Ramon Contreras, MA ’04, coordinator of Lutheran Border Concerns Ministries (LBCM) in San Diego, has established a unique partnership with his alma mater, hosting and training groups of CUI students annually as they build homes, serve at orphanages and worship in churches south of the border.
“The trips are so popular that we have to turn people away,” says Jonathan Ruehs ’95, MA ’15, pastor of missions and outreach for CUI’s campus ministry, abbey west. “The attraction for returning students is how Ramon oversees and directs the whole process. His personality makes him a very easy to person to talk to. It helps us go down and engage.”
Rebecca Duport ’95, director of the DCE program, also takes teams of students to work with LBCM.
“Ramon’s a funny guy,” she says. “It’s neat to see our students grow in relationship with him and to experience the kind of ministry he has to our students at Concordia. It’s been a huge positive, and a recruiting aspect for our program.”
LBCM connects people in Mexico who have material and spiritual needs with people in the U.S. who have the means and blessings to provide help. One group from America may want to build a house, another may want to bring food, or conduct children’s activities, or evangelize a community.
“I help them organize the trip, come across the border and do the activities,” Contreras says. “I also explain how the culture works in Mexico.”
Contreras was born in Mexico City, raised mostly in Tijuana, and was in church virtually from the day he was born. But he never considered a career in ministry until traveling with his church to bring clothing and food to people living in mountainous jungles on the border of Oaxaca and Veracruz.
“On Sunday the local pastor got sick, and my other fellows didn’t want to give the sermon so they said, ’You can do it, Ramon. Go ahead,’” he recalls, laughing. “So I did my first sermon at nineteen years old. When I got back, my pastor said, ’Would you be interested in going to seminary someday?’ I said, ’I don’t know.’ The next day I woke up and said, ’Why not?’”
I learned in those four years... I am the pastor and leader of a community.
Contreras graduated with a bachelor’s degree from a seminary in Mexico City in 1996, then was hired by Lutheran Hour Ministries (LHM) in Tijuana to be their media coordinator. “The Lord smiled on me and gave me a different job than I was expecting,” he says. “That’s when I got connected with the Lutheran church.”
Ramon standing outside a church
He was particularly drawn to three aspects of Lutheran theology: the law and gospel; the right hand and left hand of the kingdom; and Martin Luther’s famous phrase, “Here I stand, Lord—help me!” For three years he visited radio stations, TV stations and newspapers on behalf of LHM and arranged air time and print articles. But his heart was drawn to full-time, called ministry, so he decided to attend Concordia Irvine.
But first, he had to learn English. “My English then was like my Chinese now,” he jokes.
CUI placed him in a summer English as a second language program which Contreras found to be an “excellent surprise. On a scale of 1 to 10, it was an 11.”
That fall he was able to enroll in classes at CUI’s Cross-cultural Ministry Center (formerly the Ethnic Pastor Certification Program).
“I was really excited about getting to study at Concordia,” he says. “I saw a lot of possibilities to help many people through the ministry.” His second surprise was receiving two As in his first semester.
“I was like, ’What?’ The teachers were so kind to me, helping me with things when I had questions, being patient, spending time,” he says. “It was a big surprise for me that I could perform.”
His favorite classes were Mike Middendorf’s class on Romans, and New Testament Greek. Though Contreras had never lived in the U.S., he felt at home.
“I enjoyed walking around campus and playing intramural soccer,” he says. “I was always invited to attend activities of different kinds. Those were excellent opportunities to make friends. I felt welcomed at Concordia.” He also broadened his understanding of ministry beyond church-based work. “I learned how to establish something new and fresh that impacts the community around you,” he says. “I learned in those four years that I am not a pastor or leader of a church, I am the pastor and leader of a community. That really helps me in ministry up to this day.”
Upon graduating, he prayed, “I’m ready, Lord. You called me and I’ll follow wherever you guide me.”
After serving in southern California churches for a while, he came to LBCM in 2010 and began pursuing partnerships with a greater number of churches and missions in Mexico and the U.S. He also worked to expand programs to feed and sponsor children, to help youth stay in school and to train lay pastors at the Bible institute level.
“Those changes made an impact on the community,” he says. “I wanted to reach more people in different ways by making small and big changes. You can blame my teachers at Concordia for that.”
In the last four years, LBCM has established five missions and two new churches, adding to the seven churches and one mission they worked with before. (At a mission, a lay person conducts the activities of the church.) LBCM serves breakfast to poor children twice a week in twelve locations, and works with two orphanages.
“I measure ministry by the opportunities we provide for American people coming to Tijuana, and by the people served in Mexico,” Contreras says. “The more mission teams are helping, the more people we help in Mexico.”
Ramon and Cliff Pawley with the group of mission trip students
Duport says working with Contreras is always fun, uplifting—and challenging. For one thing, Contreras often teaches by allowing people to discover their own solutions.
“I love that he often doesn’t tell us what or how, but puts out options,” says Duport. “He’ll ask, ’What does your group want to experience? Do you want to return to the same area, or experience a new area?’ He doesn’t tell you a right answer but lets you figure it out and then affirms you for having a servant’s heart. I think that’s amazing.”
When it comes to building houses, direction is required, and Contreras and his fellow worker Alejandro provide it—but not overly so.
I wanted to reach more people in different ways...You can blame my teachers at Concordia for that.
“When we get there, the concrete slab is already poured,” Duport says. “Then you build four walls. Plywood and two-by-fours are all around the site. Ramon appoints you on the spot. ’Who’s going to cut with a saw? Here’s a cut sheet.’ He gives a short lesson on how to hammer quickly and efficiently. Then we get to work.”
Instead of dictating every aspect of the work, Contreras prefers to empower students to think through decisions on their own, turning them into foremen or “little Ramons,” as Duport calls them. “He says to me, 'If I tell them what to do, they’ll never learn, but if I let them figure it out, they will.’ He’s exactly right. I’ve learned a lot from him about how he makes this happen administratively.”
And if you work too slowly, they let you know humorously. Spend too much time hammering a nail, and Alejandro will start snoring.
“Ramon teaches us a lot about the culture, the ministry and the relationship between the church community and the neighborhood,” Duport says. “We look forward to going every year.”
Contreras has stayed with LBCM longer than he expected because of the constant opportunities to do something new.
“It makes me happy and really blessed to be creative and do ministry in different ways,” he says. “I get three things from being here: I’m doing what the Lord told me to do, which is to serve your brother and sister, love them and teach them the gospel. Second, I love that the people in Mexico get things like a home, school supplies, a uniform, and an education, and at the same time the Word of God. Third, I know that when I retire from this position there will be plenty of work for the guy after me. The future is bigger.”
Contreras loves his connection with CUI, and spends time personally with every team of CUI students.
“I pound nails with them, eat with them, laugh with them, pray with them, worship with them and dedicate what they’re doing,” he says. “I want to thank Concordia for the opportunity to be trained and become what I am now. I’m an Eagle at heart.”