One of the reasons I love to go on mission trips is that I just love to spend time with the other people who go on the trips. It must be something about “kindred souls.” I find the people willing to take a week out of their routine and leave the comforts of home behind are the kind of people I want to spend my time with. They’re invariably a low-maintenance and relaxing bunch to be around. They are the kind of folks who don’t mind sleeping on the floor surrounded by about 10 other people. Who don’t mind waking up at 5 am to drive for an hour just so they can wear their bodies out in a hundred degrees of vicious sun. These are people who don’t get upset if it rains on you at the beach because, hey, you were planning on getting wet anyway, weren’t you?
The group I went to Mexico with last week was an unusually good group of people to hang around with. They were a hearty lot. I think it helped that Damon got his bluff in early with this group when he told the story of the year he shaved the eyebrows off a boy who kept sleeping late.
Only about half of us were from my church. The rest were personal friends of the trip leaders, Damon and Annette Renaud.
Annette’s father, Diantin Guerra, started Faith Ministries after working for another Presbyterian group Puentes de Cristo.
Diantin is a former presbytery moderator and an elder. He had a sporting goods store in Brownsville when Annette was growing up until the peso was devalued and he had to shut the doors. Then Puentes de Cristo needed a bi-lingual administrator and ask him to come work for them. Like Faith Ministry, they build houses for the poor. But they eventually went from building houses to building bigger buildings like hospitals and churches. It became harder to get volunteers because it’s just more fun to build a house for someone you’ve met and worked with. So, in 1994 he started Minesterio de Fe, Faith Ministries, and took with him the contacts he had made with churches throughout the PCUSA.
The complex we worked on is the third town Diantin has worked in. He would go into a poor town and look for the town dump. That’s where the poorest of the poor lived, the people who survived off the food and materials they found in the garbage. Ministerio de Fe would build a small cement-block house next to the one made of cardboard and tin. This work is perfect for volunteers: you can build an entire house in one week and the skills needed are minimal. When the house was finished, they would have a dedication ceremony of sorts back at the church and the family could move into the house and either tear down the old one or use it for storage.
The great thing that usually happens after Faith Ministry starts working in a town is that the town officials will take notice and start paving the roads in the area and putting in utilities. Then the group starts building a complex of church sanctuary, dormitories for volunteers, clinic and community center. We worked on the third complex outside of Reynosa, Mexico.
Not all the roads in the town are paved—far from it. The potholes there have potholes. They are deep. I expected to find a lost animal inside one. When it rained and filled them you never knew what to expect when you drove through one. Several times the axle of the van hit hard enough to scare us that major damage had been done. Write this number down: 283153. If you ever rent a fifteen passenger van from Capps Rental in Garland, make sure you don’t get this one.
Damon and Annette have been going every summer since Annette’s father started in 1994. They brought friends who haven’t missed a year since. The young adults I met this year must have been in junior high when they started out and now they’re seasoned veterans who know exactly what to do once they get the shovel in their hands.
Concrete work is hard. Can I make it more clear than that? It’s heavy and wet and caustic. When it’s mixed, it has a milkshake consistency that oozes down into your shoes and rubs between your socks and your skin. More than one person left the first day with nasty sores on their ankles. Some had blisters on their hands. And that was just the first day. The second day everybody went in with appropriate bandages that almost immediately got soaked with another wave of wet concrete. So, one of the benefits of the trip to South Padre Island on the last day is for the healing properties the salt waters offer.
Every day but one we would break for lunch around 11. The sandwiches had all been made the night before and kept cool until lunch. Everybody got two sandwiches with the understanding that if you didn’t want your second one you gave it away to the Mexican volunteers who were working there. At Noon we would go across town to the First Presbyterian church (built by Faith Ministries) for a short worship service. There was lots of singing and visiting with old friends (mostly people whose house you may have worked on years before .)
Different people on our team would introduce me to a child they were sponsoring in school. There’s no public school and poor people don’t have the $400 tuition so many volunteers end up sponsoring a kid. I met a set of twins, Paula and Paulina, that have different sponsors right now but someone said there has been a set of twins volunteer this year who want to sponsor them for the next school year.
Our group this year was smaller than usual. So, instead of building a house for a family like this group usually does, they told us we were going to level and pour the foundation for the church sanctuary. Sounded kind of cool to me: laying the foundation for a church. After a day in the sun and not making much progress (Hey, it’s a big sanctuary.) the church people decided we should instead pour the finishing layer of concrete on the floor of one of the dormitories. The dorm building is two story and divided into two sections on each floor. I guess the two sections are to separate the sexes but when I went into the section where “hombres” was written on the door I saw that the bathroom was marked “mujers.” Maybe they got a little confused. But what it amounted to was mixing and pouring about one or two inches of concrete on a floor that I measured to be about 20X25 feet.
We started out mixing the concrete right there in the room. They rigged up a pulley system so we could haul up buckets and buckets of sand. Then someone would carry a one hundred pound sack of cement up the stairs. And when I say “someone” I’m meaning either sex. One of the things I learned on this trip is that girls are every bit as strong as boys. Some of the best concrete mixers were the chicks. It didn’t seem to follow a particular body style, either. The most petite and fragile looking girl out of the bunch could out-shovel some of the tallest and sturdiest men. It does matter, however, how old you are. I took one confident scoop of concrete and went to lift it and the muscle just wasn’t there. It send me an “on vacation” message. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. And I wanted to do the work so bad. It made a beautiful ballet when the crew was scooping, turning and tapping the shovel on the mix to test its consistency, all working in rhythm together.
We started pouring the finished concrete, bucket by bucket, in the far corner and worked our way toward the door. By the time they got the floor done they had only the spot by the door. Everybody was out of the room by this time and it became a one person job, especially since the balcony in front of the door was only about 2 feet wide.
A song had been going through my mind all day, “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ Our Lord.” I asked if anybody had their pocket cross and wanted to put it into the concrete; it would make for a small touch of rebar but would leave a little piece of us in the floor. Beaven produced his right there on the spot. A couple of days later we did the other half of the second story and Katy Pearson offered hers. I promised her I would make sure she got another one. The cross sunk into the concrete and no one will ever know it’s there except us. But, like I told Katy, there’s a piece of herself now left in Mexico.