“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you looked after me…….”
Matthew 25:36 says it all, and certainly defines Erma Fennell. “Why does she do what she does and why is she here?”, you might ask. Erma is a woman on a mission – with a great faith in the God she serves. She is passionate about what she does and even more passionate about why she does it! Her iron will & resilience have served her well these past 22 years, and her strength certainly belies her diminutive stature. I cannot help but wonder how many more years will she remain as head of her Foundation! A few years ago, my husband, Abram, was bold enough to put that question to her and her response was curt and immediate, “God hasn’t told me yet.” Today, I ask a lot of questions. She stops what she is doing long enough to reflect on her past. She grows quiet, and her eyes mist over momentarily as she allows herself a few moments of private introspection. Then, she speaks. Some of the dates have become fuzzy in her mind – not because of her age, but because she has too many more important things to think about, and too many things to do, and places to go. This is her story as told to me recently, by Erma herself, one morning in her mission courtyard.
“I was born and raised in Chilliwack, B.C. Canada, where I completed high school. It was here also, as a teenager, that I felt a call on my life. While in prayer one day, I had a vision – I was leading many people with dark faces in a song and a dark skinned man was preaching. I knew that God was calling me to a foreign land, even if I didn’t know where it would be. “After graduating from high school, Erma heeded this “call” and took the first step towards preparing for her ministry, by attending Bible School in Victoria, B.C. Upon completion of her training there, she became involved in childrens’ ministries in several locations in B.C., until her marriage in 1952. This is where she took a fork in the road and began a new career as a wife and ultimately, a mother of six children. These were busy years for Erma, as she tried to do it all – the duties of a wife, a mother, and a career left little or no time for anything else. Even more changes
followed, taking her to another home in another province, where Calgary, Alberta became her domicile. It was here that one day in the mid 1970’s, Erma and a co-worker heard Charla Pereau speak and show some slides of a rundown orphanage (later known as Foundation For His Ministry), in a place called Vicente Guerrero in Baja Mexico. Erma
knew then, that once her family was grown and she retired from the work force, she would serve God in this remote and poor country. It was then also, that she and her co-worker decided to see for themselves what Charla thad told them about the orphanage. Erma returned home from that trip more convinced than ever, that God was calling her to work with the poor children there. She was determined to finally heed this call and began taking steps to make it happen. In due course, she and husband, Norman Fennell, having dealt with the logistics of moving to a foreign country, left everything behind and began their trek southwards. They arrived in Vicente Guerrero at Charla’s Orphanage on February 28,1988. Initially, they were assigned procurement duties – making trips to Los Angeles once a month to purchase supplies and other necessities for the Orphanage. Soon afterwards, these trips became unnecessary, due to the arrival of new technology, so Norm was re-assigned duties as a grounds keeper and Erma was placed in charge of the clothing room. Under her management, it was quickly transformed into a smart boutique. While working there, they became friends with a local pastor who invited them to assist in his ministry to migrant workers in remote camps in the mountains. They were granted permission to work with Pastor Carlos and his wife every Friday afternoon in a camp about 45 miles from the Orphanage.
Erma continues her story, “One day, we held the service on the hillside and, I was leading the singing – there right before my eyes was the fullfillment of the vision, exactly as I saw it 50 years earlier! I knew these were the people I was called to serve and Pastor David Bello (the blind pastor of the Mission Church) adamantly confirmed this to me. Nine and a half years later, God was leading us elsewhere. We moved to a rental property just a short distance down
the road from the Orphanage and continued in the camp ministry. The first camp we worked at closed but another opened near Camalu. This is where I met Victor Arguelles.”
What Erma did not know was that, in fact, God was preparing her for a new chapter in her life – on March 20, 2000, Norman, suffered a heart attack, while in their back yard. He died suddenly and was buried only days later in Vicente Guerrero, leaving Erma alone and bewildered. “Why has this happened and what do I do now?” She agonized over this
decision, as she tried to make some sense of it all and considered her options. Shortly after her husband’s death, Erma was in Canada to deal with some legal matters. While there, she became very ill – she was diagnosed as having contacted spinal meningitis. She continues her story, “I was gravely ill and lying in a hospital bed in Edmonton,
Alberta. My family was called, as I was not expected to live, and I lay unconscious for 12 hours. But God’s people were praying and He, not only spared my life but performed a mighty miracle in my recovery. While I was still in the hospital, a phone call came to me – our proposal for a non-profit organization was granted in British Columbia, Canada. This was the confirmation, I needed. I knew it was God’s will to go back to Mexico and trust Him for everything. I did just that.”
Erma had her answer and was back in Vicente Guerrero within a few short weeks, with a renewed determination to carry on the work she believed God had called her to do. Although willing, she felt inadequately prepared to carry on the ministry on her own and began to work under the umbrella of IDT (International Disciple Training). She remained there a few months (officially, she is still a member of the IDT Ministry) and became involved in their house building programs. Erma learned much, developed friendships, and established contacts with people from Canada and the United States. Her energetic approach to life and her way of getting things done, inspired many and some were willing to commit to supporting her in her own ministry. Dr.Geoff Hett (a retired professor from the University of Victoria) and his wife Lorraine, were amongst these friends. Having traveled for many years to Mexico to build houses for families in need, it was time to make a connection with a work they believed in and could support. In the summer of 2000, they helped establish the Erma Fennell Foundation for Needy Children, with the headquarters located in
Victoria, B.C. Both, Geoff and Lorraine, are Directors of the Foundation and receive no monetary benefit from the Foundation for its administration. One hundred percent of all monetary donations go directly to the poor and indigenous people of the area. The Foundation’s goal was to help residents build houses, improve living conditions and provide scholarships for children in the Vicente Guerrero Area. What began as a Ministry for needy children, soon expanded to include widows, single mothers, handicapped persons, and emergency relief for the destitute. Some of the people live in deplorable conditions – with dirt floors, leaky plastic roofs, no running water, no electricity or heat. Many of the working poor do not have the basic necessities of life (some do not even have a candle to burn at night). Winter nights in the desert are cold and without heat or insulation in their houses, many become sick. Many live with illness and/or disabilities, do not have enough food to eat and are economically oppressed, with little or no hope of ever improving their circumstances.
In 2006, the property Erma was using as her home and base camp was offered for sale. Lacking the funds to purchase the property, Erma was faced with the prospect of losing everything. I remember speaking with her in her home one morning in March 2006, just before we returned to Canada. “God has told me clearly that this property is mine”, she said. Silently, I thought, “I hope you heard right, Erma.” Of course, God had a plan as He, once again, in His perfect timing, provided the required funds to purchase, not only the property, but an adjoining parcel of land that was
required for a proposed dormitory. This anonymous benefactor financed the construction of a modern and functional two story, 46 bed dormitory. We welcomed our first guests in the spring of 2007.
What began as an itinerant ministry – with Erma travelling to the poor and destitute in remote villages, migrant camps and towns, providing medicine, food, clothing and other necessities of life, – has grown to full time and regular mission outreaches in various communities. With the help of a good friend, Victor Arguelles, and volunteers from churches and youth groups, the Ministry flourishes and some evangelistic trips, as far south as Vizcaino, Mulege and other remote areas, have been made. In addition to providing basic physical needs with her limited resources, Erma and her team, provides spiritual guidance and comfort to those who have never heard of Jesus. Children find joy in singing worship songs in their native dialects and hearing Bible stories. For a few short hours, they can be kids – laughing and playing with their friends.They get a bowl of soup and a tortilla, or a cup of milk and a spoonful of peanut butter, dispensed with a warm hug. For some, it is the only meal of the day.
To many, Erma symbolizes hope – perhaps, a better tomorrow. Erma, her staff of two workers (recently, a business manager was added) and many volunteers have been ministering to the people of Baja, California, Mexico for 22 years.Through the financial and physical help of many Christian groups and volunteers, more than just houses have been built To date, their projects include, playschools, daycare facility, community recreation centre, and churches, with a promise of a Trade School to be built in nearby community of Costa Brava, in the very near future.
For 22 years, Erma has faithfully given of her time, talents and resources to minister to the poor, the marginalized and disadvantaged in the northern Baja Region of Mexico. She does not accept any payment for her service from her donors and lives entirely on her OAS (Old Age Security) Canadian pension. Erma does it all, willingly and cheerfully, as she responds in the only way she knows how. For this is the call her God has placed on her life. She lives it well and it shows – in the twinkle of her eyes, the smile on her face and the spring in her step. This is where she wants to be and this is where she belongs!
A Canadian Friend