The night before we left for Juarez, Mexico our team of three had dinner at La Capilla restaurant in Torrance, California to get us in the mood for our trip. After being filled with enchiladas and tacos, we walked out and a guy overheard us saying that we would be picking each other up at 4:00am in the morning. This immediately sparked his interest and he asked us where we were going. Our reply was Mexico. He inquired further, “What city?” We told him Juarez. He offered to get our numbers to check up on us and feared for our safety. What a great way to start a trip.
Our trip to Juarez, Mexico was a life changing experience and it could never be given justice in an article or even a documentary film. You had to be there. Although this experience cannot be replicated or even shared in its fullness it will not remain in Mexico. I got a couple of souvenirs from a gift shop but this is not the only thing that I brought back with me. I returned with an unexpected faith and passion for God. Here are some snapshots of this faith and passion from my journal:
The city and the people
Been in Juarez for four hours and a taco vendor tried to stiff us because we are Americans. 5,000 people have been killed in the last three years. That is a long time to deal with a hopeless environment. The crime, poverty, and corruption can take its toll on you. Juarez is like the wild west. The law is under the control of the cartels. The federales seized guns from them and they broke into the station and stole them back!”
Went to a cultural dance showcase. I did not know there were so many varieties of culture in Mexico. I really like being here. Today we are going to the worst part of Juarez called Alta Vista and then later on tonight we will go to give hot chocolate and cookies to the homeless.
The city of Juarez is known for its crime and for right now being one of the most dangerous places in the world. One of the things that first strikes you about the city is that the people are very happy and upon first inspection you would not know that there have been 10,000 people murdered in the last three years. The presence of the federal police with their masks and automatic weapons quickly alerts you to this reality.
Our visit to Juarez gave us a picture of exciting and poignant contrasts. As we drove through one of the worst neighborhoods in Juarez we noticed shacks and squatters along the unpaved muddy roads. At the same time all we had to do was turn around and see the view of El Paso across the border and the massive University of El Paso as a symbol of American affluence. It was a very insightful and disturbing moment. To see such affluence only a few miles from utter poverty. There was an immediate consciousness of my American identity and all of the privileges that comes with being a United States citizen.
Juarez is a city of broken dreams much like any major urban area.
I also realized how little I knew about Mexico. We had the opportunity to go to a buffet restaurant and during our time we got a chance to catch a cultural dance showcase. I have known Mexican people all my life and live only a few hours from the border and yet I did not see the richness of its cultural treasures. It was really eye opening to see the different aspects of Mexican culture and I am sure that I did not get the full breadth of it.
As we traveled all over the city I began to develop a heart for the people living there. I know that I could not continue to live there in the face of such hopelessness and despair and yet many remain to run their businesses, teach children, and live their lives. Some have hope in spite of everything they see and others do not see any other option but to plod along. Being there in the midst of it caused me to grieve for the city and my heart burst with compassion for the children who have to grow up in such a violent environment.
The church and the mission
Went to the Assembly of God church and preached. The kids really loved my rapping. One girl Rosario asked me to adopt her. What are we doing for the future of the children of the world? A glimpse of genuine Christian community. This group of Christians do not call themselves a church they call themselves a “community.” They love each other so much that they hang out with each other sometimes past midnight. Israel got land donated from a businessman to build a community center. Going to preach at a street crusade. 40 people were killed in the area in the last month. Cartels used dead bodies as speed bumps in the street. Last night was so amazing. I loved the worship time-the girls with the banderas and the people dancing.
We were invited to Juarez by our sister church VX Juarez which was initiated by Israel Robles. Israel managed to gather about sixteen people from Juarez to do church in a different way that resonates more with the ministry of Jesus. There is no hype or fanfare, just a group of people who have committed to being community for each other and following Jesus in the purest sense. They meet together and share the Word. They care for each other and pray for each other. In the summer they are involved in a mission road trip called Terra Tour. It is just like Jesus and his disciples traveling to minister in first century Palestine. The only difference is this road trip spans fifteen Latin American countries!
They have chosen to remain small and focus on blessing the community. When we arrived in Juarez, Israel told us of plans to build a community center to offer job training and classes on sustainable living and that they were just praying for the land. The next day he was offered a plot of land from a local businessman who had heard of his plans and wanted to see something different happening in Juarez. It was definitely God orchestrated. I believe Juarez is a place where you have to step out in faith and this was a time where I saw that faith rewarded.
We went to go serve the homeless and although going into downtown Juarez at night is not recommended, it turned out to be a very rich experience. It was not as dangerous as I had imagined and I believe that many times we shortchange God and his protection. Talking to the homeless and hearing some of their stories made me realize how much Juarez is a city of broken dreams much like any major urban area. Juarez collects broken dreams even more so because of its position as a border town. So many people from all over Central and even South America travel here to get to the United States only to remain stuck in Juarez. This is a story that we heard from many as we gave out hot chocolate and cookies.
During our stay I was asked to preach at an Assembly of God church and at the end of my preaching I asked if anyone would like to receive prayer in response to the message. About eighty percent of the church walked up to the front to receive prayer. I realized that this was not about how great a preacher I was but how hungry and desperate for God the believers in Juarez are. The conditions they have to live under provoke them to seek God’s intervention. I began to see how much the comfort of America had caused my faith to grow cold and how much I trusted in my own resources, skills, and technology and not in the power of God. It was amazing to see this same phenomena happen again at an outdoor street rally that was hosted by another church. I preached and called the people up and the whole church came up for prayer. It was overwhelming. The sound of the worship music and the people’s cries to God were a boost to my passion and faith that God can do the impossible. This church was right in the neighborhood where the drug cartels operate and the people are constantly in prayer. They live out their trust in God everyday and they are desperate for God to change the situation in Juarez. I thought to myself “Am I as desperate for God to change Los Angeles? Am I on my knees in prayer with that kind of desperation?”
Aftermath and passion
Stories of Terra Tour inspire me to give my all to Christ. God I want more of you. More faith! More risk! I think we came here to bless Israel and and the folks in Juarez but I also believe that God wants us in a receiving position. We are supposed to take something away from this that we will not get anywhere else. So we definitely need the mindset of learners. Last night Dan and I talked about Mexican culture and do we feel bad being Americans – American Christians. It is because our culture seems to work against what God wants to do. It is so routine, programmed, and predictable. Yet at the same time there are aspects of our culture that represent godly values like freedom of religion, tolerance, limits of human power, etc. It also made me think how no culture is all good or all bad. It is our mandate to honor God within the culture. Every time I go away to a place where people are in poverty, I realize how much clutter and useless junk is in my house and in my life.
Although I did buy some great souvenirs like a luchador mask (Mexican wrestler. Think Nacho Libre) for my son, I came back from Juarez stripped down and lighter. The burden of living up to the standards of our materialistic and task-oriented society was lifted off of me. The truly important and weighty things of life bubbled up to the surface of my heart. Things like God, family, relationships, and the passion of seeing God’s blessing being passed on to others have become more of a priority than ever before. To see the passion of the followers of Christ in such a dangerous city and their heart to serve him in that kind of environment showed me how apathetic and complacent I have become. It also showed me how versatile and resilient the Christian faith is. It can grow and blossom even in a place like Juarez where crime and poverty have ravaged so many lives. This experience showed me that even in a place where hope seems dried out and life seems barren God is “making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19)
Going on this pilgrimage to Juarez has caused me to be reborn. It has reminded me of some things that I have known for quite a long time but were buried by the everyday stress and blur of life in America. One way that I have chosen to remember and keep the things that God has placed on my heart is to write down the specific lessons and principles that God has reminded me of and taught me during the trip.
1. Pray like mad!!! (Like you really want something from God.)
2. Everything is not so serious. Have faith in God.
3. The Kingdom of God is everything.
4. God is concerned with one thing: Relationship with him.
5. God has a heart for the nations and I want to have this same heart.
6. Have a vision that is big enough for God.
Now I am back in the States and life is back to normal. There are bills to be paid and deadlines for my seminary classes. There are problems to be sorted out and plans to be made for our church community. Although these things are the everyday mundane things that can be stressful and make life chaotic at times they are now seen through a different lens. It is a lens that I received from our trip to Juarez and the lessons that I learned there. Continuing to keep these lessons before me is why what happened in Mexico will not stay in Mexico.