I’m not sure when it happened. Maybe it was while rocking a baby to sleep under a clunky ceiling fan while his mother rolled out tortillas in a cramped kitchen.
It might have been when I sat cross-legged on the dusty floor of a makeshift schoolroom, teaching two wide-eyed little girls how to weave colorful bracelets out of rubber bands.
Or was it while balancing the lid of a paint can in one hand and a brush in the other, dancing around a gaggle of children doing their best to help me coat an outhouse in green paint?
Like I said, I can’t be sure. But at some point during my week in Vicente Guererro, Mexico, something clicked, and I knew I had tapped into work I will continue for years.
This wasn’t my first international road trip. That was in 2013, when I got in a van with 25 people I knew vaguely from Sunday service. This time, I was among friends. That included my niece, a former teacher and two members of a worship band I sing in. More than half of our group were in their teens. Many were brand new to mission work. Only a handful of us could carry on a conversation in Spanish. One man had completed this trip 18 times.
Hitting the road
Two vans and a trailer’s worth of suitcases, sleeping bags, clothing donations, hygiene kits and coloring books came with us. The drive to California’s southern border took up the whole of Saturday. We stopped for the night at a hotel so close to the border that the second floor balcony allowed clear views of Tijuana.
An early start the next day brought our caravan to Ensenada, for lunch and supplies, then La Bufadora, for an hour or two of shopping in market stalls run by enthusiastic vendors. A few more hours over winding and bumpy roads and we arrived at Heart Ministries. The complex looks a little like a summer camp, with two long rows of cabins forming the corner of a dusty courtyard. There’s a basketball hoop, a volleyball net and three sets of wooden bleachers around a stone fire pit. A kitchen and dining area are to the south, past the communal bathrooms. The place has gone by many names, but its goal is to host traveling church groups while they spend four days building a house for a family in need.
Starting the build
First thing Monday morning, we dressed in work clothes, applied sunscreen and headed out to the build site about a mile away. There was a pile of lumber, aluminum trim and roofing materials on a 15-by-20-foot slab of concrete set into the side of a hill. Looking west, there was a clear view to where the open sky hit the ocean. Our group knelt in a circle around the concrete to pray together over the foundation of the home we would build. I placed my hands on the slab, already warm in the morning sun, and thought about the family who would live here, praying for their safety and their happiness.
It didn’t take long for our group to focus on separate tasks. A few teenage girls played soccer with local boys and girls. Others looked over the plans for the house. The boys lined up beams and counted out each piece. I did what I do best: Make friends with small children. A toddler clung to her mother’s skirt, peeking out at me. I sat on the ground near her feet to make faces, tap her nose and tell her how pretty her hair was. We were fast friends.
Other little girls came over to join the circle. One attempted to braid my short hair. Another plopped into my lap so I could braid hers.
Did I mention I don’t speak Spanish? When you smile a lot and have good intentions, the language doesn’t matter.
I looked around at the rest of the crew beginning to pound in hundreds of nails and grinned. I’m a big fan of doing what I’m good at, and that doesn’t include swinging a hammer.
However, there was one teen I wanted to keep my eye on. My niece, Katelyn Cribb, had joined me this year. She’s a hard worker who loves kids and doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. I found her running the chop saw like an expert, surrounded by three boys and Lodi High School teacher Brad Friesen serving as her assistants. They were measuring, marking and stacking every beam she cut, and she was in charge. That’s a mental image I won’t forget.
But like we were told by Jason, a Canadian-born missionary who volunteers his time to help build these homes, this trip is not necessarily about the house.
The house will get built; the design is simple and all the supplies are ready. It’s more about our attitudes and open hearts when we’re talking with the locals, playing with kids or even just spending time with one another.
I realize objectively, that at 25 years old, I’m an adult. I’ve been out of high school for longer than I ever spent in it. It still shocked me when the teenage volunteers asked me for permission to break for lunch.
“Why don’t you ask an adult?” I said absently. They just stared. Oh. Right. Go ahead and eat.
A different kind of mission
The girls of the group spent two days midweek away from the build site to help out at New Beginnings, a halfway house for abused women and their children. It’s a nonprofit run by a woman named Dorothy. She began it three years ago when she realized there weren’t any safe options for women in the area who need to leave their abusive relationships. Right now, there are six women and several children who call the place home. It was incredible to watch Dorothy run the house. There’s always cooking, baking, crafting and work going on.
I confess, I went in with the wrong attitude. I thought these were downtrodden women who needed my help. When Dorothy asked what skills we had, I offered crochet. I’ve made a scarf or two in my time. How hard could this be?
I went in the craft room, met a woman named Rosarita and searched for a crochet hook. I made some simple rows and looked over at her. Beautiful, intricate flowers were blooming in her hands. She used the most petite hook I’ve ever seen. Each rosette was perfect.
The next two hours were spent in hunched frustration as she tried to show me how it was done. My large, clumsy hands could not recreate her deft movements. She grinned and shooed me out of the room so she could get to work.
Rosarita didn’t need my help. She needed me to get out of her way. I did, and I won’t make that mistake again. I’m more useful in a kitchen, where I helped make dozens of tiny tarts and trays of chocolate chip cookies.
Worth the effort
It was a long week. Everyone got a little sunburned, a little dehydrated and a little desperate for a cheeseburger. But the house went up. We donated piles of clothes and shoes to a local Bible school teacher. And Dorothy sent us home with a list of things we could bring next year to help her house flourish.
I don’t know who is getting the better end of the deal when it comes to this kind of mission work. Sure, a family ends up with a new, safe home and lots of people end up with new clothes and shoes.
But we volunteers wake up each morning with time to pray and plenty of opportunity to spread kindness and our own faith to people who might not have a relationship with Jesus. We get to spend seven days with our church family, not caring about our cellphones or email or work. There’s time to breathe and stretch and work until we’re tired.
Something about doing this work feels right to me. I plan to make it a habit.