Westmont Magazine How the Potter Shapes His Clay
For 20 years, Potter’s Clay has molded lives and hearts. The students who started the week-long ministry in Mexico wanted to stretch themselves spiritually and culturally—to become “clay in the potter’s hands” (Isaiah 64:8). “Eventually we came to see Potter’s Clay as a great opportunity for giving,” noted co-founder Gordon Aeschliman ’79, “but we originally conceived of it as a way for students to learn.”
Gordon’s own education began by visiting dumps, orphanages, and inner-cities in Mexico. “The experiences I had challenged some of my narrow-minded categories of Christian service,” he explained. “I wanted others to benefit from these experiences.”
In 1977, Gordon and 12 friends went to Mexicali to see ministries by other college students in Mexico. After this trip, he worked with Randy ’79 and Clara McKinney ’79 Maranville to plan the first official Potter’s Clay. They chose Ensenada as the site.
“Our goal was pretty simple: recruit 50 Westmont students to spend all of Easter week 1978 with us in Ensenada,” Gordon recalled. “We hoped the trip would accomplish three things: challenge us toward a lifestyle of compassionate service, minister to spiritual needs in Ensenada, and minister to physical needs.”
More than 100 students signed up and began planning and gathering the necessary tents, vans, and supplies. Three weeks before the trip, flash flooding in Ensenada left thousands homeless. Rather than discouraging students, the disaster prompted 50 more to join the outreach and help with relief efforts.
“This week was an excellent time of building relationship within our group and among the Mexican people,” Gordon stated in a 1978 interview. “We were successful in achieving our goals of evangelism, meeting physical needs, and raising the cultural awareness of the students who participated.”
Twenty years later, the same goals guide the students leading Potter’s Clay. They have inherited a vision and mission they in turn pass on: spending their spring break sharing the love of Christ in word and deed with the people of Ensenada.
As visitors from a different culture, the founders decided not to arrive with a prepackaged program in 1978. “It was important that we let the local pastors call the shots,” Gordon said. So students became assistants, working with pastors as they ministered to their congregations and reached out to the communities. Potter’s Clay continues to center on the Mexican churches today, and a committee of pastors meets with the core leaders each year. This group has been particularly helpful in assessing priorities for construction projects.
Students like Kristie Laqua ’95 become deeply involved with the churches they serve. “This congregation regards me as a regular attendant, a faithful member of their church,” she wrote in 1994. “Vino Nuevo has become my church away from home, my family away from family. I am convinced that their joy and appreciation for life stems from deep roots in Jesus Christ. How beautiful it is that we love and worship the same God, regardless of the language barrier, the border crossing, or the cultural differences.”
By American standards, many Ensenadans live in hopeless poverty, with shacks for homes and little or no sanitation. They own only a few changes of clothing, and children often go without shoes.
“It’s amazing to see how little the people have, yet how willing they are to give their best to us,” Kevin Vogt ’88 said in 1986 when he co-directed the ministry. “Potter’s Clay is not designed to pull people out of poverty, but to support them in love.”
The love and relationships that grow through Potter’s Clay draw students back across the border time after time. Some, like Dave Albert ’88, spend the summer in Mexico. With Genny Schrock ’88, he started Weekend Warriors in 1986 to officially organize weekend trips to Ensenada during the school year. “We felt a need to develop ongoing relationships with the people like we were able to do during the summer,” Dave explained. “Fellowship is the most important part of the ministry.” This program continues today under the name Juntos (together).
Children especially welcome the students. Mike Wolfe ’83 described one five-year-old boy. “Mauricio usually wears a pair of faded jeans, a dirty T-shirt, and an old pair of sneakers. He spends his days playing with his friends. At first, they were shy with the students, but by the end of the first day, they were wrestling and roughhousing with them. By the end of the second day, Mauricio knew them all by name.”
Some Mexicans have befriended the students and help them each year. Dr. Ramon Vidauri, an Ensenada physician, faithfully works with team leaders to get all the Potter’s Clay supplies across the border. In 1996, the college recognized his invaluable service by awarding him the Westmont Medal at Commencement.
What motivates students to participate in Potter’s Clay? Jim Pigato ’89, who continues to travel to Ensenada with the students each year, observes, “Not all students go to Ensenada with an attitude of ministry. Some go because it sounds fun. Some go because their friends are going. Some go because they have nothing better to do with their spring break. Few return unchanged, though. Not only do they learn about other people and their culture, but they learn about themselves as well.”
Many alums talk about the ways Potter’s Clay has shaped their lives. “Most team members had never seen the inside of a Mexican home,” wrote a student on the 1983 Bella Vista team. “Needless to say, people could not help but walk away changed. I personally feel that I have a new set of eyes as I look upon our American culture: the full refrigerator, the house full of nice furniture, each family member’s own private room. All seem hard to swallow after living for a week with people whose home is a plywood shack with eight people in one bedroom!”
“Most of us spend so much time seeking to fulfill our own desires for love, security, and friendship,” observed Chris ’85 and Brenda Stanley ’86 Hahn, co-directors in both 1984 and 1985. “Potter’s Clay was an opportunity to do just the opposite—to forget about ourselves and to seek the Lord and His will, to ‘shun youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace in fellowship with all who call upon the Lord out of a pure heart’ (2 Tim. 2:22).”
“Potter’s Clay helped me develop more of an ‘eternal perspective,’ enabling me to see life and many of my small worries in the proper light,” concluded Steffan Sherman ’83.
From the beginning, students have directed Potter’s Clay entirely on their own. The task is considerable: transport hundreds of students across the border with enough supplies to feed them for a week and carry out a wide range of ministries. They bring everything they need, including construction materials, medical and dental supplies, and clothing and items to give away.
Lining up cars, vans, and trucks, recruiting doctors and dentists to work with the medical teams, and soliciting building materials take students hundreds of hours. Often they succeed at the last minute. In 1981, Paul ’81 and Sheryl Von Flue ’81 Betancourt wrote, “The Lord stretched our faith, making us wait on Him as some of the team’s money and transportation did not come until the last week, or even the last day before we left for Ensenada.” In 1985, the medical team didn’t have any doctors until they arrived in Mexico and Ensenadan doctors and dentists volunteered their time. Many former co-directors and team leaders tell similar stories.
To fund the program, students raise money and in-kind gifts from friends and family members as well as Santa Barbara businesses. In 1979 the budget for Potter’s Clay was $3,500; in recent years, the students have collected more than $80,000.
When the Potter’s Clay caravan arrives at the border, the students never know what to expect. They always plan ahead, as the 1984 leaders did. “Cognizant of the border hassles surrounding previous attempts to bring equipment and supplies into Mexico, it was after much prayer and with some concern that we approached our first meeting with the Ensenadan government,” they told La Paz in 1984. “After a cordial time with Carlos Lewis, a high government official, we emerged joyously with carte-blanche permission to bring materials for our $20,000 construction project, thousands of dollars worth of medical supplies, and our food truck across for free.”
Students were less fortunate in 1997, when officials held up the food and clothing trucks, citing a new law requiring three-months’ advance notice to cross the border. Thanks to Dr. Ramon, the food finally arrived in Ensenada. But students had to divide the clothing and make many round trips by car, a strategy suggested by the border guards themselves!
A tragic car accident in 1989 took the lives of three students participating in Potter’s Clay and gravely injured two others. Lisa Bebout, Alan Voorman, and Garth Weedman died after a car jumped the divider and landed on their vehicle. Patty Hallock Crosby ’92 and Megan Harter ’92 were badly hurt but eventually recovered and returned to finish college.
Amidst shock and grief, the students continued their work in the villages. Gordon Aeschliman traveled to Ensenada to speak to them, as did President David Winter, Dean Jon Hess, and Chaplain Bart Tarman. While noting the ugliness of death, Gordon proclaimed God’s victory over death. Then he asked each student to find three rocks. With the first, they made a mound at the campsite in memory of Lisa, Alan, and, Garth. They built a similar memorial on campus with the second. The third rock reminds them of the presence and faithfulness of God in the midst of sorrow.
While the media covered the 1989 accident extensively (and with great sensitivity), they have also featured good news about the ministry. In 1985, a film crew from the KCET public television program “On Campus” documented Potter’s Clay, focusing on relationships between the students and the Mexican people. The host introduced the segment by highlighting Westmont’s “view of Christianity that values action over rhetoric.” As the program unfolds, the students demonstrate their love for the Lord by reaching out to people in an attempt to meet real needs instead of those that people from a different culture might falsely perceive. They leave with more than they brought: the love of new friends and a deeper understanding that we are all fashioned by the same Potter.
Ten years later, a reporter from the Santa Barbara News-Press also made the trip to Ensenada and wrote a lengthy, page-one story accurately describing the students’ activities and the faith that motivates them.
United by their commitment to a common mission, leaders from each decade met together for the first time to celebrate Potter Clay’s 20th anniversary at Homecoming in September. Dan Hislop ’93, a 1993 co-director and member of the Alumni Board, organized the event and presented a slide show telling the history of the ministry.
Gordon Aeschliman and Randy and Clara McKinney Maranville attended, as did Christian Concerns founder Dave Dolan ’77. Pastors from Ensenada also traveled to campus. At a breakfast meeting, the former leaders shared their experiences in Mexico and how the ministry has changed their lives. Megan Harter ’92 touched hearts as she shared her struggles and blessings since being hurt in the 1989 accident.
After leading Potter’s Clay in 1979, Randy and Clara Maranville moved to Ensenada in 1980 to minister there full-time. Over the years, students involved in Potter’s Clay have made similar decisions to participate in missions in Mexico and around the world, living in Ensenada during the summer and returning regularly during the year. They have led other ministries at Westmont and helped establish what Jane Higuchi Higa ’73, vice president for student life and dean of students, refers to as a “culture of involvement.”
One example is Diana Deen ’84, co-director in 1983, who spent several years in ministry at Rancho Agua Viva, a Christian camp in Ensenada. Numerous students and alums joined her in this work.
The deep friendship Cindy Carter ’87 formed during Potter’s Clay with Pastor Reuben Casteneda and his wife, Graciela, continues to this day. She returns to Mexico several times a year with a group of family and friends to do construction projects and lead vacation Bible school. For the past three years, she has also coordinated the Mayo Clinic Mexico Medical Mission where five physicians and other staff (including Clarisa Peer ’89 and Lorena Peer ’87) offer three days of free medical clinics and treat more than 600 patients.
Students are already planning the next Potter’s Clay and making weekend trips to Ensenada. They carry out a 20-year tradition of leadership and service as they live out their love for Jesus Christ and the people of Ensenada.
— Nancy Favor Phinney ’74