Commitments to serving others are strong, vivid reminders of what really matters in life.
Watching those kinds of lifestyles in action is always an inspiring and challenging experience, something I had the privilege of seeing firsthand during a recent mission trip to Vicente Guerrero, Mexico.
Along with 15 others, many from Liberty Christian Fellowship here in Red Deer, I signed on with Sherwood Park-based Amigo Relief Missions for the two-week trip. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but having been on a similar trip to Honduras and Nicaragua in 2002, I was more than ready for this kind of experience.
During the trip, I met several people who have dedicated their lives to helping lift the burden of poverty in these places. In Vicente Guerrero, one such ministry, the Erma Fennell Foundation, is committed serving the poor and destitute by providing such necessities as food and clothing.
Fennell, who passed away two years ago and was originally from Calgary, was commonly referred to as ‘Mother Erma of the Baja’. The ministry also provides hands-on opportunities for people, like our troupe, to serve the community.
Today, Judy Jamieson, daughter of Fennell, runs the Foundation along with her husband Paul. They relocated to Vicente Guerrero from Calgary, and although there were of course sacrifices in doing so, there has never been a thought of looking back.
Fennell and her husband Norm initially spent 10 years serving at Foundation for His Ministry, just down the road from where the Erma Fennell Foundation is located today. Eventually, Erma came to realize she had a different vision for how she wanted to serve folks across the poverty-stricken region.
“She would go out to groups of people in the mountains that were in these horrible living conditions,” explains Judy. “That’s where her heart was. She said ‘Why isn’t anyone doing anything for these people?’ So she’d go out and do these outreaches.”
It marked the beginning of the Erma Fennell Foundation with its spectrum of ministries. That meant everything from developing Bible studies and helping with rehab clinics to building up feeding and clothing programs to venturing out to remote areas and checking in on folks in desperate circumstances.
Erma’s husband died in 2000, but she decided to stay on and continue the work, recalls Judy.
“This was her life. As the years progressed, she would come up (to Calgary) to visit and she could hardly wait to get back here. You could see the transition.”
Over the years, discussions would come up about when Erma would pass on, and who would take the reins of the mission at that time.
“We came down for three and one-half months once to try and see what she did and how she ran things, but you don’t do that with my mom. She was a one-woman show,” laughs Judy. But over time, Erma did come to realize the day would come when she would have to pass the torch. And then two years ago, on Easter Sunday, the incredibly dedicated Erma passed away of a heart attack while on a mountain climb. She was 81.
A later experience helped solidify Paul and Judy’s commitment to the work. And it also helped Judy better understand her mother’s devotion.
“We went to the memorial site, and I caught a vision of her walking up this mountain, and falling. I absolutely broke and cried it all out.”
Since her mother’s death, it’s been about establishing a new vision for the Foundation while keeping her mother’s legacy intact.
“We just really had to make a commitment and have a peace about what we were doing. I had to wrestle with what I was going to do. God has to be at the centre of this. People would say ‘This is yours now, and you have to do what you feel comfortable with’. You hear that a lot, but I didn’t get it in here,” she said, pointing to her heart.
She felt that way until a group from North America came down, and a pastor asked her how she was really doing. “Those words sunk into me. And I knew that I didn’t have to fill my mom’s shoes. God has called us down here to continue this, but we have to do it our way. God didn’t call us here to keep doing everything mom was doing, so that kind of changed things.
“It’s not like we haven’t had our struggles and made wrong decisions. It’s a whole learning process.”
Today, even after being back home in Calgary for occasional visits, she looks forward to being back at the Mexico mission. “I would say it’s a God-given thing. You get on a different level – I can’t explain it.”
Not that leaving the multitude of conveniences of North American society is completely easy. But the Foundation is clearly where her and her husband’s hearts are.
“Other things have become important now.”
For more information, check out http://ermafennell.wordpress.com.