A brilliant young man named Max was in charge of all the details of the mission trip to Mexico. His signature look of a T-shirt and jeans was accompanied by tousled light brown, or rather, dirty blonde hair. He hid his big blue eyes behind a pair of square glasses. Although his look was casual, the skillful way he handled the difficulties on the trip were anything but.
The giant bus used to drive into Mexico completely broke down immediately upon arrival. A set of replacement vehicles had to be found, as well as securing a night’s stay for over 50 people at a motel. This incident prevented a day trip into a dangerous part of Tijuana. As a last-minute attempt to make the most of the day, teams were split into “street evangelizing” and making stops in the worst of Mexican slums to invite people to an evening street church service.
This experience was beyond shocking to me. So many homes were scattered all over the dirt and gravel pathways. These “houses” were shacks made of scrap wood, with random pieces on top for the roof. The fancier roofs were made of a metal sheet, and some lucky ones had a few rubber tires placed on top, probably to keep the roof in place. There was no such thing as foundation, electricity, or running water.
It was not clean or sanitary. There was rubbish everywhere. There were pigs running around. Little children were everywhere! This filthy living situation was their everyday life! It was like a messy makeshift playhouse, except it was a real living place for a family.
But, wait, there’s more.
The smell. Just one whiff sent a shudder through my body. There was no sewer system on these types of streets. The stench was unbearable.
In spite of this extremely uncomfortable day, there wasn’t much complaining. What needed to get done got done. The whole day operated in a perfectly choreographed manner. We later found out the place we were supposed to visit with our bus had a gang shootout, and several tourists, in a bus similar to ours, had been fatally shot.
The remainder of the trip consisted of sweat-filled hours of driving into the heart of the Mexican country. The sun was scorching hot; there was no air conditioning. We visited orphanages, prisons, labor camps, and a local church.
One of the stops had a tiny wooden outhouse. It was dirty, and had a makeshift toilet seat inside. Something about it was vaguely familiar.
Just then I had a flashback. My family had grown up in a village in Ukraine, and we had a similar outhouse. Except it had no makeshift toilet; it merely had a deep hole in the dirt. Our house had normal floors, but no running water or plumbing inside. We moved to the United States for freedom from religious persecution. I had somehow forgotten where I came from, and had quickly gotten used to the nice things!
I looked around at what was happening on this mission trip.
We were connecting to humans on a basic level. We prepared and ate tamales together. We cleaned up. We handed out care packages. Not everybody understood each other, but that didn’t matter.
We sang songs. Prayed. Played. It felt so natural. It felt like we were all part of a big family. Instead of being devoted just to oneself, each person expressed selfless concern for others. There was a cheerful attitude towards life that was unfamiliar to me.
I thought back to how I grew up. Smiling too much was frowned upon in my community. Laughter was completely inappropriate! Anytime a funny riddle or joke resulted in laughter, it was stopped abruptly by a reprimand from James 4:9 along the lines of “don’t laugh too much, or else your laughter will be turned to crying!” Life was a very serious ordeal.
The environment in Mexico felt so different. Was this how I, as a human being, supposed to really be treating others? Thinking about how somebody else’s life could be improved, and not being burdened about it? Was I supposed to enjoy helping others, and oh my goodness, actually encourage others to it? But what about me? And my stuff? What about the money I earn? Isn’t it to help build up my life, and to buy things for myself? Isn’t it my duty to take care of myself and my family? To keep my little circle tight and don’t meddle in others’ business? There are other people who can help others out, people who have nothing better to do, or perhaps who don’t have a family. There’s the government. It’s none of my concern.
All these thoughts swirled around in my mind. I thought of the wealthy families I knew. Yes, they had beautiful houses, fancy cars, and fashionable clothes, but they had plenty of their own problems. They were humans after all. What would this world be without any problems? I wondered if they were happy, if they enjoyed life. What was the purpose to their lives?
We crossed the border back into San Diego on foot.
The adventure was still at peak level. More rental vehicles had to be arranged on this side of the border and we proceeded with the return trip. Max navigated the challenges of the trip with superb competency.
The modern day conveniences and what had been the reality for the past week were in stark contrast. Only after walking through slums can one thoroughly appreciate the luxury of a flushing toilet. Yep, even if it wasn’t a glamorous toilet, and it was falling apart, as they usually are at gas stations. How wonderful it was to have a faucet where water poured out onto my hands by a simple twist of a handle. Even if it was cold water! My perspective widened dramatically. I marveled at green grass and houses that had real roofs. So many things I took for granted and didn’t even realize how lucky I was.
I was grateful for this momentous mission trip opportunity, for through it God opened my eyes and shifted my paradigm of life. I began to critically question everything I was ever taught about the Christian faith and God.