Spring Break of my Sophomore year of high school was spent with my church on a mission trip south of the border. It was the annual excursion, one the church leaders started planning every October. Each year the church would head down to an area of Mexico they had connections with and visit a poor village, bringing 100 lb. burlap sacks of beans and rice as well as soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, but most importantly we were there to construct a new church building. If it was a village our congregation had visited in the past, we would make repairs to the previously built church. Christian Life Ministries had been doing this for several years.
In a posse of conversion vans hauling enclosed equipment trailers we caravanned several hours through south Texas down to McAllen, crossing the border at Reynosa, and from there heading south for several more hours until we reached Ciudad de Victoria. I had never been to Mexico before and didn’t know a lick of Spanish.
When we checked into our ancient hotel, I thought I stepped into a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The room I stayed in had one flickering naked lightbulb overhead, tossing our shadows across the walls.
Lee Hernandez was sharing the room with me. His parents were Mexican and longstanding members of the church. Lee grew up speaking Spanish at home and spoke it fluently, so we were assigned a room together just in case Lee needed to communicate with whomever if something came up.
Lee and I went to the same high school but he was a Freshman. That’s not what made things awkward between us. What made things weird was this thing I had going on with his big sister Linda. It was one of those things everyone in the youth group knew about, but Linda and I would shrug off. Nothing ever happened, but it was always there. Our fear of The Lord kept our hands to ourselves.
Since my conversion, I had turned into a prude. I was also the product of a teenage pregnancy, so the last thing I wanted to do was accidentally bring a child into the world. I was so petrified of getting some girl pregnant, I resolved to not have sex until I was an adult. I wasn’t saving myself until marriage, I was saving myself till I could afford an oops.
The first day of the mission trip was spent exploring Victoria City. We went to the open markets and cafes, I ate street tacos and drank warm Coca-Colas. But after that, it was all about our mission. The following morning we were on the road before dawn.
We spent hours driving west on dirt roads, into the heart of central Mexico. I remember looking out the window and seeing endless desert sprinkled with saguaro cacti amongst a backdrop of silhouetted mountains. It was so hot the sky was white, as if the sun had melted all color from the sky. Heat waves shimmered off the sand.
We had been instructed to dress according to the local customs, which essentially meant wearing long pants and a long-sleeve collared shirt. No shorts and no short-sleeve shirts. I wore camouflage cargo pants, a blue long-sleeve collared shirt and a red Fresno State Bulldogs trucker’s cap.
We were roughly twenty miles down a sandy dirt road off the main highway (which was barely paved itself) when we reached the first village. Our mission here was to drop off several 100 lb. burlap sacks of beans and rice and flour as well as offer medicines and other sundries, along with a few toys for the children. We were excited.
“OK everybody, settle down, we’re almost there,” the driver said.
I looked out the front windshield. We were at the tail end of a long line of vans.
“Remember now, don’t be scared. Give them a second to get used to you. Especially you, Nate,” the driver continued.
Something caught my eye out the side window. An emaciated gray cow stood up to it’s knobby knees in a small muddy pond.
We passed through a crude wooden fence and the caravan came to a dusty halt. All of us exited the vans and started gathering in a huddle and as the dust settled, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
This little village was straight out of the Stone Age. A small scattering of doorless wooden huts made of sticks and mud were the only domiciles, from what I could tell. I felt like I was in an episode of Land of the Lost and started peering in the shadows expecting Sleestaks to come trundling towards me.
Before Pastor Price could begin speaking, the villagers had already started swarming us with raised hands and hugs. Their half-clothed feral children came running to our feet. They were filthy, with dried mud plastered on their skin, mud caked onto the long matted hair on their heads.
They surrounded me, pulled my arms, poked my skin, amazed at this pale-skinned big kid with blue eyes and blonde hair. They had never seen a white person before.
They had never seen a black person before either and when the alarm went up with whoops and hollers, they ran over to give Lonnie the same treatment they gave me.
“These children have never brushed their teeth,” Pastor Price explained. “They have never even seen a toothbrush. Not even toothpaste. Haven’t seen soap since the last time we came through here five years ago.”
It was explained to me that the stagnant pool of water I had seen earlier, with the skeleton covered in cowhide standing in it, that was this village’s only source of water. For cooking. For bathing. For making adobe bricks. The village had a contract with the government to make adobe bricks, which barely kept them on the outskirts of existence.
“Each person only gets one bucket of that water a month to bathe with,” Pastor Price said. “One bucket a month. That doesn’t sound too bad till you realize that’s only twelve of those buckets a year. And it’s their only source of drinking water.”
I stared back at that death cow standing motionless in that stank pond. It wasn’t even chewing cud because it had no cud to chew. It just stood there, staring back at me.
I handed one little girl a purple stuffed animal and she squealed with so much joy as she ran off to show her friends, it brought tears to my eyes.
I was in no way prepared for this level of deprivation. I thought this stuff only existed in National Geographic documentaries from twenty years ago, on another continent an ocean away. I certainly never fathomed human beings were living in such conditions a mere 20-hour drive from where I lived.
I began questioning what our purpose was, what exactly our mission was being here. What were we really doing? Because there was no way we were going to leave these people, right? There was no way we were just going to drop off a bunch of dried beans and rice and drive off into the desert, never to resupply these poor people for another five years, right?
Or was that, in fact, exactly what we were about to do?
Because that is, in fact, exactly what we did.
As we drove off to the next village, I lost all belief in the ethics of our being there. It made no sense to keep these poor people in such a state of depravity. Either that or it wasn’t our business to stop and meddle in their lives to begin with.
How could we not take them with us? Take one of them to civilization? And then maybe that one would return and rescue his family?
My mind ricocheted with these thoughts. It didn’t make sense. I refused to accept that any one of these villagers were just a two, three-day’s walk from the highway, from salvation.
The only road there is. Just walk down it.
But then what, right? I didn’t think that mattered.
The next village we came to was much bigger and the buildings more established. By that I mean the homes were constructed of random sheets of old plywood roofed with rusty sheets of corrugated metal. Some had doors but most didn’t, just three walls and a roof. Shacks. Some of them had windows but none of them had glass. A few homes had rudimentary fences around them which would then form a primitive promenade, but the village was certainly not much beyond a busy hive of shacks.
Once we unloaded the food and building materials, the women of the village and the women of our church got busy cooking a feast while the men of both camps got busy fixing the little church house we built five years ago.
“They’re going to kill a chicken,” Lonnie told me.
“You gonna eat it?” I asked.
“We have to, man. They’re throwing a celebration. They don’t eat like this except for Christmas and shit. Check it out.”
I followed his index finger and all at once I saw and heard it. A little villager woman was running and screaming after a scrawny brown chicken squawking like mad because the whole time the little lady was waving a knife above her head. Lonnie and I laughed.
We spent the rest of the afternoon patching up the walls and roof of the shotgun church we built years ago. We also gave the exterior of the church a brand-new coat of royal blue paint. Once the work was done, it was time to eat.
We sat cross-legged on the dirt floor inside the church. We gathered in small circles and members of the village served us fresh homemade corn tortillas, scoops of red beans and white rice from the supply we delivered, and a few pieces of the chicken which were dripping with red oil. It was spicy and had a flavor I’d never experienced before. Lonnie and I watched each other eat, trying not to show the grimace on our faces we felt would have been an honest response even if it was rude. One of the Elders gave me the stink eye.
Once all the white people were served, the natives sat down with us and joined in. Soon there was laughter and the volume of our conversations turned up and the scene was festive. Someone noticed a few goats nosing their way inside and one of the wives of the elders screamed and two villagers hopped up and shooed them away.
Once the feast was over and everything removed, it was time to have a church service. A few members of the worship team were with us and stood at the front with an acoustic guitar. After two songs, we started praying in tongues and inviting the Holy Spirit into our midst. Pastor Price stood up and took over.
I don’t know if I was dizzy or sick or what, but I was about to lose it. I was so overwhelmed by what I had witnessed in the last twenty-four hours, I was having a hard time comprehending it was even real and not some movie.
How could God be so unfair?
Why did that little child with mud matted in her hair have to be born to that family living in the desert, subjected to a life of sickness, poverty, and ignorance?
Why was I born to live in relative luxury?
God parted the Red Sea so Moses could lead his people to the Promised Land. Why can’t God help Juanito lead his people to The Highway?
Pastor Price and a few Deacons and Elders had moved to the front of the church and were praying for some of the villagers who were already lining up in front of them. They were piling in from the outside and within minutes people were shuffling around outside, pushing their way in.
They came seeking healing.
They came seeking miracles.
The cries, the screams, the chaotic utterances and wailings, I was sweating like crazy and crying from all this stuff that didn’t make any sense. One of the people Pastor Price brought on the mission trip was some nut who claimed to have the Gift of Teeth Cleaning. These healers were quite common in my Evangelical world. Of all the miracles God could use to prove His existence, of all the miracles God could show us, for some odd reason He had chosen Teeth Cleaning and Leg Stretching. This weirdo started hollering about clean teeth and straightening teeth and everyone else started hollering and laughing and clapping and jumping up and down in a cacophony of glossolalia. This heaving mass of flesh and sweat and bad breath and emotion and the next thing I knew I was in the prayer line directly in front of Pastor Jay.
He looked directly into my eyes and the most kind, genuine smile came across his countenance. He closed his eyes and stretched one open-palmed hand to the sky, the other raised just above the top of my head. As he opened his mouth, I closed my eyes and waited for his hand to plop onto my scalp.
What hit me instead was a rubber mallet of a hand that popped my eyelids off. It was Pastor Price. With a booming “HALLELUJAH!” he shoulder-checked Pastor Jay out of the way.
Before I could identify the particular mix of sweat and cologne, Is that Jovan Musk?, I was cross-eyed and blubbering in tears and my knees buckled and he was pushing my forehead down and I was falling backwards and . . . I was out.
It wasn’t until we were driving back on that rough dirt road in the blackness of midnight that I felt some modicum of emotional self-control return to my being.
The rest of the week went on in this manner. We spent all day and evening going to villages, returning to the hotel late at night just to sleep and do it all over again the next day.
When I returned to school the following week, I had a renewed zeal for Christ. I had rededicated my life to Him, to serving Him and His will. No more turning back.
There would always be poor people in the world, right? The Bible explained that. But at least I could be a missionary, an ambassador, an emissary of God’s future kingdom and His love for everyone, even the poor little brown kids in the deserts of Mexico living in mud huts, to give them hope that one day, yes, one day in Heaven, they too will surely experience the same freedom, luxury, and convenience that I experienced on the daily as an American, in Heaven, if they could only imagine.
If my zeal for serving The Lord wasn’t already sealed, it was about to be.