In 1978, Fred and Debbie Collom moved from East Peoria, Illinois to the city of Fresnillo in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. Before marrying, Fred had made several trips into Mexico and had decided on Fresnillo as the place to begin their missionary work. (Fred had already planted a church in a small town 50 miles from the city of Saltillo on one of his two-month trips to Mexico. That church is still going today.)
After establishing a church in Fresnillo, they began to branch out to other cities in the state of Zacatecas. The next church was planted in a small town of thirty thousand people by the name of Valparaiso. There was no evangelical church in town and only one Christian. Others had attempted to plant churches, but the fanaticism, persecution, and strong anti-Protestant feelings made it difficult and thus they gave up.
Fred rented a dance hall and held a seven-day evangelistic crusade. The attendance was much better than expected. A few converts were made and the hard job of establishing a church began. A few months after the crusade, the family who owned the dance hall was converted. Their house was adjoining the dance hall, so they had heard the gospel every night during the crusade. Eventually, the church was established, a church building constructed, and a national pastor installed.
In 1980, the next church was planted in the village of Lobatos. Lobatos was a typical village in Zacatecas, hostile to outsiders and strongly anti-protestant. To open things up, Fred invited a medical ministry from San Antonio, Texas to hold a two-week clinic. The first choice for doing the clinic was a village named San Mateo, but the leaders didn’t want it. (It was later learned that the people of the village were very upset with their leaders for having refused the clinic.) Fred decided to drive to Lobatos to see if there was some interest. When he arrived, he pulled up to a small general store and asked one of the men inside if he knew whom the village president was. “I am,” the man responded. “What can I do for you?” Fred explained his plan for a two-week free clinic. The leader said that he would like to have the clinic. Fred then told him that he would need to use their public school facilities. The president said that he would need permission from the school principal. To Fred’s surprise, the man drinking a coke beside the president was the school principal. The principal said that he was in agreement but that they would also need permission from the regional education director who happened to be the third man in the store! With all three men being in agreement, Fred saw it as a divine appointment and proceeded with his plans.
During the two-week clinic, over two thousand people received free medical attention, including surgery. After the clinic, the village leaders wanted to thank Fred in a public ceremony on a Mexican holiday. Because of the hostility of a few men, the village president had to assign some guards to make sure nothing happened. The clinic had been very well received, however, and a church was successfully planted.
In 1981, Fred and Debbie made a trip to the border to buy supplies and renew their tourist visas. On the way home, just a few miles from Fresnillo, a drunk driver who was driving in the on-coming lane, suddenly pulled out to pass, hitting the Collom’s pick-up head on. The impact was so strong that the motor was torn out of the pick-up that hit them. Amber, the Collom’s three-month-old daughter, was thrown into the dash and severely injured. Pablo Casillas, another missionary who was traveling with them, hit the dash, folding over most of his teeth. Debbie had a broken arm, all of her ribs broken on one side, a collapsed lung, a fractured pelvis, and several deep cuts. Since most of the impact was on the front driver’s side, Fred was pushed backwards, breaking the seat of his extended cab pick-up. He had a shattered pelvis. His hip sockets were severely fractured.
That night at the hospital, the doctors said that their daughter Amber would probably not survive. The next day, Fred asked a friend to call a Christian pilot that he knew in McAllen, Texas and ask him to fly Amber to the United States. She was taken to San Antonio and placed in intensive care. Fred and Debbie stayed behind in Mexico, since they did not have any insurance or enough money to pay to be flown out. Debbie’s prospects of surviving without medical attention for a collapsed lung and internal bleeding were not too good. However, friends and family got together and made arrangements to fly them to Texas as well. By then, Fred was in a body cast and a bigger plane had to be rented.
Before leaving Mexico, a young schoolteacher named Mario came to visit Fred. He had been converted in an earlier crusade in Fresnillo. Fred told him that he needed him to establish the infant church in Lobatos and to take care of the young church in Valparaiso as well. He agreed, even though he had no preaching experience.
Doctor Harry Stephens and his wife Diane, who had headed up the medial caravan that held the clinic in Lobatos, arranged for Christian doctors in San Antonio to provide their services free of charge. Even with the doctors not charging anything, the hospital bill was now well into the thousands of dollars. After three weeks in the hospital, the Stephens, knowing that the Colloms had no insurance, decided to move them into their home which was soon crowded with hospital beds and other equipment, as well as the nurse who stayed at the house to care for Amber. In order to make more room, the Stephens moved into their camper in the back yard for the next two months. Their servant’s heart and loving humility was a testimony that the Colloms have never forgotten.
During that time, someone had started a rumor that Fred had said he would never return to Mexico. Many people were surprised when they went back to the mission field about five months after the accident. At that time, Fred needed the use of two canes to walk and Amber had the prospect of many years of physical therapy before her.
One day, shortly after to returning to Mexico, Fred and a Mexican worker were on their way to Valparaiso for the church service when a pick-up truck pulled up beside them. Fred thought that the truck was going to pass him, but suddenly, the passenger stuck a rifle out of the window.
In Fred’s words: “The truck was about ten feet in front of us, still in the passing lane when the passenger began to swing around with a high powered rifle in his hands. I only had a few seconds in which to react. I stepped on the accelerator and got right behind the pick-up. I was almost touching his bumper. I went as far as I could toward the left because the man with the rifle was trying to get us in his sights. Both vehicles were in the on-coming lane, doing between 70 and 80 mph. The section of road that we were on only had a one or two foot shoulder, so there wasn’t any way to turn around even if I had wanted to. Just as we came upon a short section of highway that had more room for turning around, the man with the gun ducked back into the cab. I could see him talking to the driver. He seemed to be telling the driver what to do in order for him to get off a good shot. I thought that this might be my only chance, so I hit the brakes and was able to stop on the wide section of the road. By the time that they realized I had stopped, they were about one hundred yards ahead of us. As I began to turn around, they stopped and began to turn around as well. Due to the wider section of road, I was able to turn around more quickly. I knew that I had to out-drive them because I was still using canes to walk and no way could I out-run them. After driving the thirty miles back to Fresnillo, I told the police, but they were afraid to go look for the men. I remembered that someone had told me that if something like that ever happened, I should tell the army, which I did. The army captured them within a few hours. The men were heavily armed. The rifle was an M I automatic, military issue.”
A few months after that incident, Fred made plans to plant a church in the town of Calera. Several years before, a missionary had purchased land with the plan of starting a church. A small house and a room for services were constructed. A Mexican national moved in to plant the church. The reaction from the community was so violent that he gave up and left. At one point, some men had threatened to hang him.
One day, Fred was visiting with a Mexican pastor in Fresnillo. The pastor asked Fred if he would take the property in Calera and use it to start a church. Calera was an extremely difficult town. A few years after the Mexican national had left, a missionary moved in, but he eventually left as well. In addition, the Assemblies of God had attempted to plant a church two or three times and given up. This town of forty thousand still did not have an evangelical church.
After prayer, Fred accepted the property and made plans to start a plant. Knowing that this was one of the more difficult towns in Mexico, Fred recruited enough people for a prayer chain to cover the planned crusade with prayer. He recruited a good Mexican evangelist to preach the crusade. He then invited the pastors of other churches in Fresnillo and the surrounding area to the meetings. They committed to take their people to the crusade. Fred knew that a crowd draws a crowd and that there’s safety in numbers. He also hired a gospel music group. In those days, there were very few music groups, so this was a good way to attract people to the meetings.
The five-day event was a success. Soon after, a church began to be established. It seems that the prayer team and the crusade had broken the power of the enemy. Later on, some of the same groups that had attempted to plant churches before, returned and were successful. Now, many years later, there are five churches in Calera.
After planting churches in the village of Toribio and the small city of Rio Grande, Fred and Debbie felt that it was time to plant another church in Fresnillo. While planting the church, the Lord opened many doors for working with the government in ministry to the poor.
During that time, Fred had tried to work with the Zacatecas state government to import food, clothes, and medical equipment from the US, but they showed little interest. The neighboring state of Aguascalientes heard about Fred’s offer to help the government out, and the governor’s wife sent someone to invite him to meet her. During the meeting they agreed to split everything that would be imported. Fred would gather enough stuff to fill two semi-trailers. One would go to Aguascalientes and the other to Fred’s ministry in Zacatecas. During the time that he worked with the government, he was able to smuggle 100,000 Bibles into Mexico, working with Reverend Schemper of the World Home Bible League. At that time, it was very difficult to get Bibles into Mexico, and Fred’s government connections were quite helpful.
So much food, clothing, and medical equipment was given to Aguascalientes that it helped the governor’s wife win an award from the president of Mexico for having the best welfare program in Mexico. Near the end of her administration, she had a large assembly and gave Fred an award for all that he had done for their state. Several thousand people were present in the large auditorium, many of them being important and influential politicians from all over Mexico. The president of Mexico sent his personal representative. The wife of the new candidate for governor of Zacatecas was also present. Afterwards, she approached Fred and asked him to work with them if her husband won the election, which he did.
Soon after taking office, the new governor invited Fred to his home and reaffirmed his desire to work together. Since he and his team were new in office, they asked Fred to take care of getting the necessary permits for importation. After receiving the proper paperwork from the governor’s wife, he bought a bus ticket to Mexico City, leaving on a Sunday night after church. Because of very limited finances, the plan was to travel all night by bus, go to the head of customs, solicit the permit, and return on a night bus. In those days, they didn’t have money for hotels. A couple of hours before departure, Fred realized that he couldn’t find the papers from the state government. Since he had already bought the bus tickets, he decided to make the trip to Mexico City anyway.
Fred says, “As I rode on the bus, I wondered why I had decided to go. Back in those pre-NAFTA days, a semi-trailer of used clothes could be sold for a lot of money. I could see myself going to the head of customs, claiming that I had letters from the state, which I had lost, and that I wanted him to give me a permit anyway. I could hear him saying, ‘Somebody throw this gringo out.’ Anyway, when I arrived at the customs office in Mexico City, I was surprised to find that the person who wrote out the permits, which the head of customs then signed, was a man I had met twice before. He was at the assembly in Aguascalientes when I received the award.
“I was relieved when he was happy to see me again. I explained that I had lost the official papers needed to request the permit. ‘No problem,’ he said. ‘I’ll have my secretary prepare them again.’ When the papers were finished, he asked me to sign them. I was surprised to see that the bottom of the page said, ‘Fred Collom, State of Zacatecas, Director of Imports. He then called the Zacatecas state welfare director and informed him that I was now the import director for the state and that all imports would be done by me. He also told him that these permits normally took months, but the ‘gringo’ would have it within an hour.
“Needless to say, my status with the government increased greatly. I now felt confident to tell them how we would work with them. I informed them that all donated goods would go to my warehouse in Fresnillo. The governor’s wife could then release donations to the fifty-six state mayors by sending them a letter, which they could present to me. In Mexico, each mayor is over a whole county. So, all fifty-six mayors had to come to our church office to receive donations. Along with food, clothing, and medical supplies, we would give them tracts and Bibles. This was key to changing attitudes towards evangelicals throughout the state. I could tell many more stories of how God opened doors during that time, but this is supposed to be a brief history.”
Then, in 1995, with the Fresnillo church well established and with its own building, Fred and Debbie moved to Mazatlan, taking a small team of nationals with them. They held a twenty-one day tent crusade and a few months later, started Sunday services in a five-star hotel in Mazatlan’s Golden Zone. Since then, the Golden Zone church has planted two other churches in colonias (communities) in Mazatlan. (See Strategies for Church Planting.) As of April, 2014, there are 14 children’s feeding centers and a children’s scholarship program that sponsors and registers children for school who have never attended before (nearly 400 kids were sponsored in 2014). Last year, sixteen thousand bags of groceries were given to the poor. The church also operates a mobile kitchen that has fed thousands of children and adults in Mazatlan’s poorest colonias; and plans are being made for starting a school for children whose parents are dump scroungers The church now has land in other colonias for future church plants in Mazatlan.
Fred and Debbie have been involved with the Vineyard since 1984. The Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Champaign, Illinois is their home church.