Near the end of March I was afforded the opportunity to drive down to Tijuana with a group from my church, SunWest Christian Fellowship, to help build homes for less-fortunate families with Amor Ministries. There were about 130 of us and we drove all through the U.S., camped in Mexico while we were building and then came back up to Canada for a total of 11 days worth of life changing-ness.
There was literally so much that happened on this trip that I don’t think I can write it all down here. Not just events but things changed within me that I haven’t fully processed yet. It was my first time on the trip (compared to most people’s second or sixth or tenth) and I was a huge noob the whole time. So for now I’ll share the bare bones of what we did and maybe write a post later on all the feels I’m feelin’.
The drive down to Mexico was long. Since there were so many in our group, we were all divided into 15-ish-person passenger vans in two convoys of vehicles. I was in the fist van (Alpha) of the first convoy, which included five of the girls I help youth lead; as well as my pastor, Matt; his wife, Lisa; their three little sons; and another driver, Conroy. The drive down was pretty laid back — I think we all took a while to adjust to how tired we were! On the drive our meals consisted of gas station food, fast food, and provided-for-us breakfasts of muffins. On top of all that, we slept in churches both nights we were in the States. One night in Pocatello, ID, and one in Pasadena, CA. That means unrolling sleeping bags and mattresses to sleep on the floor and sharing a bathroom/sleeping space with tons of people at a late hour of the night, only to wake up earlier than you ever have to roll everything up and hit the road again at 7 a.m. Sounds tough, and it seriously took some getting used to, but I’ll remember those times forever and truly wouldn’t change any of it.
^ (Most of) The grade 10 girls. ^
You really got to know people quick on this trip. Even before we got to Mexico, just knowing we were all a part of something so much greater than ourselves helped group everyone together.
^ Once we crossed the border into Mexico (which actually wasn’t half as scary of a process as I had imagined it to be), we took about a 40-minute drive to our campsite. On the way we passed this border (U.S. and Mexico). It seemed to be made of iron, and is apparently 25 feet high, 10 feet deep below ground, etc. Seeing this go on for as long as it did was haunting and gave me my first jolt into the reality of what the people of Tijuana live in. ^
Once we got to our campsite, we set up our tents and had time to unpack our stuff. Before dinner we got to visit the Amor store and explore a little, too. It was a beautiful day that reminded me of summers spent in BC, strangely enough. That night, after dinner, we had our first campfire of the trip and my inspiration/sentimental levels really took off. This was when I knew it was gonna all be worth it, despite how nervous I was for the first build day ahead.
^ (Most of) Build team Echo takin’ a lunch. ^
^ Inside our family’s pre-existing home. ^
Our build site was crazy tiny. Our family’s space was set up so the extension we were building would be in the space behind their pre-existing house. At the end of the trip our build team leader, Josh, told us all that Amor had rated our site as the most difficult amongst the seven other houses being built by SunWest. This was due to how little room there was around the foundation of our house, and how the build space we had for mixing, sawing, etc. was really small in the back of the house (see above photo), or was on the family’s front porch area (which meant all materials would be carried through their house). It was tough! But it made for a cozy workspace and we all got to know each other that much better. I loved it.
^ See what I mean by having hardly any room? ^
At the end of the first build day, which had consisted of laying the foundation and mixing/making concrete (did I mention we had no power tools? Well, we had no power tools. Everything was done by hand on this trip), Sam, one of our church’s translators, came by our family’s home and facilitated a question and answer time. Sam is awesome — he’s originally from Mexico so knows the cultures both of these people and of us, so mediating conversation was done perfectly. Anyways, this part of the day really hit me hard. That’s an understatement — I was shaken. The weight of everything we were doing just consumed me. With the answers our family gave us, and the questions they asked our group in return… I was hit with exactly why what we’re doing is important, in a really raw way, and I also had questions upon questions rise up in me that I still wonder about today. After being asked to pray over our family, which was a huge blessing and only added to my feelings of being overwhelmed, I went over to my friend Sam’s (different than translator Sam) build site where I just cried my eyes out and talked to her about all the feels going on in my heart. She’s seen this kind of living before, and I never had, and she is just the best and helped me make more sense of it all. I love her and I love this life and the world is a different place than I knew it to be before this trip.
The rest of our build days (we had three and a half in total) consisted of tons of measuring, sawing, hammering, lifting, shovelling, tarring, sifting… Hard work! In 30+ C weather! Woof. Thankfully I had the best build team ever, who were all strong, experienced, willing and hilarious. I miss those people. A highlight of my trip was making close-knit relationships with people who I would’ve never really even talked to otherwise.
^ When life gives you lemons, snap a photo? (Drinking lemonade in front of a lemon tree one night at dinner.) ^
Campfires were a huge highlight of this trip for me, especially the last two nights we had them. It was so nice to know campfire would cap off each day — we’d have worship then hear from one of our pastors. On the last night, though, our entire group had the chance to share individual stories around the fire and it was so awesome to see so many people eager to share what they’d experienced and learned on the trip. In the above photo, Matt is sharing on how to make your faith into the home of your heart, rather than just a house. I’m not even going to try to paraphrase him because nothing I say would do his message justice. It hit the heart of everyone listening, and afterwards youth were encouraged to hang out around the fire to receive prayer from us leaders to make a home out of their faith. It was overwhelmingly emotional for me and that, on top of the awe-inspiring worship I had just engaged in, and the night that was to follow around the fire (hearing everyone’s stories), set me up with enough, well… eye-opening-ness… to last a lifetime. Seriously so good.
^ In the words of Ron (one of our adult leaders/drivers), “Leanne! Don’t look at the dogs, don’t touch the dogs, don’t even THINK about the dogs!” (Rabies.) ^
^ On our last build day each build team got tacos, courtesy of SunWest. ^
On our last build day we had a key ceremony to hand over the house we built to our family. One of our pastors, Chris, lead our team’s ceremony. Like the first day’s time with our family, our team was able to ask our family any more questions we had for them and speak blessings onto their home, followed by prayer. This was a really emotional time for everyone involved and, for me, I was happy to just appreciate the moment since I had been hit so hard with the weight of the trip on the first day with our family. They were so grateful and emotional and happy, and I think about them often. What they gave us by showing what it means to truly love people is so much more than we could have ever given them, and the “price” paid to spend four days of our life providing them with a lifetime of shelter and memories and safety doesn’t even compare to one another. I am blessed by the people I experienced this trip with.
^ This is the lineup to get across Mexico and into the States at the border. Yikes! After packing up all our tents and bins and whatnot, we made the trek across the border and into the States where, YES, we got In-N-Out Burger. Hallelujah. ^
^ The jaw-dropping prayer gardens at the church we stayed at in Pasadena. ^
On our way home while staying in Pasadena, everyone got a day off where you could choose to either go to Disneyland or spend the day hanging around Santa Monica. Due to money reasons (and tired reasons, who am I kidding. Sad face), I chose to hang with friends in Santa Monica. It was a really laid-back day that was spent shopping, eating, and playing in the ocean. Happiness.
^ The peeps. ^
^ I’ve taught him well. ^
I was so thankful to experience my first time on the Mexico trip with Tim (his first time, too). Even though I went as a youth leader and he went as a young adult (just means we had different responsibilities and were with different people most of the time), knowing we were each experiencing something so life changing, in the same-but-different capacity, meant the world to me. It would have sucked to come home and try to explain my experiences to him if he hadn’t come, but this way he just gets it, ’cause he lived it all, too! I loved seeing him build his own relationships with people, while still being able to connect with one another at the end of our days in Mexico. Then spending our day together with friends in California just topped it all off and added to my love levels for him even more. He’s my safe place, my comfort. And I love him a lot. A lot a lot.
As you can see, Santa Monica is the definition of photogenic.
The last day of driving was one of my youth girl’s (Kenzie’s) 16th birthday! Even though we had to spend the whole day driving in a van that kind of smelled like feet, I think we made her day as good as it could’ve been, thanks to Vantacular questions and free Starbucks. On the drive home it was hard to believe that the trip had actually happened — did we really just build a house? Have we really been gone for 11 days? Truth be told, I’m still processing everything that happened on the trip and I think I’ll only understand the depth of it all when faced with my day-to-day realities as time goes by. To sum it up, this trip blessed me in more ways than I ever expected. I saw parts of my true self unfold and come to life that I never had before, and now have a greater trust and faith in Jesus than I knew to ever be possible. I hope to harness my experiences and turn them into fruits that can benefit those around me, because if you have something on your heart, you should give it away. That’s the only way it lives. (Paraphrasing via Bruce Cockburn’s “When You Give it Away” — Alpha van’s daily morning drive song.) Mexico, it was real. I miss it all already.