4 Questions with Sammy Mathews

My name is Sammy Mathews. I moved from Dayton, Ohio, and my role is Executive Assistant to Todd Guckenberger. I’ve been on staff with Back2Back for almost 8 years.

1. Why did you join Back2Back?

I took my first mission trip to Monterrey, Mexico when I was just 17 years old. I had never really left my suburban Ohio bubble, I had never crossed borders to serve others, and I had never set foot in a children’s home. After that weeklong trip, I returned to Monterrey as an intern for the next three summers in a row. It was during my last internship in 2010 that a unique set of circumstances led me to spend a few weeks helping out as a caregiver to 14 boys under the age of 8. One night it was raining and storming outside and one of the boys was scared and couldn’t sleep. I crept into the room hoping not to wake the 13 other boys and sat beside his bed and prayed over him in my very minimal and very broken Spanish. He immediately calmed down and fell asleep with a peace that only comes from the Holy Spirit and the presence of a safe adult (kind of adult… I was just 20 years old.) I sat there on the floor and looked around. I saw 14 little faces, tucked into beds all in the same room. I thought of the chaos, heartbreak, joy, and laughter of that day, I thought of the kindergarten graduation I had attended that week, the only “parent representative” cheering him on. I thought of the three letters of the alphabet he knew and all the ways my education degree was preparing me to teach him to read. I rolled it all over in my mind, finally let out a deep breath and said “ok.” “Ok God, if You call me here, if You want me to move to another country, to join staff, to love these kids, even to just to teach that one right there to read… ok… I’ll say yes.” It was a prayer just between me and God, I didn’t even tell anyone else at first. Until two days later, when I sat down next to Todd Guckenberger on the front porch and he looked right at me and said “So, you graduate in the spring, what are you doing? Coming on staff?” My heart jumped into my throat and I managed to squeak out a “Yes… um yes please!” The plan was to stay in Mexico just one year, which turned into seven, and then Todd looked at me again and offered me another job, this time taking me north across the border. And now here I am, eleven years after my first trip to Mexico, living in the same state I grew up in, now radically different than when I left. 

2. What have you learned since you joined staff with Back2Back?

So much. I learned Spanish and how to drive fast. I learned about the painful road of kids from hard places and what it feels like to watch someone you so deeply love experience success for the first time. I learned how to cover Mexican textbooks in a very precise manner with very sticky contact paper, and that Mexican tradition requires smashing faces in birthday cakes. Oh, and I learned that birthdays are one of the very best ways to show a child he is known and loved. But I think one of the biggest things I learned was to let go of the storyline. It took me awhile and a lot of wrestling, but slowly and surely I learned to let go of my idea of what a “good story” would be, of what “success” would look like, and of how “justice” should play out. Time and time again, I watched God do something entirely different than what I had in mind. Honestly, oftentimes that meant seasons of feeling heartbroken, disappointed, and angry. However, if I would just look up, I would see His story was so much better than mine ever would have been. So I learned to let go, to let Him be the author of their stories, and of mine.

3. Share a funny or embarrassing moment when the culture you’re familiar with was met with new cultural traditions.

There isn’t one major moment that comes to mind, more so I think of the million little moments of awkwardness and stumbling through learning a second language. Like the time a child asked me to draw him a picture of a seal (foca,) and I very proudly and confidently drew him a picture of a lightbulb (foco.) He laughed for about a minute before he regained his composure enough to tell me the difference. Or the time I asked a little girl if she wanted a monkey (chango) rather than a ponytail (chongo.) Needless to say, she was very confused about where this monkey was going to come from. And when it came time to have my car repaired it was quite an interesting conversation with the mechanic that involved lots of sound effects, hand signals, and “I don’t even know these words in English!”.

4. What’s something you’ve learned from the culture you lived in that you’ll keep with you forever?

I really love the birthday cake face smashing tradition. It’s just the best end to the birthday song. Everyone begins to chant “take a bite,” the birthday boy leans in, someone sneaks in behind, and smashes his face right in the cake! I would love to keep that tradition with me forever and pass it on to my future family. Although I do recognize that any future children I have may traumatize other children by smashing their faces into cakes at birthday parties. We’ll work on that. I also love that Valentine’s Day in Mexico is called “Day of Love and Friendship.” I love that it recognizes all kinds of relationships and creates a time and space to celebrate friendship. In my mind, February 14th will always be a day to tell everyone important in my life how much I love them.