I am just back from the Baja Peninsula. Not Cabo, or Mazatlán, or Acapulco, but Tijuana. We did not go to soak up the sun on a stretch of white sand beach or to get in a few rounds of golf on a Riviera Maya course. We went to work.
We went to Tijuana, a city of over 2 million people, to work with Spectrum Ministries in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. We were not the experts from America coming to rescue the Mexican people. We were not experts at all. We were pastors and computer programmers, stay at home moms, and loading dock workers.
We did not go to tell the Mexicans who work for Spectrum what to do. We went to be told by them what needed to be done. They were the experts; we were the laborers. Whether we were building a house, visiting an orphanage, or passing out clothing and food, we did it under the direction of the Mexicans who live and work there.
Some of us had worked with Spectrum previously. Most of us, including me, were rookies who did not know what to expect. On our first day, within minutes of arriving at the Spectrum dorm, we were off to a remote neighborhood to pour a concrete foundation.
Readers may assume they know what pouring a foundation in a neighborhood entails but, if they have not done so in Tijuana, they are probably mistaken. The neighborhood lay on the side of a steep, grassless hill on the outskirts of the city. The approach to the neighborhood is on a deeply rutted dirt road that is in places unthinkably steep.
We parked about twenty feet above the postage-stamp sized lot and unbolted – I do not mean unhitched, since we didn’t have a hitch – the portable cement mixer Spectrum owns. We needed to get this heavy mixer down a steep, five-foot incline and had to dig out a spot so that it could sit somewhat level.
We then added many five-gallon buckets of sand and of gravel, along with bags of cement. When mixing was completed, we tipped the mixer so that the cement ran down an improvised trough across another fifteen feet of steep hillside and into one or other of two wheelbarrows that waited below. We did this hour after hour, while those working below shoveled the cement into the forms that had been prepared.
Three days later, we returned to build the house, which is sixteen feet long by twelve feet wide. We got to meet the young, single mom for whom the house was being built, but were glad to know the Spectrum staff had developed a relationship with her and her relatives. They will see her regularly, for they come to this neighborhood every few weeks.
One day, between laying the foundation and building the house, we went to a local orphanage, where we were assigned to various work crews. Some of us cleaned floors while others made minor repairs. Yet others of us went up on the roof to seal seams. When these tasks were completed, we played with the children, who are hungry for attention.
Some people who go on trips like this come home deeply burdened over the poverty they have witnessed. But poverty, like wealth, is relative. The people we met in Tijuana, some living in stark conditions, do not think of themselves as impoverished and are not looking to be rescued by white saviors from the north.
What are they looking for? I gave that a lot of thought and have concluded that they are looking for the same things we all desire: acceptance, reassurance, and love. We offered these things during the week we were there, but Spectrum does so week after week. More importantly, they tell people about the God who has demonstrated his love and acceptance through Christ.
I have come to think that “mission trips” are expensive failures for those who go to provide temporary relief. But when those who go support and enhance the work of those who stay, who week after week demonstrate the love of God, such trips can be an enduring success.
(First published by Gannett.)