A project that started over four decades ago, encompassing an area along 900 miles of the Rio Grande River, is the celebrated story of the Rio Grande River Ministry.
In 1967, Dr. Elmin Howell became the first director of what’s known today as the Texas Baptists' River Ministry, a comprehensive and acclaimed combination of ministry and evangelism along the Texas-Mexico border from 1968 - 1996, ranging from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico.
The project has often inspired college students and thousands of church members over the decades to participate in missional work along the border.
Dr. Bob Ellis, associate dean for academics at HSU’s Logsdon Seminary says, “The ministry he helped to lead has impacted and continues to influence the lives of thousands of people on the Texas-Mexico border. Dr. Howell, who is a 1952 alumnus of HSU, has given a rich treasure of materials related to the River Ministry to HSU as a teaching tool for students.”
The history of the ministry can be studied through the collection of photos, books, crafts, and artifacts housed at Hardin-Simmons University, chronicling the many projects and accomplishments of the Rio Grande River Ministry.
This past October, Howell and his wife, Betty, were on hand for a dedication ceremony held at HSU, where the collection is on permanent display in the Connally Missions Center. But the most recent addition to the university collection is the Elmin Howell Memoirs which go hand-in-hand with the collection.
The memoirs consist of two volumes filled with the oral history of the ministry, which were transcribed from over 21 hours of interviews with Howell by the Baylor Institute of Oral History.
Dr. Bill Pitts, a professor of religion, arts, and sciences at Baylor University and the son-in-law of former Hardin-Simmons President Dr. James Landes, conducted the initial set of extensive interviews with Howell beginning in May, 1980. Follow-up interviews between Pitts and Howell were finished in June of 2008.
HSU now retains the original corrected first draft of the oral history, which will be held in the Richardson Library’s Research Center for the Southwest for examination. A copy is available for checkout in the library, and another copy will be held at HSU’s Logsdon Seminary to be studied along with the collection in the Connally Missions Center.
Howell says he also requested copies for his church in Rockwall, Texas, and for his family. Baylor’s Institute of Oral History also retains a copy.
When Howell began his 32-year-long ministry along the Texas-Mexico border, he says he didn’t speak any Spanish, and he had not even gone to seminary. “I was a layperson,” he says almost incredulously. “The Lord used me to do the work, and I was committed to do the job.” Even now Howell says he only speaks a little “Tex-Mex.”
Howell is quick to give credit to four missionaries who acted as interpreters. Howell jokes about one of the missionaries, “Isaac Torres, (who is in his mid-80s now and still working and living in Kingsville) used to say to people in Spanish, ‘This crazy layperson doesn’t speak any Spanish, but he wants to speak to you anyway!’ His wife, Norma, was one of the strongest prayer warriors I’ve ever known,” adds Howell.
Howell’s enthusiasm for his work probably came from his work as a coach, “We would go on mission trips to New Mexico and Arizona with some of the young people I coached. I guess that’s how it started,” says Howell.
He stresses, however, that it worked because of the leadership carried on by the people of the region, “That’s still being carried on today. That’s the lasting value of the ministry—the indigenization of the people to do for themselves. That’s the way you build a mission field. You transfer the leadership to the people themselves and then you back away.”
Of the exhibit itself, the most prominent display in the river collection is a large Texas map painted on a single wall lit with spotlights detailing points of interest. Black-and-white photos of River Ministry projects are displayed on the opposite wall, while a continuous-loop video on a monitor tells the story of the ministry along the Texas-Mexico border.
One of many driving forces at behind the formation and consolidation of the permanent collection at is Hardin-Simmons former vice president of institutional advancement, Wayne Roy. He describes the collection as an acute testimony to the long-time ministry. “The collection is meant to inspire and lead students into missions ministry,” he says. “This visual testimony delivers a great degree of reality to students on what the River Ministry is about,” says Roy.
The Howells both graduated from Hardin-Simmons in the 1950s. Under their guidance the River Ministry was “committed to ensure that every person along the ‘frontera’ was introduced to the love of God through Jesus Christ,” according to a printed statement on the wall of the collection. There’s no doubt that the ministry has been an immense project, considering the area is home to over six-and-a-half million people.
The collection visually chronicles these accomplishments made during the Howell’s service: 63 health care clinics, 600 churches, 100 water wells, 1,000 agricultural projects including healthy food, crop and livestock development, and income for the people on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border.
The collection also includes examples of quilts, purses, aprons, pillows, dolls, and ceramics from four handcraft communities established by the River Ministry, which continue to provide incomes for the families of the women who make the crafts.
Ellis says, “Howell’s stated purpose in giving the memoirs to HSU is to make the oral history available to students, not with the idea that they should imitate what he did, but for the purpose of inspiring students through the example of the River Ministry.”
John Hunt, director of the Baptist Student Ministries at HSU, says student groups are often inspired by the ministry, pointing to a recent spring break trip as an example. “HSU students, with the help of members from Pioneer Drive Baptist Church in Abilene, visited the enclave of communities near McAllen, Texas, and helped with a construction project.” The colonias, as they are often called, are unincorporated areas of cities, primarily on floodplains, which generally have no city water or sewer services, and no utilities.
Hunt says the students helped to build a house for a family, conducted vacation Bible school classes, and put on several sports camps for children who live there.
Hunt says the trip is just one of many examples of how the River Ministry Collection has already been working on the hearts of HSU students, which is exactly what it is meant to do. A curriculum is currently being developed by faculty members at HSU’s Logsdon School of Theology to incorporate the examples set by the River Ministry into future courses.
“Dr. Howell’s dream,” says Ellis, “is that students will find in his story the motivation to develop new and creative ways of engaging in missions in those contexts to which God calls them.”
The River Ministry Collection can be seen in the Connally Missions Center on the HSU campus. The memoirs can be found in the HSU Richardson Library.