I grew up going to a United Methodist Church that was heavily involved with Proyecto Abrigo. This church would send high school youth groups to Juarez to build homes for families. In middle school I would hear glory stories about how meaningful the trips were, about how the youth’s lives were changed through their experiences from the program. I saw the effect that the trips had on the people that I looked up to as role models. One of those people has completed her degree and is now living for an extended amount of time, if not permanently, in Peru working for the Peace Corps. None of these people live “mediocre” lives. I can see that they carry something with them. They are not the white, suburban folks that spent a week in a foreign country only to return with a false sense of superiority. They are humble. They have faith beyond themselves. They do not need egos.
When it was my turn to experience such a trip in the winter of 2008, I was robbed of it. Due to the violence, Proyecto Abrigo stopped accepting groups to work in Juarez. My heart was broken. My youth group went all the way to El Paso, only to bury its heels into the ground in front of the literal and metaphysical border between the United States and Mexico. From the mountainside of El Paso, I saw the maquiladores puffing clouds of black smoke over miles of shanty-towns lazily constructed from materials that I considered to be trash. The housing developers of the first world had skipped over a spot on the geographical outline of privilege. That forgotten space is called Juarez. And I felt useless. The bridge over the Rio Grande laughed as the border, constructed to keep gringos like me safe from the “Dirty Mexican Other,” ostracized people by rejecting refugees from a war zone. The terror that the border had created did not stop there. Not only did it keep the “others” out of my native country, but it also confined me within its jurisdiction.
I was fourteen. Six years later, I have a better understanding of the pragmatic reasons for not crossing at that time. But still….my fourteen year-old self had a point. People that consider themselves to be Christians tend to skip over the parts of the Bible that call us to go the people of all nations. How can we perform such a task when we face such danger? Luckily, this is a question that is less relevant to 2014 than it was to 2008. While there always was and always will be some risk in traveling to Juarez for mission, the risk of injury with Proyecto Abrigo is all but exclusively limited to accidentally pulling a muscle by pushing a heavy wheelbarrow of cement. Don’t believe me? It’s hard to believe myself. I wasn’t convinced either, so I decided to see for myself.
In the spring of 2013, I went to Juarez with Proyecto Abrigo for the first time. Two other college students and I met another small church group to build a house. We were the first group of people that Proyecto Abrigo hosted to construct houses since 2008. The experience was rewarding and frustrating. In Tierra Nueva, or New Land, we labored to mix cement to construct a simple cinder block facility for a family in the middle of a desert. While working on the house, I would hear children playing in neighboring cardboard houses. During the afternoons, casual walks to the local tienda gave off the vibe of an abandoned desert. The edges of the dirt roads kissed houses that seemed lifeless. Of course, to someone who had never been there before, such absence of people did not seem out of the ordinary.
I returned to the states with cool Facebook pictures and with a renewed soul from interaction with the mother and father of the family that had a new home. Those two people were overwhelmed with joy and hope for the future. Eight months later I went to Proyecto Abrigo again for the same purpose. This endeavor was similar to the last in the sense that I didn’t know most of the people with whom I was traveling. Regardless, there seemed to be a new energy that was absent eight months earlier as we loaded up the vans early in the morning. Several of the people with whom I was traveling had been to Proyecto Abrigo before and were clearly enthusiastic about returning to Juarez. Instead of uncertainty trailing the bumper of the van across I-20, hope and eagerness crept into our presence.
We were not disappointed. The group that stayed at the compound would be best described as a hodge-podge; people from many different backgrounds at many different parts of their lives all gathered to experience God through ministry. The group included some more aged (I mean, uh, wise) church members from Abilene, members from at least two churches from Dallas, a college student ministry, and even a couple of high school students. The compound seemed to buzz with life at night. This, in contrast to the spring trip, was excited and motivating.
The new excitement did not stop at the gate of the compound. As we worked to construct a cinderblock house which was close to the last house that I helped build, I was taken aback by how much the neighborhood had changed. In the spring, we would hear children playing in the confines of the neighboring houses, or living facilities, rather. On my second trip to Juarez, children roamed in packs along the dirt roads. They seemed happy to play with us and to get the opportunity to interact with gringos quien estuvieron construyendo las casas de Nuevo, and groups as large as a dozen children would come to play and talk with us on some afternoons. On one occasion, our van broke down about two streets away from the house we were building. The unexpected set-back turned out to not be a set-back at all, but an opportunity to get out from behind our cushy seats and walk through the neighborhood. People smiled and waved as we strolled through the dust roads of Tierra Nueva. We never feared for our safety. It didn’t even occur to us that some people back on the other side of the border might have ignorantly considered us to be in a war zone. Such a view of that area to me seemed, and remains to seem, ludicrous. The evening walks to la tienda had a new vibe. Juarez did not seem like the abandoned desert that it was earlier, as there were people in the street, hanging out in their yards while listening to music and chatting with neighbors. I got to practice my Spanish. I met friendly people who made me feel welcome and loved.
Reflecting upon the contrast of the two experiences, I defend that Juarez was safe in 2013 and is desperate for people to know that it is indeed safe in 2014. The change that Juarez is undergoing cannot be ignored by Christians simply because of images that the media has been feeding us. Juarez is changing, and so our hearts and our minds about Juarez need to be changing as well. I’m reminded of the Genesis creation story: “Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
In case you missed it, the “man” here is Juarez. God has is breathing life back into Proyecto Abrigo, but God needs us to be there to see it happen.
The border is a rather large mountain to move. pero… si tuvieras fe como grano de mostasa…
-Drew Marshal, FUMC Denton