In December of 2009, I traveled to Reynosa, Mexico with my sister and her church family. I wanted to go for many reasons – I love to travel, I love to help people, and she was going to be well along into her pregnancy at the time and someone had to watch over her! I had some concerns as well – I do not understand nor speak Spanish very well, I am a klutz and the goal was to build a house, and I have never built a house. After praying about it, I signed up and had amazing support from family and friends to help cover the costs and the concerns of the trip.
A couple days before the trip started, my husband and I traveled to St. Louis to spend Christmas with my sister and her husband’s family. We left for Mexico on December 26, 2009. The excitement amongst the group was palpable. For many of us, this was our first trip to Mexico. For others this was another year added to their time and relationship building with the people of La Colonia. I remember feeling very welcomed, but also being very nervous as I was not sure how I was going to help this great group. I still didn’t know how to build a house. I had not brushed up on my Spanish as much as I would have liked. Yes, I was there to help keep my sister safe, but really what was I going to do if something happened? I treat animals, not people! I was second guessing my role and my intelligence for making this trip. As we sat around playing “Phase 10” at the airport, suddenly a woman came up with an assistance dog in training. She explained that she was getting this pup used to the crowds in airports and exposing it to different circumstances so that it would be prepared to handle these situations in the future. I realized that this assistance dog in training and I had a lot in common. I didn’t know what to expect, but God was providing me with situations in which to grow and learn, to build upon for my future.
La Colonia is located between the Rio Grande and the levee system to protects the rest of Reynosa from flooding. This is where Strategic Alliance (strategicalliance.org) has focused on helping the people of Reynosa. Strategic Alliance is based out of Texas, but has the mission of improving homes, living conditions, education, and health care. This often forgotten segment of the population lives in desperate poverty and many people are pulled into addictions and prostitution because there are no other options for them. In 1993, they began building homes through their “Homes for the Homeless” outreach, since then over 1,000 homes have been built. Rooftop Community Church provides a group of people now twice a year (the week after Christmas and once in the spring, usually the week after Easter) that goes to Reynosa to help. When you first step out of the van into La Colonia, you experience a “punch in the gut.” The homes that the nationals have made for themselves are pieced together with scraps from the dump, which is also located between the Rio Grande and the levee. The children and dogs wander the streets with chickens and goats. Some animals are tied to fences and trees. You see the sadness, but you also see the excitement that “someone is getting a home this week!”
Looking down a tree lined street in La Colonia, Reynosa, Mexico Dec 2009
A dog standing on a pile of debris in La Colonia, Reynosa, Mexico Dec 2009
When we arrived, Reynosa was having an unusually cold period, with temperatures in the low 50s F (normally it is closer to 70F), and it was rainy for much of the week as well. The families were burning plastic and whatever they could find to stay warm. The wind would whip through the holes in the walls of their current homes and they would be bundled in all of the clothes that they owned, sometimes sharing with their neighbors that did not have enough as well.
The family that I was assigned to help had four people living in two “rooms” – with one bed and a small chair in the largest room and a stove of sorts in the smaller room. The dust was so thick in the home that I could barely breath, but they welcomed us in and shared everything they had to keep us comfortable.
“My” Family’s original house. Dec 2009
For the next 3 days, I did a lot of painting and carrying, but mostly, I interacted with the children that were starved for attention. With my minimal Spanish and their nonexistent English, we began to communicate with smiles, laughter, song, art, and hugs. There was a tree in the yard that was covered in caterpillars that we held and discussed. We drew pictures and read stories from books that we brought to leave with them. My family had two dogs that I treated for intestinal parasites and fleas, I showed their son how to care for the dogs as well. I wish I could have done more, but there is only so much you can do in one week!
One of the caterpillars from the tree
Painting – no training necessary!
Reading in Mexico – picture books with descriptive words are great!
We built a house, We gave a family a home. We made a lot of new friends. We touched hearts. We shared the love of Christ. Could we have done it without God? Yes, you can make friends, build homes and relationships, you can touch lives. For me, it is so much more than just those things. I often compare wanting to share my love of Christ with people that want you to see your favorite movie or your food. You want to share because it means something to you, you want to make the other person’s life richer in some way. To me, Christ in my life is more than any of those things. I have a sense of peace and grace that surrounds my heart, mind, and soul. I want to share that with you. I won’t force it on you. I won’t dislike you if you don’t believe like I do. I will still love you and will still pray for your safety and happiness. I believe there is so much more to life than what we see today.
The new home is almost ready!
As we worked on the houses (our group worked on two houses, so we had a friendly competition going), we had men, women, and children coming from all over La Colonia to help. Some had the joy of having a house built for them in the past, others hadn’t but were excited that others were receiving this gift. You may ask how the families are chosen, there is more information on the Strategic Alliance website, but basically, local pastors chose the families. All of the families are in need, so it is a touch choice, but luckily there are people willing to go down throughout the year that more houses are being built. I think that the week we were there, over 100 homes were built. It was amazing!
“My” family as they got the keys to their new home!
Inside the new home
Inside the new kitchen!
A week of interacting with the two families that Rooftop helped, as well as lots of kids from La Colonia, was transforming. I found just as the new homes and relationships were being built, I was also being rebuilt. My fear of doing everything wrong was replaced with a willingness to take a chance of putting myself out there.
My thoughts began to change as well. How often as citizens of the USA, do we think to ourselves that we don’t have enough, that we can’t afford something, that we feel like we are never moving forward? I know that there are many people in the USA that struggle from week to week and day to day, that there are people without jobs, homes, or food, but we have places that are set up to help. There are opportunities for advancement if you are willing and able to move forward. Most of the people I speak with on a daily basis, have money to do certain things, but choose not to. Everyone has a vice, be it chocolate or coffee or cigarettes or alcohol, maybe it is clothes or shoes or cars. We all make choices that allow us to have “enough” money for the things that we want, but then may complain that we don’t have “enough” for what we need. After seeing the severe poverty in Mexico and Nicaragua, I feel more compassion for those that are struggling, but also feel more irritation for the situations in which people make claims of poverty when they are really dealing with the outcomes of poor decision making and/or planning. I have been working on making a conscious effort of not saying “I can’t afford that,” but rather saying, “I am choosing to not spend my money on that.” As the old saying goes, “Your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency for me.” Does this stop me from helping people, not at all. Everyone gets in a bind
“My” family’s dogs, it’s hard work building a house!