It happened once upon a time in Mexico. It was summer vacation and a whopping 30 of us from the Youth Group had amazingly convinced our parents to let Mark and Richard take turns driving us down to El Paso, Texas in Gus the Bus. There were windows down, kids screaming over one another to be heard, candy wrappers on the floor, bubble gum flavored lip gloss, sweaty armpits and the whole works—and more often than not, at the helm, blond mullet flapping like freedom in the wind. From there we would board a train and travel 36 hours together toward the heart of Mexico: Mexico City.
There’s simply no experience like it in the world. And it has to be accomplished while in the teen years, or it completely loses its charm. Youth Pastors and their volunteers are extremely special people and should be seen by their adult peers as taking one for the team. Mine are endeared to me for all of time. Hug one next time you see one.
Mission Trips are an important part of every Evangelical’s life. Not only do they allow a person to put Christ’s call to love one’s neighbor into practice in a real and meaningful way, but they also give a person in their role as “temporary missionary” the opportunity to see the world a bit. Expand one’s horizons so that we can be more appreciative of what we have.
Scott and I had taken a seat at the back of Gus, with Amy and Matt across from us. But as we were engaged in some kind of teary discussion most of the way, we were no doubt about as fun to talk to as a couple of death row inmates with personality disorders. Every now and then, Amy and I would make eye contact, at which point I would roll my eyes up to the ceiling of the bus as if to say that I could not believe I was giving so much effort to the guy sitting beside me. But then, I would look away, get to talking again to Scott about what we were going to do with the rest of our lives and before anyone could count three bottles of root beer on the wall, we would be ensconced in a desperate cuddle. We were a blast to be around.
In the two rows ahead of us, a few younger, burgeoning couples were seated. Ahead of us directly, sat Darla with Kyle Kawalski. Kyle was one of those kids from the junior high who had risen quickly to power upon entrance into the Youth Group. He was short, wiry, and was friends with everyone in a David Spade kind of way, in that he operated on the assumption that people like to be insulted. He always had the dirtiest joke of anybody and could light farts with an expertise that was far beyond his years. If it had been a decade later, he would have totally pimped his car. Instead, he idolized Vanilla Ice unnaturally and could quote sizeable chunks of every popular movie and song, which he did ad infinitum throughout the entire journey.
Having obvious things in common, he and Darla spent almost as much time rapping out the words to “Ice, Ice, Baby” and “Funky Cole Medina” as they did playing tongue hockey, which they did almost as audibly.
The deal was this. Guys and girls were allowed to sit next to one another. Clear into the night, even. But go to sleep, and you risked being yanked out of your fuzzy dream world and repositioned at the front of the bus.
It had been the church board’s idea. Since guys and girls were obviously going to be spending a lot of time in close quarters to one another, the issue of propriety had inevitably been brought up. Sleeping together—even on a bus—was still sleeping together. And that could not be allowed. If teens were permitted to sleep together on a church sponsored trip and then things got out of hand, well, it could look bad. Plus, there had already been the issue of sweaty knees.
The objection was put on the boardroom table by one of our church’s oldest, most stalwart members. Beatrice Beelner may have been pushing 80, but you couldn’t push anything past her. Already famous within the church for saving its youth from the clutches of evil in the late ‘70s by putting a ban on all articles of clothing that bore the color red, she demanded the board’s respectful attention. As the only woman in the boardroom, she was forced to remind them that she, too, had been young once and had been confronted with the issue of sweaty knees in her own life. No, she conceded, there was no sin in having glistening joints. But when two young people of the opposite sex allow slick body parts to come together, it can only lead elsewhere. It is a pathway. A gateway drug. Do we want to enable our young people to fall into the Devil’s Plan, she questioned? Or do we want to stop sin before it happens; be a kind of spiritual antiperspirant, as it were.
She, too, had been on a mission trip when she was young—it was a Choctaw reservation that had suffered greatly from a recent shipment of smallpox-infested blankets—and the boys and girls weren’t even allowed to travel in the same wagons. And still, two of the boys had returned to attend their own shotgun weddings. How would we explain to headquarters in Kansas City that we came back with more than we left with? How could we show our faces at the next General Assembly? Some rules had to be made. Boundaries had to be set.
OK, conceded Pastor Mark. Boundaries needed to be made. But to say that sweaty knees would be the cause of unwanted teen pregnancy might be reaching. Worst-case scenario: a guy and a girl sit next to each other on the bus and accidentally touch sweaty knees together. Then what? They are just going to run uncontrollably toward the back of the bus and get it on? Hasn’t it occurred to anyone that sweaty knees are considered gross by teenagers? (Read: Has it been that long, Beatrice?) The likelier scenario is that the 15-year-old girl who has just unwittingly exchanged fetid body fluids with her male counterpart is going to feign a gag reflex and spend the next week telling all of her friends about how she totally almost vomited all over her new white Keds.
And so, Pastor Mark won the sweaty knees contest, but as a concession made a promise that there would be no sleeping together during the trip to and from Mexico. And to his credit, he stuck with it. Before we even left the church parking lot, he and King Richard stood before us and decreed that guys and girls could sit next to one another for as long as they stayed awake. Which was brilliant, really, as everybody knows that people get into the biggest trouble when they’re out cold and drooling on their chins.
In keeping with his promise to the board, regular checkpoints were implemented. At random moments throughout the night, the lights would be thrown to full power flooding the bus with the brightness of a supernova, exploding retinas like vampires on Blade. Together, the teens on the front of the bus who had not been fortunate enough to pair up before the lights last went out would call out with more than a hint of vendetta the word “HANDCHECK!” in the general direction of those of us seated in the back half of Gus who were lucky enough to have somebody to love us that night. Snooping eyes would peer back, their owners forcing their pupils open, as lips unlocked, limbs untangled, and dreams were dashed along the highway of teen desire. If anybody was discovered in a compromising position in those first split seconds, there was no end to the teasing that would ensue over the next two weeks. But woe! Woe to the person who had drifted off in mixed company. If so much as a head was tilted in subjectivity to gravity against something soft and comfortable—be it shoulder or pillow—they were yanked from such ecstasy and forced to relocate to the front of Gus, behind Richard, next to Mark, Sandy or Donna, and surrounded by the jeering unloved.
Tammy the Quiz Queen, sadly, was among this group of snoops and seemed to thrive on the challenge of discovering those who wished to remain undiscovered. When she wasn’t busy sorting the compartments in her Caboodle or blazing through Bible Trivia flashcards with Tracy, she could be seen in the occasional headlights of passing vehicles rubber-necked backwards and gazing intently into the inky blackness of the back of the bus. At least half a dozen times I saw her jump up to discuss something with Richard, who had by that time created a sort of nest for himself out of crushed cola cans around the base of the driver’s seat. As he had inadvertently booby-trapped himself, it was impossible to approach his throne without alerting the entire kingdom, which gave us at least a couple of seconds’ warning before the next ‘handcheck’. There did come a point, however, when even Richard got annoyed with her tattling ways and told her to sit down and go to sleep.
After pulling in somewhere in the wee hours of the morning and staying the rest of the night on the floor of one of our sister churches in El Paso, Texas, we pushed on to Juarez. From Juarez, we would board a train that would speed us toward Mexico City faster than an angry turtle. When we arrived thirty-five hours later, we were hot, tired and sore from being bent in various unnatural ways in an attempt to sleep in 2nd class seating. We weren’t complaining, though. We had seen the people crowded into the 3rd class. They were piled into their cars like Cheez Nips on a party tray and some were carrying live chickens. All things considered, we were grateful.
And it was not as if our parents and the church board had been completely lacking in compassion. For our traveling enjoyment on el tren Mexicano, two sleeping berths had been employed, which were intended for our thoughtful rotation. The idea was that we would take turns. A couple sets of same-gendered friends would take one berth. Upon reveille, the next in line would take a stab at the cushy, flat surface, flipping the pillows to ensure freshness.
This process ended up working quite nicely for those of us enmeshed in the joys of couplehood. Sneaking in to a berth for a quick ride to Pleasuretown Light seriously never crossed our minds for everybody knew how heavily policed they were by King Richard and Sandy. Rather, the berths themselves provided somewhat of an ideal distraction. As our royal chaperones made the rounds, making sure that nothing Beatrice Beelner would disapprove of was going on, we couples would take the opportunity to make our own rounds. In a godly way, of course. As round as a halo.
Due to our exhaustion, or perhaps dehydration, we arrived in Mexico City a dried-out husk of the Youth Group we once were. And while most of us still knew our names, we were forced to take a long look at how we had gotten there. The cramped, cockroach-ridden lodgings we’d stayed at in El Paso seemed like a lifetime ago and we seriously questioned whether we would ever see potable water or a 7-11 ever again. Our parents had clearly sold us out. They had willingly sent us down the rails with only the shirts on our backs to become child laborers in a third world country, and had paid almost $1000 a head to do it.