For 10 out of the last 13 years during “spring break”, I have joined with members of my local church to travel with 240 high school kids to the border slums outside of Tijuana, Mexico to build homes for the truly less fortunate. We work together in teams of 12 high school kids from across all 4 grade levels and two adult leaders. Many of them have never swung a hammer or cut a board before our mission trips started. It is a remarkable experience on many levels and I will try to articulate a few.
We create 18 building teams, each with a different color name; Blue Team, Pink Team, Orange Team and, as we ran out of colors, the Tie Dye Team. The teams are formed 3 to 4 months before we leave and two "Teen Leaders”, male and female, are selected from applications submitted stating why they want to lead. To qualify, they must have been on at least 2 prior trips. In addition, two adult leaders are selected: one male and one female. Many adults have never been on the trip before and must rely heavily on the teen leaders and the “rovers” or trouble shooters of which, after 10 trips, I am one.
The youth teams consist of 2 or 3 from each grade level working 10 or 12 hours a day, eating together, camping together in close quarters, and taking bucket showers of room temperature water as there is no running water in camp. Showers are a concrete slab so the choice is to have a “sun shower,” which is essentially a bag of water you lay out in the sun and hope it warms a bit, or a bucket of water. You work as a team, report to campfire as a team and travel to and from a very small job site as a team. This closeness tends to break down the high school angst of class divide. Weeks later when that freshman boy meets the eyes of a senior they may feel just a bit differently because they all shared “Team Blue” and worked together for a common goal on their mission. Next, one day these kids will be homeowners, and they may remember some basic skills of carpentry that they learned on the trip. Lastly and most importantly, for a week, these very privileged youth are taken far out of their elements. We ban cell phones (although try to do that 100% of the time) and they see and experience oppressive poverty first hand and help to change the lives of one family. They do it themselves, with their fees for the trip and with their labor, their hands, their rudimentary skills. The smell of the experience alone will linger for years to come and it gives them a chance to momentarily reflect on their great blessings.
For the families we serve, the new home (think a big shed) now has an address so the kids can attend school. They now have a place that is dry and out of the sun. Sometimes we have as many as 11 in an extended family all living in a single house. We use no power tools as we want to set an example and encourage the local family to work alongside our teams. We want them to see that with simple tools - a hammer, saws, nails and measuring tape - they, too, can improve their structure and their lives. Many of us leave our tools behind for the family to use after we disappear.
For me personally, the mission has become part of who I am and I crave the opportunity to experience service and helping. I also want to be closer to my God. Candidly, there is nothing I can think of that I have built with my hands, back and sweat that will last longer than I am alive. Something that may profoundly alters the lives of one family, one child and alters mine as well. I go to Africa to serve, I go to Mexico to build. I go because I am flawed. Trust me, I can whine, covet or lust after many “things”: I want a private jet, I want look like Brad Pitt, I want be Bruce Springsteen or Bill Gates, and I want to run a billion-dollar hedge fund. I know I often need a hard reset on my value equation and take the time to show gratitude to God for the many blessings bestowed on me. I am rich man with a life partner - Barbara that actually loves me with all my wretched ways. I have sons of solid good character, men of brains, ethics, values and love. I have a beautiful home, warm clean water, good food and, if you know me, a few nice bottles of wine and perhaps some Single Malt. I must do a hard reset on my values as often as I am able because it's healthy for me to work in the sun, to need 10 Advil’s a day, a few band aids, some Imodium and Chapstick. Those things remind me of the good fortune I have had and enjoy still today.
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” - Melody Beattie
Via con Dios