I’m riding in a crowded school bus, my knees crammed up the seatback that’s one foot in front of my face. The temperature outside is 93 degrees on a dusty Texas afternoon. Wind is whipping through the open windows and around my head.
I’m on the bus primarily because my daughter Gina wanted to be here. But I’m also here to honor Mark Forstrom.
Mark is an enigma among his peer youth pastors. He has been the youth pastor at New Covenant Bible Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, since 1992. Twenty-six years in a profession in which the normal term expectancy is five.
The bus I’m riding is New Covenant’s church bus. The bus and the 2001 Ford Excursion pulling our luggage trailor carry 52 souls, many of which are high school students from Mark’s current youth group. We are returning from a week in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, where we just finished building three stucco houses under the direction of interns from an organization called Casas por Cristo. Casas provides a ministry to the poor people living in squalor in impoverished towns like Acuna using volunteer labor to build houses for those who cannot afford them.
Building houses in Mexico has been Mark’s greatest joy for many years. He loves Mexico work trips because they are hard, dirty, but very rewarding. It requires sacrifice and endurance, all to benefit someone else. No thrills, no frills, no showers, and lots of hard labor in hot sun. All in love, all in the service of Jesus Christ.
His first Mexico trip was in 1996. Since then, he has led 15 such trips and watched high schoolers and sponsors build 41 houses. Forty-one Mexican families who once lived in makeshift shacks now have four insulated walls, a roof, lockable doors, windows, and even a ceiling fan.
Hundreds of former youth group members have been blessed by Mexico trips as well. Their blessing was of a different kind, the kind that fills the soul and matures the mind. Something about giving up a week of summer vacation to help others has a way of doing that.
Sadly, this is Mark’s last trip. In the prevailing wisdom of world, newness is apparently en vogue. As the church shifted focus, Mark realized he was not the best fit for the new model, and submitted his resignation last October. Sort of. His retirement included some kind of clause that allowed him to plan one last Mexico trip. One last hurrah before stepping away.
I wanted to experience Mexico with Gina. But I also wanted to be on Mark’s last trip. It is a small way I can honor this man who has impacted so many people, including me.
Mark is an oddity. He has a fetish for the unusual, and it is not uncommon for him to intentionally deprive himself of worldly pleasures. On one of the Mexico trips, he founded the SPAMS club, “Stinky People Against Mexican Showers.” Several teens followed him into this revolting celebration of stench. Yet that was not enough for Mark. His black beret sect of SPAMS forbid changing any layer of clothing during the week and required sleeping on bare floor with no pillow.
These demonstrations of self depravity are odd, but to Mark, they are amusing yet sincere indicators of his heart’s desire to serve others with utter disregard for his own comfort. Mark has given of himself to benefit others time and time again. He has given me full attention on several occasions when I needed correction, advice, or just a listening ear. I am grateful for the effort he made to help me, in these individual sessions, but also by creating Mexico work trips for my kids to experience.
Mark will be moving on to the next chapter of his life. As he does so, he will be applying the same faith he lives out each day. It’s the kind of faith that, when faced with a difficult problem, does not question God’s sovereignty, but rather simply wonders when and how God will help, confident that He will work it out.
So, thanks to Mark for making the Mexico trip happen. Thanks for doing it so Gina could experience it. Thanks for letting me experience it, too. And thanks for all the ways you have given of yourself to serve others.