From Mexico to a new spiritual home

Jesus Martinez trims flooring in June on a jobsite. He was able to start his own carpentry company with the assistance of members of Faith Mennonite Church in Newton, Kan. — Tim Huber/AW Jesus Martinez trims flooring in June on a jobsite. He was able to start his own carpentry company with the assistance of members of Faith Mennonite Church in Newton, Kan. — Tim Huber/AW

I did not want to leave my home. I did not want to leave Mexico. But today I embrace where I am in Kansas and thank God that I met amazing people here.

I grew up in the state of Durango, graduating from university with a bachelor’s degree in 1994. Programs to assist farmers with agriculture science had eroded, and I had a dream of helping farmers reliant on erratic rains to grow more beans in the semi-desert area. In places like the U.S., when a crop fails the government writes a check. When a crop fails in Mexico, people migrate to the U.S.

I hoped to develop irrigation projects and revive extension services that university programs commonly provide in the U.S. After six years of convincing banks to back the venture, we had financing in place to support 1,000 farmers and ranchers.

But the same year I graduated, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA created the opportunity for subsidized American crops to enter the same markets as unsubsidized Mexican crops. We still managed to make things work until 2002, when that year’s U.S. farm bill expanded subsidies to export crops, making American beans much cheaper.

Mexican farmers couldn’t compete. I lost my job and my house. I could no longer support my family. My farmers could not pay back the bank. In 2005 I left my wife, Brenda, and my two kids in Mexico City and entered the U.S. on a visitor visa in search of a better life for my family.

I did manual labor in Michigan, but within three months of my arrival, recession arrived. I had no job and no prospects when a cousin in Wichita, Kan., called me out of the blue. He knew I had a degree and knew about a chain of Mexican grocery stores that needed help with accounting. That job did not work out either. I did not have a very religious upbringing, but I later recognized God was at work.

From there I had a friend in Newton who knew about some job options. Still without much English, I got a job welding ethanol machinery. It was a bit ironic, because government-subsidized ethanol caused corn prices to rise, inflating tortilla prices back home.

My wife and kids began attending a Pentecostal church in Newton. I attended occasionally. Work and other things often conflicted, but visiting the church helped lift some of my trauma of losing everything.

By chance, one day at church we met a nice man named Fremont Regier who helped us find Bible verses during the service. Apparently he enjoyed randomly visiting churches in town. He and his wife, Sara, visited us that evening, and it felt as if they were bringing Jesus into our home. We felt safe with them and asked if we could visit their church.

Faith Mennonite Church has been our spiritual home ever since. We were baptized in 2008 at Camp Mennoscah. People helped us with English. They didn’t give up when it seemed too challenging to find employment without documentation so I could feed my family. Mike Schmidt trained me as a trim carpenter, and now I have owned my own carpentry business for more than 10 years. What Faith Mennonite developed is something that could be done by other churches. We were even able to purchase a home through a personal loan with the assistance of Wayne Schrag and Tom Gaeddert.

Meeting Fremont and Sara, connecting with Faith Mennonite, my cousin calling me — it was something special. It’s how we see God and how he’s always present and working, having angels around.

My family loves the way the church supports people in the community. I didn’t grow up with that in Mexico. We fell in love with helping out by volunteering at the Et Cetera Shop thrift store, the local Mennonite Central Committee offices or through our congregation’s service days.

My daughter graduated from Bethel College and is working on her master’s degree. My son also took classes there and is married. Now that he is a U.S. citizen, he is sponsoring the process for my wife and me to finally gain [Green Card] permanent residency.

I’ve never been back home. My mother is there. So are my older brother and more relatives. But now I have hope to see them once again because we have a good chance with our application, filed about half a year ago.

I once shared my experience at a Mennonite Economic Development Associates conference in Wichita, where I met some farmers. They said they were the ones who asked the president in a letter to push pinto beans into Mexico because they couldn’t be sold in the U.S. They didn’t know the damage, so I hope I could help them understand the impacts.

I sometimes think about how my life would have been different without NAFTA. I probably would have kept doing extension work with farmers. It was my job, and sometimes I miss it. But I embrace where I am right now, and I am glad that I met good people here.

Jesus Martinez owns Midwest General Contractor, a construction company in Newton, Kan.

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