Texas Church Crosses the Border for Ministry
by Jan Snider
JUAREZ, Mexico, Aug. 26, 2008 (UMNS)--The worn, rickety shack resting along the fringes of the parched US-Mexico border seems to mimic the characteristics of its lone occupant.
His face etched with years of hard living, Mr. Antonio crouches in the plywood doorway. His frail body is in a permanent stoop, making it easy to pet a dog tied up to a nearby water barrel.
It's Saturday and Mr. Antonio and his dog wait anxiously for a special visitor, Blanca Rivera, who treks the dirt road with a sack of food for both.
As a member of St. Mark's United Methodist Church, across the US border in El Paso, Texas, Rivera visits often to check on Mr. Antonio's health following his surgery and to make sure he has enough to eat.
Once a week during the school year, St. Mark's members such as Rivera venture to the outskirts of the impoverished community of Juarez to provide food and medical assistance.
They also operate a "Saturday school" to teach basic reading and English to children and adults.
The makeshift school consists of three tractor-trailers formed in a U-shape. Children and their mothers gather in the center to help unload water, food, clothing and school supplies. Within minutes, the students convene inside one of the trailers, painted bright yellow and furnished with discarded school desks.
Leading the group in song is Carlos Chacon, the local pastor, who sees this effort as an essential one. "Most of the people living in this area are squatters," explains Chacon. "They've built houses out of wood pallets and cardboard."
The people are often immigrant laborers who view this barren land as more prosperous than their native areas of Mexico and South America. Saturday school is an opportunity to learn basic reading and English and to worship with the volunteers.
Some have been attending the school during all three years of its existence, and they are anxious to try out their English skills on visitors. "My name is Maria. What is your name?" says a smiling young girl. Maria giggles at the answer and races to play with her friends.
Al Lindstrom, a lead volunteer from St. Mark's, says recent drug wars in Juarez have made the volunteers more careful about how they travel to and from the colonia. For instance, they now travel in groups and never venture to the city.
"Most of the violence has been directed at Mexico residents who are involved in drugs, and there have not been many incidents involving innocent people or Americans," he says. "However, the danger is there. Over 800 persons have been killed so far this year."
The volunteers vow that the political landscape won't affect their plans to break ground for a school building in a few months on land being donated by a St. Mark's member. The church has partnered with St. Stephen's United Methodist Church in Amarillo to build a fully operational school, where they plan to start a preschool program and build up grade-by-grade.
The Saturday school has resulted in Sunday worship services, weekly Bible studies and youth activities. Additionally, the group has organized medical, dental and optical campaigns and they help to make homes more structurally sound.
Lindstrom says the dedication has paid off. "I can't overestimate how strong the mission is becoming," he says. "We have about 40 families in the colonia that are regularly involved in the mission. It is reportedly the second largest church in the area of Juarez."
Inside the trailers, the El Paso volunteers progress through school lessons, but other lessons are taught by example. "One of the most impressive things that is happening is that the colonia families save some of the food that is donated to take to families who are more needy," says Lindstrom.
Recently, St. Stephen's and St. Mark's, two United Methodist churches separated by more than 400 miles of Texas terrain, encouraged the formation of the nonprofit Borderland Missions of Mercy. The ministry oversees the dream of making a long-lasting difference in the lives of their border neighbors.
Chacon says it's already becoming a reality. "There's been a big change. A revolution is going on in this area," he said.
*Snider is producer for United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee.
Date posted: Aug 29, 2008