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  Friday, June 23, 2017


Dessert Flowers: Reflections on mission to Mexico

August 2003

Monday

Having spent the night bonding at the hotel, with the group challenges of ordering pizza together and selecting a cable TV station, are we are braced and ready for Anapra? It’s sizzling hot. We pile into two 15 passenger vans, and cross the border into Juarez, Mexico.

Every place on earth has its own kind of beauty; it just takes time for it to unfold. What strikes the mind first is all that lies in disorder, ugly, despoiled and polluted in the sprawling warren of pallet-and-tarpaper huts that cling to the barren hillsides of Anapra, Mexico. The ground is a tossed salad of trash and sand: tires, bedsprings, broken bits of everything. It’s crisscrossed by bootlegged electrical wiring tapped off of power poles and strung to the huts. Black plastic water pipes deliver tepid unsanitary water to open barrels outside of homes. Wafting on the wind are the varied scents of creosote, gray water, burning rubber, and decomposing garbage. The skeletons of stripped vehicles bleach and rust in the merciless 106 degree sun. Mangy dogs of every genetic combination wander listlessly among the huts. Compared to the clean streets, clean sheets, and air-conditioned hotels in El Paso, just a few miles away, this seems like a God-forsaken and absurd place.

Tuesday

We work hard all day with little to show for it. Some framework lies on the ground. The circle saws died and delayed us. Over and over, MarKay reminds us not to be discouraged: “It’s called Flexico,” she repeats through the day. Imagine a van with a black interior that’s been locked in the 100 degree sun all day. Imagine crawling into this van and feeling relief from the brutal heat outside. I’m exhausted, and have a pounding headache, and go to bed early. And sleep like a dead man.

Wednesday

Today, with the help of neighbors, we raise the frame and cover the skeleton with plywood. It looks like a house. We feel better about our progress.

Due to the severe heat, we’ve been advised to guzzle huge volumes of water. I drink about 1 ½ gallons a day on the worksite. But this precipitates the bathroom crisis. There is no poorer person than one who has no access to the facilities. In this case, it’s a pad of cement with a toilet plumbed through it, surrounded by blanket walls about four feet high. I’m six feet high. “Banyo por favor?” I knock on the door and am reduced to beggar.

Thursday

Oh, thank God, it’s raining. A tropical storm in the Gulf threw a little relief our way. The Rev. Dan Klooster, director of Gateway Mission Training Center says that the desert will bloom two days hence. This is something I’ve always wanted to see. . .When we arrive delayed to the work site, the rain has filled the house with an inch of water. Adrianna, 9 months pregnant is joyfully mucking the floor when we arrive. I wonder what the insides of the dirt floor pallet shacks look like?

We’re behind schedule. But we’ve adjusted to the heat and the work. Our team has grown efficient and playful. Oddly, the shantytown has started looking like a village. Across the way a man my age is raking the trash in his front yard dancing with his rake, and singing lustily to his Tejano music, the equivalent of Mexican polka music. I show off a few moves of my own with a T-square, and we laugh at each other. This subtle show sends a group of ladies down the street into peals of laughter. I didn’t think anyone was watching.

We end the day running for the vans before a sand-blasting rain squall hits. Dogs hunker with flapping ears and fur turned inside out. A little girl holds her black curls and walks backwards against the wind. I cackle at the absurdity of life. There, some flame-orange flower is blooming defiantly in the sandstorm. That night, we talk one-on-one for hours while strobes of heat lightning flash across the desert.

Mexican driving rules are somewhat different than American rules. It’s survival of the fittest, and since our vans are big and in good repair, we go at top speed—25 mph—through the rutted dirt streets. People wave at us smiling. A little boy sticks out his tongue. The puddles that collected after the rain have incubated 48 hours in the heat and are now fetid green cesspools. But down in the valley, where the soccer goals stand, the sage brush has flushed green and lively. The barren mesas are now verdant. I feel particularly alive this morning. We are going to finish the house today!

Stucco is presents special problems as it defies the laws of physics. A runny dollop of cement on a pallet that we’re supposed to stick to a vertical wall! The first attempts all land on the ground. By 2 p.m. we finish the stucco and stop for lunch, deliriously hungry. Fourteen hours later, with the vesper light on the mesas, we stare in exhausted wonder at our handiwork. How many nails? How many hammer blows? The measuring, the cutting, the fitting, the toil are all finished. IT IS FINISHED.

Datura Metel

Saturday

Dan drives us to the Mercado to shop ‘til we drop. Suddenly we are tourists. Hawkers swarm us as we enter the building. For the next hour the locals fleece us of all money like sheep being sheared—all too easy. But we don’t care. It’s fun, and at least most of the merchants speak English. By the time we eat lunch we are over it—the barrage of hawking that is.

That afternoon we gather with Cesar and Adriana to bless their new home. There is time for testimony, but most of us stare at our shoes shyly. We just can’t seem to find words to describe the welter of emotions and magnitude of grace that has flowed among us this week. We present Cesar and Adriana with bread—that their home may never know hunger—salt—that their lives will always be full of flavor—and apple soda (wine substitute)—that their home will be full of joy; just like in It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart. Our summary statement, is that we built a house, and now Cesar and Adriana will make it their home.

Leaving is a wrenching and emotional process. Suddenly we’re called back into the vans. Tears flow, arms embrace, and then we leave. It’s all so different than we expected. We expected grinding poverty and squalor to oppress and crush the human spirit to despair, but here were people who lived in hope optimism and with mucho gusto.

Driving back to the compound two days after the rain, Dan Klooster was right. The flowers have bloomed in the desert. All around us their blazing gaudy Mexican colors mock the heat and declare the glory of God. All around us the struggle and passion for living mocks the forces of sin and death. A sturdy stucco house blooms in a pallet-hut barrio. Cesar and Adriana bloom as the proud parents of a new baby. Our budding young people are forever changed; time will tell what comes to blossom in their lives.

The wilderness and the desert will be glad, And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom; Like the crocus It will blossom profusely And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, The majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They will see the glory of the LORD, The majesty of our God. (Isaiah 35:1-2)

—Jim

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