcing her to turn some away.
“We can only take so many, so we have a lottery of non-believers wanting to go on a mission trip to clean teeth and they end up finding Christ,” Brian Lukes said.
It’s an eye-opening experience for the students as they see people living in conditions they’ve never seen before.
“What they see they won’t see in this country and that’s really life changing,” Sherri Lukes said.
Seeing want like they've never seen before, her students are quick to reach out in practical ways to love them.
One of Sherri's students saw a lady shuffling along in shoes worn all the way through, but instead of feeling sorry for her and walking away, the student took off her own shoes and put them on the woman's feet.
“I was blind, but now I see”
It might have taken a little prodding, but the church has expanded its ministry in Mexico to eye care.
While in Mexico, Brian Lukes handed a woman a Bible and she handed it back to him, saying, “I can’t see to read it.”
“The Lord said to do something about it, and I did nothing about it,” Brian Lukes said.
The next year he did construction work in Mexico every day with a man who had an eye problem. Sensing he should do something, he met up with Holland Kendall who now leases out his auto refractor equipment to the church to conduct eye exams and provide prescription glasses.
“Danny (Hartline) will do auto refractor on right eye and save it, do auto refractor on left eye and save it and then it goes into a laptop, and the laptop has all 2,000 prescriptions, and it will give the top three choices for each person,” Brian Lukes said.
On their last trip, the group gave out 300 prescription glasses, 600 sunglasses and 200 reading glasses to people who have no access to eye care.
Dan Hartline, Matt’s uncle, said it’s an unique experience to watch people put on the glasses and see clearly once again.
“All of a sudden they look around -- it’s a whole new world. I was blind, but now I see,” Dan Hartline said. “Then, of course, the first thing they do with their new glasses is we give them a tract about Jesus, and that’s what they read with their new eyes, which is pretty cool.”
The church has recently added work at an orphanage to its Mexico ministry. While touring an orphanage in Puebla near Mexico City, Sherri Lukes noticed three dental chairs in a clinic and was told the orphanage had been praying for a dental hygienist.
“So we came home and said we need to go there now too,” Sherri Lukes said. “So we go to El Coyote and then we drive to Puebla and another group comes in. So I take two groups of students now.”
The church can look to hundreds, if not thousands, each year that it serves with vision and dental care and with the sharing of their faith, but Matt Hartline said a loftier mission fuels the church’s passion than mere numbers.
“If we know we have been called to do these ministries, even if we do not see anything from it, we know we’ve been called, we know the gospel is being preached, God is being glorified and that’s the goal.”