AMBASSADOR SPOTLIGHT: Michelle Zuñiga
“If my life were a book,” 2002 grad Michelle Zuñiga admits, “I think it would be titled, Tales of the Accidental Missionary. I was never supposed to be a missionary.”
But in God’s plan, there are no accidents, and for 15 years, God has used Michelle as just that—a missionary. Michelle is, quite literally, God’s hands to the Deaf community of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico.
Raised in a Christian home in Northeast Ohio, Michelle was baptized at age 11. The second of three children and close to both her parents, Michelle says her mom taught by example how to love and serve others.
Michelle attended Ozark from 1997 to 2002, earning both a Bachelor of Christian Education with an emphasis in Deaf Ministry and a Bachelor of Biblical Literature in Psychology.
“God used several professors to shape me during my time at OCC,” Michelle notes. “Dru Ashwell’s excitement for godly living and Scripture memorization had a great impact on me, Mary Alice Gardner is one of the most humble people I’ve ever known, and Peter Buckland’s wisdom on family and counseling was a great help.”
Michelle also credits Ozark with teaching her three main lessons: the importance of building a strong biblical foundation for ministry, the importance of memorizing and applying Scripture, and the importance of serving—of daily putting into practice Mark 10:45, “…not to be served, but to serve.” “Servant leadership means being humble enough to clean a toilet without having to announce it to others,” Michelle says. “The world says leadership equals ego and entitlement, but Ozark taught me that biblical leadership is loving God and loving people.”
During her senior year at OCC, Michelle was one of several students who traveled with Mary Alice Gardner to the Mexican border, where they helped at a Deaf orphanage and visited Deaf schools. As the trip concluded, Mary Alice instructed the group to write letters to themselves, as reminders of what they’d experienced. Michelle wrote a prayer, asking God to let her come back to visit someday.
Little did she know…her next visit would become a long-term ministry—15 years and counting.
“Why Am I Here?”
In February of 2003, Michelle again arrived at the Texas-Mexico border. Knowing little Spanish and not knowing a single English-speaking person, Michelle’s assignment was a three-month internship—three months volunteering at local schools and surveying for missionaries who were to arrive soon. A month later, though, Michelle learned that missionaries weren’t on the way. She was alone.
Michelle called her mom in tears. “Why am I here? What hope am I giving these kids? If anyone figures out that I don’t know what I’m doing, they’ll kick me out!”
But after much prayer, Michelle sensed God’s call to say.
“I was a 24-year-old, single white girl, launching a new ministry on my own. Once I made the commitment to stay long-term, Workers for Mexico Mission provided me with an abandoned facility across town. I felt like God was directing the ministry to become a resource center for the Deaf in town—a one-stop shop for education, counseling, and other needs. I specifically asked God to not make me run an orphanage, because the thought of all that responsibility scared me.”
Today, 15 years later, Michelle serves as founder and co-director of Con Mis Manos (With My Hands) Deaf Ministry in Matamoros, the easternmost border city between Mexico and the United States. The 750,000 people in Matamoros include an estimated 1,800 Deaf children and adults. Because the government no longer provides Deaf education nor recognizes the rights of Deaf people, the Deaf community experiences high rates of abuse, human trafficking, and isolation. The state doesn’t provide protection for a Deaf person who has been the victim of a crime, and a statute lists Deaf people as “incompetent”—and therefore not recognized as citizens with full rights. Even more, the city itself is a hotbed of violence in Mexico’s drug wars—gunfire, grenade explosions, and sniper helicopters circling the neighborhoods are common.
A Four-Pronged Ministry
Yet in this darkness shines Con Mis Manos, a four-pronged ministry providing education, job training, family support, and evangelism and discipleship:
- Education: Three days a week, CMM provides classes in general school subjects such as math, language, science, health, and art—all based in Mexican Sign Language (LSM).
- Job training: CMM students are equipped with employable skills like cooking, carpentry, sewing, hairstyling, and computer training, in hopes of changing the future for Deaf adults who often end up begging on the streets or being sold to drug cartels for trafficking or prostitution.
- Family support: The largest component of the ministry, CMM’s family support provides weekly sign language classes, counseling, medical care, legal advocacy for students who have been abused, and a free clothing pantry.
- Evangelism and discipleship: CMM offers the only area church option (other than one Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation) that includes sign language in the worship service. Over the years, 15 Deaf people have been baptized at the church.
And in answer to Michelle’s prayer to not run an orphanage…today, the Con Mis Manos property also includes two homes—one for Deaf boys, and one for Deaf girls—where a loving Christian couple serves as dorm parents.
“At some point in this journey,” Michelle laughs, “I stopped telling God what I didn’t want to do, because it soon would be exactly what I needed to do.”
Weak that Confound the Wise
Michelle’s ministry has both challenges and rewards:
“Teaching someone about God is hard enough in another language,” she says, “but our main problem is teaching a person about God when they have no language at all. Most of our students arrive literally without knowing they have a name. This has been the case for students in their teens and twenties who come to CMM and receive their first chance at education.”
“The best days of ministry are when we baptize someone and see the certainty of their decision,” she continues. “Most days, though, ministry is a lot of conflict resolution and crisis management…like filling the empty soap container in the bathroom, tracking down who stole the toilet paper again (because their family doesn’t have any at home), bandaging scraped knees, and teaching a child to count to ten.”
Michelle’s husband, Chuy, whom she met through the local church, co-directs CMM with her. Michelle is still the only full-time “foreigner” on staff. She now employs eleven other people, including a teacher who was one of her first students.
“I was never supposed to be a missionary,” Michelle repeats. “I was not supposed to be here, and the concept of Con Mis Manos should not have worked. The entire existence of the ministry is a testimony to God using the weak—me—to confound the wise—all the formally trained, experienced people.”
“Con Mis Manos is not the story of a well-planned mission that launched after a board of directors made a five-year plan. Con Mis Manos is as ‘grass roots’ as they come, developed literally by God opening a door, us walking through, and then God opening another door. I’d never say Con Mis Manos is the blueprint of the correct way to establish a mission. I can only say God is a God of mercy and patience…and a sense of humor.”
Learn more about Con Mis Manos at conmismanos.org.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of The Ambassador magazine. Read the entire issue here. Read past issues at occ.edu/ambassador.