My family made the long drive north, and for a couple months we traveled around the United States sharing music on our Chiapanecan marimba. In churches from Washington to Massachusetts, Daddy talked about the mission work in Chiapas as he showed picture slides. Although Daddy never asked for money, the churches we visited took up offerings, all of which went directly for the new mission.
The property was purchased by the South Mexican Mission (in the days before it became a conference) and they named the place Clínica Bella Vista. It was a beautiful spot beside a flowing river, and I was excited when we finally got to go home. The Darald Edwards family drove south with us. We would be working together, along with the Oliva family, to carve a mission station from the jungle. However, because the Grijalva River near Comalapa was too deep to ford with our camper trailers, we couldn’t actually live at Bella Vista yet. Colegio Linda Vista, a six-hour drive away, graciously allowed us to stay in one of their houses. During the week, Elwin and Darald, and usually a couple of the six boys, would go to the property. Now finally it was the girls’ turn!
Pastor Madrigal with Lacandón indians
Bella Vista and MPI Beginnings by Barbara Norton Kay
In the South Mexican Mission each pastor was responsible for up to 15 churchesscattered through the mountains and jungles of Chiapas and Oaxaca. While lay workers and elders of the local congregations visited people, giving Bible studies and conducting Sabbath services, it was a high Sabbath when their pastor came to preach and hold a baptism. These dedicated pastors often had to walk for hours, even several days, to reach these villages. There were few roads passable by truck or bus. As news of the mission airplane traveled throughout the state, men took up their machetes and large hoes to whack the jungle down and smooth out a runway. Sometimes when Daddy went to inspect the progress on these strips, he had to instruct the men to lengthen them. Whenever Christina flew in, the entire village turned out to greet her pilot. Christina, and later Angel 3, flew pastors, nurses, doctors, dentists, lay workers, and supplies into remote villages.*
God blessed and progress had been made in establishing a base, yet what was dearest to my Daddy’s heart was to have an airplane in order to help more people. A runway was built, but when and how would God provide an airplane?
After I finished college, my new husband and I spent 4 months at Bella Vista. Irdene was handed the gardening responsibilities and Daddy asked me to teach health and English classes to the students. I loved being at Bella Vista again. Interacting with the young people was a joy, getting to go swimming every day a delight, and sharing mission life with my family and husband was very rewarding. Seeing a flourishing children’s Sabbath School made me happy.
Edwards and Norton families
in front of new church building.
Students displaying health posters they made.
Marta & Salomon Diaz by their tin palace & clinic building.
Our first Sabbath at Bella Vista we joined a small group of Seventh-day Adventists meeting in one of their homes in the nearby town of Lázaro Cárdenas. The children ran around outside while the adults listened to the Bible study. That morning I decided to start a children’s Sabbath School. Daddy and Darald invited all of the believers in our area to come to the mission property on Sabbath morning. Before a building was erected in which to meet, we met under the trees
overlooking the river. Each Sabbath, I taught the children songs and told them a Bible story using felt figures. For weeks, more adults came to the children’s Sabbath School than went to the adult class!
Villagers from Lázaro Cárdenes came to visit, bringing us fruit and friendship. They were curious about the garden, our outdoor privy, and what we gringos were building. Our parents tried to share whatever health knowledge they had with the sick. A man sought Daddy’s help about his terrible back pain. The man followed his advice
Airstrip clinic with sheet around wing for treating patients.
It was exciting for Patty Edwards and me as young teenagers to be going with our daddies to the new mission property in the fall of 1972. As we bumped along in the Edwards’ Chevy truck, it felt like an adventure. Ever since my parents had accepted God’s call to mission service in Chiapas, Mexico, our family had been on an adventure. Six years earlier, many family and friends told my Daddy Elwin that he was crazy to sell the homestead farm, leave a financially secure job, and move his family of four young children in an old school bus to a foreign country. He did it anyway, and we became missionaries, serving at Yerba Buena Clinic and Linda Vista Academy for a few years.
In 1971, the Seventh-day Adventist conference leaders talked with Daddy about helping them start a mission station among the Lacandón Indians, descendants of the Mayan tribe who live in a remote jungle area of Chiapas. These men had the vision of reaching this people group with the gospel, but they did not have the resources. For five years, our family had been self-supporting missionaries; we received a small stipend where we served and supplemented with monies Daddy made commercial fishing in Alaska during the summer. He had contributed to the starting of an aviation program to realize his dream of reaching villages with medical help and Bible teaching. His hope to carry forward this aspect of ministry, and to establish a base from which to do so, fit in with the plans the brethren talked about.
While the brethren didn’t find available land in the area where the Lacandóns lived, they did locate a piece of property by the San Vicente River in the southernmost area of the state. It was owned by an Adventist family who was willing to sell part of their ranch for a mission station. The day we first drove to the spot, we children played in the river while Daddy went to talk business with the seller. I loved this place from the beginning and hoped it would become our new home.
Elwin Norton by Christina
River that flows around the Bella Vista property.
The first building erected was the shop with a classroom in one end. Next, a small house for the Oliva family was put in place brick by brick, and finally a clinic building. I enjoyed working with my daddy laying brick. I learned how to mix the mortar and kept his board filled. One day he handed me a trowel and let me butter the ends of the brick for him, and then I began putting the mortar on the rows and placing the bricks. Eventually Daddy trusted my brother Bud and me to lay a wall of brick in the new clinic building by ourselves. However, our favorite activity was swimming in the river. A chain swing hung from a tall tree from which we could jump or swing in an arc while skiing barefoot on the water. In the river, we kids played tag, had swimming races, and at the end of each day took our baths in the cold water.
The second year at Bella Vista, Daddy built us a tin palace: a wooden frame with sheets of metal nailed to it for walls and roof. It was built in a square with an open patio in the center. The bedrooms were on three sides with our camper trailer, which served as our kitchen and dining area, on the fourth. Over the dirt floor, we spread mats. Daddy built another tin palace for Solomon and Marta Diaz. As trained nurses, they were a vital addition to our mission family.
Patty and I cooked for our dads and helped out in whatever way we could. When they drove to the nearby town of Chicomosuelo, we jumped in the pickup to ride along. They planned to talk to a man who made bricks, hoping to place an order for the first building. We got a bit more adventure than we’d counted on when Mr. Edwards’ pickup got stuck in the middle of the river. While Daddy talked to the men who were at the crossing, Patty and I took turns bailing water out of the cab with a tiny plastic wastepaper basket. Eventually, a man tied his team of oxen to the front of the truck and pulled us out of the river. After that, someone always scouted the river on foot before driving through.
It was a happy day for the Edwards and Norton families when we moved onto the mission property. After safely fording the river, it took hours to go the last few miles because we had to repair the road as we went, filling in ditches and knocking off high spots so as not to drag the bottom of the trailers. Being a missionary is an adventure in many ways!
Most mornings my brothers picked up their machetes to clear jungle before school time. The Edwards boys helped their dad plant and care for the garden. I helped my grandmother, Gertrude Pyke, with the laundry, and recall spending hours looking through the beans, rice, and corn to remove everything inedible. Shelling peanuts, shaving chunks of panela (molded brown sugar) into crumbs, and washing dishes were some of the household chores I helped Mommie with. At least half of the day, we children were occupied doing our studies. My grandmother taught the six boys and we girls worked on our 9th grade lessons through Home Study International.
The Ray Juhl family, who lived in Minnesota, became involved in the mission work. They brought block-making molds to Bella Vista in their motorhome, and spent their vacation
helping with construction. Ray’s son Doug Juhl loaned his Cessna 185, complete with cargo belly pod, for Daddy to fly. His sister Shanda was on hand for the dedication and naming of the aircraft: Christina would fly from village to village bringing nurses, teachers, and building supplies. It was time
to begin work among the Lacandón tribe.
Nytta & Elwin Norton with Barbara, Buddy, Bobby and Billy Norton by their bus affectionately named “Torkey Turtle.”
to drink a lot of water and within a few days his symptoms had disappeared. A mother brought her ill baby asking for help. Mommie sent me to the river after buckets of water. She boiled some on the stove and using two of our wash tubs gave the little one hot and cold contrast baths. Following the treatments the baby fell asleep, and within a few days was well again. Other mothers brought their babies for treatment with the magic water. We explained that the water was taken from the same river which flowed near their houses. We instructed the mothers that bathing their children was important for health, and explained how boiling water to drink killed the germs which caused sickness. Many people were infected with parasites for which we were able to provide medicine.
The experiences I had growing up have shaped me into the person I am today. I look at life with a broader perspective and appreciate simple living. Whether you serve in a country outside of the USA or minister to people in your community, you too are called to be a missionary. I want to thank each of you who continue to support the hospital and school at Bella Vista. It warms my heart to see others faithfully fulfilling Daddy’s vision in the place of my childhood.
Lacandón natives by mission plane Christina
First teacher in Bella Vista classroom.
*You can read some of their stories in archived newsletters from 1975-1980.
A young man who knew the Mayan language moved to Mexaboc and began teaching the children. One of the first things he helped the men accomplish was building an airstrip. It was a short way from their village, which was beside a river. When it was finished, Christina flew in, bringing bags of cement to use in the construction of a school building. A nurse from Bella
Vista visited to aid with medical needs. Most of the village people were interested in learning about Jesus and the truths of the Bible. They cleaned up the village, decided which wife they would marry while still supporting their other wives, and celebrated the completion of a block structure. The children met in it for classes during the week, and everyone gathered
there on Sabbaths. Eventually a baptism was held and nearly the entire village became Sabbath-keeping Adventists.
Daddy was doing what he loved, helping the poor people and enabling others to join him in this mission. Yet another desire burned in his heart; to have a school for the poor. He wanted young people to be able to get a Christian education even if they didn’t have money. The school would have industries where the students could work half days and attend classes the other half. Daddy’s vision became a reality with a small enrollment of 15-20 students and one teacher. The first students at Colegio Bella Vista helped build dormitories and a classroom/cafeteria. Friends from the U.S. came to help build. Student missionaries from various places in the U.S. gave their time and talents at the clinic and school. Dental students from Loma Linda University came to provide free dental clinics in villages.