Having worked with children in impoverished areas for most of her career, Dr Mary Mahon has seen how the Holy Spirit ministers to little ones. She tells City News how adults can encourage children to become Spirit-empowered.
By Valerie Chiam
Dr Mary Mahon is the President of ChildHope (formerly known as Latin America Childcare). It represents the largest network of Evangelical Christian Schools in Latin America—with 300 schools in 20 countries, helping the lives of more than 100,000 children each day.
Dr Mahon has a great love and passion for children. Born and bred in the USA, she obeyed God’s call over her life in 1989 and began her missionary journey to reach out to children in Latin America. In her paper, titled “Spirit-empowered Global Christianity: The Pathway To Agency For Children At Risk”, Dr Mahon shared testimonies of how these children’s lives were transformed with the Holy Spirit as their parakletos.
During the interview, Dr Mahon shared the importance of creating a spiritual yoke with children. God is no respecter of persons, and children should be given the space to speak into the lives of others as they partner with the Holy Spirit. In that way, they can grow in spiritual maturity.
Please tell us how you came to Jesus, and how you came to lead ChildHope.
Well, I was raised in an Irish Catholic family and so it’s very culturally Catholic. I went to Catholic school most of my life until I got saved. But my parents didn’t always take me to church—but I did believe in God, and I loved God. My Catholic upbringing really gave me a strong faith in God.
When I was 14 years old, I went to the Rose Parade with a friend of mine, her mom and sister. I had known her since kindergarten. Back then, I lived in California, and it was during the time of the Jesus movement. I remember thinking, “We’re going to go to the Rose Parade. As Catholics, aren’t we supposed to go to Mass on New Year’s Day?”
Long story short, my friend’s mom took us to the place for the Rose Parade at midnight. She took us to church the night before, and I hadn’t been in church for a while. I think it’s funny because I was only 14 years old then, but I was kneeling there making my New Year’s resolutions and I remember feeling far from God.
So, while I was kneeling there praying, one of my resolutions was to get close to God. I really believe that was my moment of salvation. The next day, we went to the Rose Parade. We were sitting on the streets and while we were waiting for nine hours for the floats to start coming by, and there were some Christian groups evangelising. They had a little newspaper that they had made just for that witnessing opportunity. We talked about Jesus, and how He was a friend. It drew me in. It also reminded me that one of my friends that I knew from kindergarten had gotten saved, and her mom was having Bible studies for young people.
After that, I started paying attention whenever her mom would tell me about Jesus. She gave me a Bible and I started attending the Bible lesson. Somewhere along the line, I said the sinner’s prayer. But I believe my moment of salvation was in that Catholic Church.
I got called into mission shortly after college and in that process, decided I needed more education. I went to Vanguard University—it was called Southern California College at the time. That’s where I got to know Byron Klaus. I wanted to study missions and that’s where I met Professor Doug Petersen.
One of the classes we had was to spend a month in Costa Rica to study about missions—that was in 1987. That’s when I saw the ministry of ChildHope—it was then called Latin American ChildCare. I saw up close the difference that the ministry made in the lives of the children in school, and it was there in a community in Costa Rica where I felt God called me to that ministry.
I worked as I applied to be a missionary to raise all my funds, and I studied Spanish. I arrived in Costa Rica in May of 1989. Prof Doug and (his wife) Myrna picked me up at the airport, helped me get settled and taught me everything I know. I’ve served in Costa Rica for eight years, learning from Prof and Myrna, before God called me to Venezuela to start a school. I was there for 12 years, and I came back to Costa Rica in 2009.
I love being a missionary. I love doing what I do, working with ChildHope. Five years ago, my boss asked me if I would consider being the president of ChildHope. I don’t want to say I was reluctant, but it wasn’t something I aspired to. I loved just serving the Lord where I was. It was Prof Doug and Prof Byron who both said I needed to do this—probably because they knew I had the right heart. I was happy with my life and my ministry, the way it was, but I also cared about that ministry. I thought, “Well, if it’s not me, who’s it going to be? And if they don’t have the right heart, what am I going to do about it then?”
I’ve been serving as President for five years now and I’m very happy in the role. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, and I think I’m pretty good at it.
ChildHope began more than four decades ago. As President, what is your vision for ChildHope for the coming decade?
We’re at a season where we’re getting a lot of new leadership, because so many of the founders were contemporaries with Prof Doug, and they’re all reaching retirement. My heart is really to have new missionaries, so I’ve really been praying, and God’s been calling younger missionaries, who have a passion.
What I would like is to be able to serve the children better, and meet their needs—whatever needs they have because every country is a little bit different. For example, in Costa Rica, we have good water, but in Ecuador, we don’t. So,we don’t need water filters in Costa, but we do in Ecuador. Some areas are more peaceful, others are dealing with violence and so the children have trauma.
What I would love is to get a really good teacher training programme that we could do on the phone. So many of our teachers are in tiny little communities and they don’t own a computer. They love Jesus, they’re serving Him and I would love to give them resources. That’s my heart—to help them do what God’s called them to do, to give them the resources.
I also started a programme Champions for Change, which is an after-school programme. With that, we can reach more communities where maybe we can afford a school or an afternoon programme to work with the children. I’d like to expand to other communities where we don’t have schools, to really transform the lives of children.
Our three foci of ministry are education, transformation and compassion. We could do tutoring programmes or other types of education just to reach the children who are born into poverty because that’s really the heart of ChildHope. I always say “born into poverty” because they’re not going to be poor always.
In your paper, you spoke about the development of agencies through Spirit empowerment. For the readers of this interview who were not at the Summit, what is that exactly?
A lot of times, people talk about self-esteem, self-efficacy, or self-concept but those are all evaluative—”I feel good about myself”, “I’m a good singer”, “I’m good at math”. But children born into poverty can’t do that because they don’t feel like they have the ability to do anything or to break out of the cycle of poverty. They look around, perhaps their homes and their communities, and they can’t see past the burrow they live in.
So, agency is that ability that is developed within a child, that they can take charge of their own life—they’re agents of their own lives, they can make a decision and carry it through. But children generally who are born in poverty don’t have that—it needs to be developed. With Spirit empowerment, the Holy Spirit comes in and does that. The power that the children receive from the Holy Spirit—the presence of the Holy Spirit, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, knowing that God is always with them, even if their parents aren’t, even if they’re alone, or in risky situations—can empower them to know, “Okay, I can do something with my life.”
In the schools, we, the teachers always say, “You can do all things through Christ that strengthens you” and that helps empower children to be able to change their lives.
Could you share a testimony of how a child developed agency through Spirit empowerment ?
One child that comes to mind is Josimar. His mother was a sex worker in Costa Rica, and she had about four children. She contracted AIDS so she went to social services and got them to look for the fathers, to return her children to them. They found most of the dads, but they never could find Josimar’s.
He went to live with his half-sister and her dad because he was very close to her. But her dad didn’t really want Josimar, and he was living with another woman who had a child with him. That woman wasn’t happy that he brought his daughter and less happy that he brought Josimar, so they broke up.
The man left the house, and he took his daughter. Josimar was stuck in that house where nobody cared for him—he was neglected.
Josimar came to school one day—he was in our school—and he was so sad, just crying. The director asked him what was wrong, and he told her the story. “Nobody loves me. Nobody wants me.” That director shared the love of Jesus with him and told him, that he had a heavenly Father who wanted him and loved him. She began ministering to that little boy and his whole life was transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. He became loving, helpful and confident.
One day, I was up at the school, and it was chapel service. He was especially happy. I asked, “Josimar, what’s going on?” He said, “Mary, today in chapel, we learned about the birth of Jesus. And we learned that there was a burrow.” You know, the burrow is a donkey that took Mary to Bethlehem. He said, “At home, they call me a stupid burrow, but I thought, ‘If God can use that burrow, maybe he could use me.’” This changes the way a child perceives himself—the work that the Holy Spirit does in the life of a child in poverty. They’re not encouraging at home—it’s very unfortunate and sad that even sometimes parents in these communities just kind of beat down their kids but the Holy Spirit can step in and really make a difference in the lives of the children.
Could you elaborate on the practical ways ChildHope teaches or guides these children in the concept of Spirit empowerment?
We just teach them about Jesus a lot. A lot of times, it’s the Holy Spirit ministering to them. I’ve heard the story of a little girl who felt like she couldn’t do anything. She was in a chapel service when the Holy Spirit came upon her, and she was crying and praying. She loved to sing but she didn’t think she could. There was a competition or a choir that she wanted to join but did not.
She says, “Before that, I was never going to join anything I couldn’t win. But I decided I was going to join it.” Then, she remembered that verse, “I can do all things through Christ” and she now sings in the choir. She said, “God helped me.”
We have good theology but that’s not the important part. We teach it to the children, and we let the Spirit minister to them. I would say Latin America is a very emotional culture, so it’s very common. You don’t have to nudge the children to cry, and they’re very open about what’s going on at home. I think the fact that the teachers understand the community and is not judgmental helps. Sometimes, I would think if a child—I’m from the United States, if a kid in school said, “Pray for me, my brother was arrested last night”, everybody would be judging. But the teachers here just give them a simple message, “Satan’s trying to get you down and God’s in control, He loves you.” The teachers help reframe the reality of the children’s lives in the light of the truth of God’s Word. They capture that.
There’re so many of those moments where—I don’t know if it’s risky—but we always say we got to trust the children and we trust the Holy Spirit. First, we teach them good theology and when they’re in a moment of crisis, we just minister the Lord to them.
What was the age of the youngest child you have encountered who developed agency through Spirit empowerment? There is no limit to who and how the Holy Spirit can move.
We had a visitor at one of our schools. I’ll just be very general, but it’s a fairly famous person who had some issues in the past. We had a 4-year-old boy pray for them. I remember that they asked me to translate from Spanish to English, and this little boy didn’t know the past of this person, but I did. But the way the little boy prayed—I remember even hesitating, because I thought, “Oh, my goodness, that’s going to offend the person.”
It is the way the child prayed that made me realise, it was just the Holy Spirit speaking to that little 4-year-old boy. That really impressed me. That was just a kind of Spirit empowerment at the moment, although not necessarily agency.
How can we, the church, help children of different backgrounds be more receptive and open to Spirit empowerment, considering their different abilities, needs, backgrounds, and cultures?
To help promote children’s spiritual development, a lot of times we focus on training them cognitively. It’s great if they can memorise Scripture. On the one hand, we have to take advantage of that, but on the other hand, we have to connect them with the spiritual. Some of the things we can do is just help them—besides teaching them Bible stories—see God in everyday life.
If you were a parent or have a relationship with a child, ask them, “Where did you see God’s hand in your life today?” Connect them to the fact that God is at work in their lives on a daily basis. The day could come when a teenager says, “I don’t believe in the Bible.” But it’s harder for them to not believe when they say, “I prayed, and God answered my prayer.”
The other thing in Costa Rica is that we still have oxen. Every once in a while, we see oxen and a yoke. The Bible talks about being unequally yoked. Another thing I would like to encourage is for adults to make a spiritual yoke with a child. Because a lot of times, children don’t think that they can ever be like an adult. So, ask your child to pray for you. Tell them, “Okay, I’m having a really hard day, will you pray for me?” Let the child be at your level spiritually. That’s how they’re going to learn about being yoked. That’s what Jesus did with his disciples. He taught them but He also walked with them. We need to walk with children and experience the Spirit on a daily basis.
What do you feel will be the impact of this Global Pentecostal Summit on the future of Pentecostalism? Will there be more “ChildHopes” in the coming decades?
I would love for the ministry to expand. I think the Summit is the beginning of something. I don’t know how the Spirit will move but I believe the Spirit will move and I know He’s moving in the lives and the hearts of people. My prayer, going forward, will be that this just won’t be a one-time experience that everybody had but the Spirit will be speaking to individual hearts and minds to push them out from this Antioch to the rest of the world. I’ll tell you, personally, I’m feeling very inspired. I’ll probably cry as I tell you this, but I needed this time. This is such a time of stress with lots of work and concerns. But God used this in my life to inspire me again and refresh me to be able to continue to serve where He’s going to serve. It’s been wonderful for me.