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I Learn to Build a Home
I Learn to Build a Home
Recently, I rediscovered the remarkable healing powers of huge Nalgene bottles and several gallons of hand sanitizer.
After all, it’s not every week that I get to travel to Mexico and build a home. And that’s only the short description.
70 high school students and adults from the University Covenant Church of Davis hopped the border during the week of Spring Break – March 22-29, 2008 - to participate in a short-term missions trip sponsored by Amor Ministries.
But we experienced much, much more than just construction work. While I can’t speak for others, I believe that what I learned is pretty much universal, such as learning how to take bucket showers or how to learn people’s names.
I also learned how to solve minute mysteries, to never to believe prank CHP phone calls, how long it takes a gummy bear to melt on a car window, that Mexico does not have daylight savings time, and how to tell where the most reputable taco stands are in Mexico. I learned how to say “I’m free and smooth like butter on a bald monkey” in Spanish and that almost every male in my team loved Bob Marley.
And I learned, of course, how to build a simple home.
Amor is love
Amor Ministries, founded in 1980, describes itself as a Christian organization choosing “to show God’s love through simple, tangible acts of service,” according to its website. Its very name, Amor, means love in Spanish. Through both short and long term missions, Amor mobilizes volunteers and works with local churches in the U.S. and Mexico to minister to the poorest of the poor in Mexico.
Amor has five campgrounds at either Tijuana, Tecate, Rosarito, Cuidad Juarez, or Puerto Peñasco. Once over the border, the scenery changed dramatically. Our eyes were fixed upon banners reading “Welcome, Spring Breakers!” hung over bars and ramshackle taco stands that spewed thick clouds of dark smoke.
We arrived at Rosarito by 4:00 pm on Sunday. A quick glance showed that some ten churches had already set up camp there for the week. Most of the ministries were from California, though one arrived from Oregon and another from Connecticut. The campground we stayed at was a huge tent site with basic camping necessities, meaning meant wooden stalls with deep holes (the banos) in lieu of flushing toilets and dripping water from huge coolers in lieu of running water.
Because Rosarito is on the coast, breezes kicked in as soon as we arrived. "Uh oh," we thought.
We were downwind of the banos.
We had been split into four teams of some 13 students, each supervised by 3-4 adults. Together, we would build an 11’ by 22’, two room home with one door and two windows. The finished product would boast a concrete floor, stucco-finished exterior or weather-sealed roof.
On Monday, for the first time, we met our family – the Ortizes, and encountered several surprises.
The home they had been living in had featured a roof made of plastic tarp, walls made from used scraps of lumber, and an inadequate dirt floor. But when my team arrived on the scene, no house was to be found – it had blown away in a storm just a few months prior. Now, the Ortiz family was living with their neighbors just across the street.
The family consisted of a father, mother, aunt, and two nephews – Victor and Bruno, aged 4 and 3 respectively. The father, Vincente, made $75 a week during his job as janitor to support his entire family.
Mexican families are selected to receive homes by the Mexico Ministry Planning Board (MMPB). The process begins when local pastors discern the need within their own communities, whether or not the family attends the church. Any family who owns or is in the process of owning land can potentially receive an Amor home. The pastors present their nominations at MMPB meetings, where the families are then approved in terms of priority. Even after a family is selected, pastors continue to meet with the families to create biographical sketches on each and to meet their spiritual needs.
Bonding in Mexico took many forms, one of which was indeed lathering up after a long day of work. It also included holding prayer groups and chasing ladybugs.
Every night, our prayer groups, which consisted of the five or six people in our tents, gathered around the campfire to talk about the day and to pray. We were encouraged to be vulnerable that week in front of each other.
Though shy at first – and indeed, we all disliked praying aloud – we eventually talked about our families, both at home and in Mexico, and prayed for not getting injured or sick on the worksites.
Another memorable bonding experience occurred with Victor and Bruno Ortiz. Victor had just turned five on Wednesday and we celebrated by buying him a quesidilla. The look on his face was of pure awe and was, as they say, priceless. It was the first time I had seen him truly smile, as he and his brother were relatively shy children.
Victor and Bruno lived in a community with fields of petite yellow flowers and huge, rolling hills speckled by the sporadic pony. They each had a toy truck that they would sit upon as pseudo-sleds, pushing themselves off of peaks and jostling down towards the dip of a hill.
Once, I watched them collect ladybugs in their closed fists, scampering towards any person in sight to show them. Every time they opened their hands, however, a ladybug would inevitably fly out and Bruno would scream shrilly and run away, laughing. They also offered the yellow flowers to us, picking stems with the most ladybugs on them. Victor once put a ladybug in my hair and started giggling at his ‘prank,’ until I threatened to put one in his hair as well.
The first few days passed quickly, what with sawing, hammering, measuring, framing, mixing, digging and trowel-ing.
Monday, which consisted of making the cement foundation, was supposedly the hardest workday of the week. It involved making and setting a wooden form to pour cement into. We mixed the cement (made of sand, rocks, water, and cement powder) with hoes in black plastic tubs. At the end of the day, we had a gray, rectangular cement slab about five inches deep, which we left to cure overnight.
By the end of the second day, we had built seven walls and two roof sections, and managed to raise the whole frame. Many of us hastened up the wooden frame to sit on the roof, feeling tall added with a sense of accomplishment that the house began to look…house-like.
Soon we began to wrap the house with one layer each of tar paper, bailing wire, and chicken wire stretched flat. This was to prepare for two layers of stucco, which is used as the coating for walls and ceilings. Although we need to mix the stucco, the process was a little easier due to the fact that we were not mixing rock with the cement, sand, and water this time.
The last day was filled with much emotion. We knew it was the last time we would be with our Mexican families, but were excited to give the gift of a sturdy, completed home to them.
It was an incredible moment.
Thanks to the high level classes of Spanish that some of my peers had reached, we had on-the-site translators. We gathered inside the home to pray and express love for each other and for God. Vincente Ortiz was handed a key, which acted as a symbol of safety and stability for his family in an old traditional dedication ceremony.
During the week we were there, 46 Amor homes were built in the community we were working at. We had built four of them.
By taking part in providing the gift of a simple home, we experienced both sides of giving and taking. We had a glimpse into the community described in The Book of Acts chapter two, where all those who were baptized in the Christian faith shared equally all their possessions and goods at ate their meals together with “gladness and simplicity of hear, praising God and having favor with all the people” (versus 46-47).
Participating in this kind of trip was not about feeling good about myself, doing something ‘cool’ on Spring Break, or racking up community service hours. The trip triggered a life transformation after nights of heart-to-hearts with kids at school who I’ve never previously talked to and exposed me to what I believe is the big picture.
Throughout the course of the week, I had come to place where, without thought, I had adjusted to seeing poverty, and instead of being threatened, found comfort in these new surroundings.
Most importantly, I saw love in change. It's like Bob Marley sang, we're all "One love, one heart.
Let's get together and feel alright."