How AIM Started: The First Days of AIM

So I didn't close the door on ministry. I started AIM begrudgingly almost, while keeping my options open with a variety of other business propositions. At the same time, life on the home front was difficult. Karen was pregnant with our fifth child. We had no insurance and nobody to pay me a salary. God was showing us that all we really needed was Him.

Praying at a hospital with orphans

The first AIM project was to an orphanage in Montego Bay, Jamaica. In 1990 I led five projects. Several of them were for disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Hugo. I knew short-term projects changed lives because my life had been changed by two projects I'd gone on as a high school student. But I had no clue about how to minister. My prayers were rote affairs that I engaged in with a heavy sense of discipline.

A project I led to Mexico with 60 junior high students made a big impact on me. While we had planned to build homes for the poor and do VBS, I had never seen junior high students go door-to-door and share their faith. What I saw amazed me. Those students led over 200 people to Christ in a week's time.

God comes through in the clutch

I had seen the light. The following summer, we took 750 people on projects and most of them engaged in evangelistic ministry. Though I had three new staff, it was a wild summer. Leading four projects back to back in Mexico was a crazy thing to do. Each week found me more exhausted and more dependent on God's grace. One week I couldn't find the groups' itineraries. So I frantically prayed, “God, get me to the airport when they arrive.” And each time I'd sense it was time to drive by the airport, I'd pull the van up just as the group got off the plane in McAllen.

In those days, if God didn't show up, I was dead meat. On the day before the first project started, when the truck didn't come to pick up the wood that we needed to build houses on the project, it forced me to take desperate measures. I went and rented a 24-foot Ryder truck, loaded it with wood on the U.S. side and began driving the truck toward the border crossing without any paperwork. I just had time to call my mom and tell her, “Mom, you've got to pray; I don't have plan B. If I don't get across, the project fails.”

When I got to the border, the guard waved the truck through as though it were a normal thing.

By the end of a solid month of projects, I was a crispy critter. And that's how those early years were; I was driven and didn't know how to slow down. We moved out of our garage and into a strip mall. By then, Lisa Finney, Sue Mast, Ron Campbell, and Bob Waag were with me.

Barnes family praying
for Swazi orphan

Discovering listening prayer

At a retreat with Peter Lord later that year, God showed me that there were greater possibilities and depths in prayer than I'd ever imagined. I began to understand that it's possible to hear the Lord's voice, that prayer can be a two-way street rather than a boring monologue.

This newfound understanding about prayer began to filter through to our projects. I wanted other people to experience what the Lord had shown me. What a thrill it was to hear Him say He loved me. Everyone needed to have an encounter like that! Later, Clint Bokelman and Lisa Page went with me on a trip to Tampico, Mexico. Little did I understand how important they'd be as partners in ministry with me.

In '92 and '93, I began to really wrestle with the downside of short-term missions: unless there was follow-up, they were destined to be mountaintop experiences that didn't last. This was a double-edged problem. American young people couldn't sustain the high of their trip back home, and the new converts on the field were being left like orphans without anybody to care for them.

We started the intern program in order to address these problems. Though I knew next to nothing about how to disciple, the inherent flaw in a short-term mission experience forced us to begin to grapple with it.

Simultaneously, I realized that we needed a base in Mexico to facilitate our trips and train Mexicans to reach their own countrymen. This sent us on a year-long search (recounted elsewhere) for property that resulted in the establishment of the Gateway in 1994.

Next: Struggles Along the Way »