As a young boy, Holtville and Calipat dentist, Gayle Cheatwood remembered traveling with a mission-minded man, Don Lang, from Western Avenue Baptist Church in Brawley, to a church he planted in Mexicali, Baja California. Cheatwood said at the age of 14 he went with another church member to the east side of Brawley, to another church plant, and remembered playing the piano and telling the young people about Jesus.
“This is why I like to take youth with me on missions. That was how I got started, how God moved my heart,” Cheatwood said.
Cheatwood never forgot his early mission adventures. Now, he is the founder of Dental Vision and travels the world with various teams he assembles, including other dentists, to give free dental and vision services to indigent peoples. Also his wife Nita goes on all his trips and keeps every aspect organized.
Back in high school, he also was on the track and field team at Brawley High, learning under his coach, Xen Jones. Decades later, roles are reversed as Cheatwood is the coach to Jones, only this time in the mission field, as he led Jones and his wife, Shirley, and 45 others, including seven dentists, to Oaxaca, Mexico on a medical mission trip.
His latest trip, to Oaxaca almost did not happen. He had planned an earlier trip with a different team into China. However, his contact there advised him not to come because the Chinese government was persecuting them mercilessly. It was so bad, the contact told Cheatwood, they were bringing in children affected with cerebral palsy and torturing them to divulge names. Although the plane tickets had been bought, Cheatwood did not want to bring on more persecutions with their visit.
“So, I had two weeks suddenly free. I thought I might get a doctor’s check-up since it had been five years since my last one,” Cheatwood said. “I felt fine, though.”
It turned out he was not fine. Within minutes of listening to his heart, the doctor called a cardiologist who quickly diagnosed his aortic valve was practically non-functioning. Emergency surgery was needed and through connections, Cheatwood was admitted to a hospital in Phoenix where a bovine valve replaced his faulty one. The doctor told him if he had gone to China, he probably would have died there.
“The surgeon told me that the bovine valves never fit perfectly, there are always adjustments is size, or diameter the doctors do during surgery to get it right. The surgeon was amazed because the one they got for me was an absolute perfect fit. No adjustments were necessary,” Cheatwood said.
Advised to wait four months before traveling after his open-heart surgery, Cheatwood was planning another mission trip two months later.
“There was something special about this last trip,” Cheatwood said to a group gathered at his church that came to hear about the latest mission. “The people were so open to hear the Gospel. So many accepted the Lord, even one of the dentists. I was working on a ten-year-old boy, telling him about Jesus, and his eyes welled up with tears and he said he wanted to know Him more.”
Shirley and Xen Jones, widely traveled themselves, were asked to join Cheatwood on his Oaxaca trip. They had never been on a mission’s trip although raised in a church and active church members.
“What a joy that was,” Shirley said. “We were the newbies on the block. I didn’t know what we would do, but Gayle kept telling us there was plenty of work.”
As it turned out, Shirley gravitated to the children. “There were hundreds of children that came to us. I brought coloring supplies from home. They colored for hours, literally. I have never seen children sit that long and color. They were so poor, they had nothing really, and were so content to color.”
Xen found his place in the mission team sterilizing instruments. “Don’t call them tools,” he said. “I got reamed for that! They are instruments!”
The team serviced 1200 people in dental care and eyeglasses. Xen said the people were so poor they cooked in outdoor mud ovens and the smoke from the ovens eventually caused a film to cover their eyes. He also said families walked for miles in paper-thin sandals to reach the clinic.
“Their need just touches you,” Xen said. “If you ever have a chance to go on a missions trip – go, just go.”