Over the border and back again

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 3, 2007

REYNOSA, Mexico ó Water splashed up from crater-like puddles as our vans bounced along the normally dusty streets of Reynosa in mid-July.
After a year of preparing first-time mission team members for 110-degree heat and a blistering sun, we arrived in northeast Mexico to a different challenge ó daily rains and mucky roads.
All three of our vans got stuck one day. The mud slowed us down. But it didn’t stop us from building a cinderblock house for a family whose wooden shed ó their home ó was in poor shape. By the end of the week, our group of 30 teens and adults had constructed more than a 12-by-24-foot house; we had built a bond with a family with whom we could barely converse.
All week, the young couple’s 5-year-old daughter hung back beside her mother, watching other children climb on our teens’ shoulders and play. On the last day, though, she jumped into our youth minister’s arms and carefully etched her signature beside our names on a cement plaque by the front door.
Parents Erica and Miguel Jimenez glowed.
Moving into that house will be a turning point in their lives ó in Sofia’s life.
After I returned home, an acquaintance asked why we didn’t work on building a wall to keep Mexicans from crossing the border illegally into the United States.
We were more interested in improving a family’s life in Mexico than in barricading our own country.
Some people stateside approach the border with shotguns and suspicions. Others prefer to cross the border with hammers, trowels and faith.
When Faith Ministry started, 1,600 homes ago, it was strictly a Christian, humanitarian mission. And it still is. But to me, it makes a political statement by staying out of politics. Let others argue about border security and immigration laws. This group and others like it focus on people in need and people who can help.
Our Teens With a Mission group from First Presbyterian Church was one of countless U.S. groups at work in Mexico this summer. At least two other Salisbury churches sent mission teams to Mexico the same week we went. And as we passed through crowded airports sporting our lime green TWAM T-shirts, we saw other brightly clad flocks from all over the United States also migrating south of the border.
There are lots of Americans who care about the people of Mexico.
Observers often ask why such groups don’t put their energies toward helping people in the United States ó “our own,” as they say.
They haven’t seen the degree of need in Mexico and other countries that are much poorer than the United States. Nor do they realize what good works these same mission groups do carry out in the United States.
Besides, the doubters’ definition of “our own” is narrow. Where do the gospels say we should concern ourselves only with the least of these who live within our own borders?
Now there’s an additional urgency to this mission work. Maybe by bettering conditions in Mexico, bit by bit, we can help lessen tensions about immigration, bit by bit. That may sound too optimistic. But isn’t that what hope is, optimism?
What about hope in the United States? I scanned the court docket in the paper last week and thought of all the needs reflected there. Poverty, addiction, a lack of guidance, bad choices. Gangs.
We can’t fix any of that with cinderblocks and cement. But through Habitat for Humanity, we as a community can build houses. Through Communities in Schools and the YMCA, we provide tutoring and activities to fill kids’ idle time. Through Rowan Helping Ministries, the Salvation Army and the Crisis Council, we help families overcome financial and emotional crises.
Through schools, we enable children to develop a foundation of education on which to build a productive life.
The list could go on and on.
All that help doesn’t always take; people fall through the cracks or resist. But the community does what it can, bit by bit. It’s hard to count the successes because we’ll never know the failures that have been averted. Meanwhile, there’s always more to be done.
So back to simple cinderblock houses. Faith Ministry founder Deantin Guerra says he nearly backed out of starting his ministry because the needs in Mexico were so great. He didn’t think one man could come up with a solution that would have any impact.
Then a friend gave him a copy of the starfish story, the one in which a young man comes across thousands of starfish washed ashore and starts throwing them back into the sea, so they won’t die in the sun.
What are you doing, asks an old man who comes along. There are too many starfish to save. You’re wasting your time. You’ll never make a difference.
The young man throws another starfish into the water and says, “It made a difference for that one.”
The tides of life will always wash some of us ashore and leave us stranded, and we need big solutions. Meanwhile, it doesn’t hurt to rescue those we can, one by one, wherever they are. It makes a difference.
For each one of them, it makes a big difference.
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Post.