First read The Mission Trip, Part 1.
From Mexico City, all 30 of us filed like the living dead onto a bus to take us to the church where we would spend the daylight hours of the next two weeks. We were actually staying in the dorms of a Bible college in the mountains outside the city, but our host had thought it was important that we see the church first so that we could be inspired as to our mission. Spiritual nourishment first, then on to the physical. A theme with which we were well familiar.
As I sat on that bus as we careened through impossibly narrow openings through cars, small animals and pedestrians alike on our way to the church, I tried to imagine our host. Surely he had made the pilgrimage before and knew how tired and hungry and thirsty and in need of a toothbrush we would be. He must be some kind of saint, I concluded. As the bus screeched to a halt outside of a white building with a three-story bell tower, I took a deep breath and popped another Chiclet. If I was going to gain anything from this trip, I was going to have to pull myself together. Surely, our host was expecting strong and determined non-whiners who were not obsessed with how bad their breath was and the desire to lie on something flat.
When the Mexican bus opened its doors at the curb, a hollow cheer was raised before we began filing off the bus. I have a vague recollection of noting with indifference a large, furry blob of what was probably at one time a member of the opossum family smeared across the front of the bus.
Our host, a graying, barrel-chested good ‘ol boy from Arkansas, met us at the door with hands raised, which would descend briefly on everybody as they passed through as if he were the London Bridge and he was taking the key to lock us up. Considering his current occupation, he had a surprisingly large Rolex on one hair-blurred arm and had the odd habit of calling his wife, standing timidly at 4’10” by his side, “Mama”. He introduced himself personally to each of us as Woodruff Woodson, adding with a wink to call him Woody.
He quickly ushered us into the sanctuary and commenced the tour. It was unlike any church that I had ever seen, more resembling a hollowed out segment of an apartment building, with winding stairwells and a poured concrete floor. It didn’t take a general contractor to see that we had our work cut out for us.
The sanctuary itself was a large, empty room with no real distinguishing features aside from a piece or two of religious art on the walls depicting Jesus with his disciples and at his ascension. Woody told us that they occasionally rented chairs for the services, but most of the time it was standing room only. The walls, we were told, were cinderblocks covered in stucco, and would be given a fresh coat of paint during our visit. As for the stained glass windows, they had enough cracks in the seals to drain pasta through when hanging open laterally—which most of them were. For our crowning achievement we were going to build a new platform for the front, as well as a pulpit and a lectern.
Knowing that we were anxious to find our lodgings and refresh ourselves from the journey, Woody wasted no time. If we were going to be in Mexico, we were going to need Mexican money. He just happened to have a great deal of pesos on hand, which he would gladly exchange for us to save us from having to storm a bank. In our exhausted state, we were admittedly relieved that somebody had thought this through for us. Certainly Pastor Mark hadn’t mentioned to us how we were going to change the rest of the US money we had brought yet. I gave him my green bills without hesitation, grateful for his foresight. Just as we were about to head back to the bus, our pockets bulging with pesos, he called us back.
“Lands, I almost forgot!” He drawled to us in his booming baritone. “Mama! Come on back in here and sit behind the piano for a minute.”
We hesitated at the doorway. Looked at Pastor Mark. But Pastor Mark was in PR mode. He was busy selling his team of glazed-over underage workers. We followed him back in. Donna smiled apologetically back at us. We could wait a few more minutes to shower.
“Y’all, I think it would be a good idea to go over some material. Just some good ol’ Amurican hymns I’ve translated into the es-spaniel. We should go over them a couple of times so that y’all can sing along during the service on Sunday.”
We blinked at him. Sunday was five days away. Surely we could put off a choir practice for a couple of days. But Mama was pounding away before we could object, her huge roller curls bouncing as she went. Next thing we knew, a projector screen had appeared out of nowhere and we were singing In Moments Like These in a language that felt as foreign to us as the feeling of a square meal and soap. Woody the missionary stood next to that screen filled with words we didn’t recognize and blasted out his transposed masterpiece with the pride of a bumper sticker-toting parent of a middle school honor student. My dad once told me that a music teacher had told him the way to sing was to imagine that you have a baked potato in your throat. Well, Woody had a can of grits in his throat and an anvil on his diaphragm. Being the exhausted, hypoglycemic adolescents we were, we stifled fits of incredulous giggles as he belted out with the enthusiasm of Pavarotti on the stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry, “Ayn Momentoze Ahseeee….”
Mistaking our laughter for joy, he hit us again and again with the songs he had triumphantly translated until the whole thing was so ludicrous that kids were actually clapping and raising their hands with the music. Darla had gone so far as to occasionally throw in an eight count from her impressively awesome human beat box. Even Richard finally admitted his lost grip over his small workforce, and began air-banding sections in. Mama, who had for the most part remained vocally silent since our arrival, seemed to be so inspired by our rendition that she even began experimenting with blues-styled licks, which she would end with an enthusiastic “whoop!”
We did finally manage to break away from Woody and Mama’s reception party. As politely as he could, and flushed red from the exercise, Pastor Mark explained to Woody that if we waited any longer, we would miss “the first real supper these kids have had in three days.” For that rescue alone, I owe Pastor Mark my life.
For the next several days, we worked like dogs. Not the little, prissy, cardigan wearing kind that the Hollywood set carries around, either. I’m talking more about the big, foamy-jawed junkyard variety. To our great relief, Amy and I got paired up at the onset puttying the stained glass windows in the bell tower. Throughout, we chatted about our boyfriends, the upcoming graduation, and college.
From the tower window, we watched life on a Mexico City side street, which—having come from Colorado Springs suburbia—was busier than I had ever seen. Elderly people shuffled between buildings carrying bags. Teenage boys walked in small groups and hissed lustily at teenage girls. Dogs roamed freely. Children played on curbs, unattended.
I had seen some of the cardboard box slums on the outskirts of the city and it was nothing like that. But while there were few who appeared to be just completely down and out, there was an element of desperation. I remember feeling grateful that my family did not worry daily about having enough food to eat or clean water to drink. I looked down at the spatula in my hand, working the putty into the cracks. It felt good to be doing something to help these people…with putty.
On Saturday, we hosted a VBS at the park. We played games with the kids, did face painting, sang songs, and even did a puppet show. The puppet show was in English, of course, but I’m sure that the kids enjoyed it anyway. It was fun. We got lots of smiles.
When Sunday came, we attended the church service and dutifully sang the songs that Woody had taught us. The people were so kind to us, giving us hugs and friendly pats. They did not even point out that we had managed to misspell the words “In remembrance of me” in Spanish, which some of the guys who had built a new altar for the church had routed into the wood.
After the service, the congregation hosted a large Sunday dinner for us, providing us with beans and rice and tamales, all from their own kitchens and purchased with their own money.
“Wow,” I remember commenting to Scott at one point. “These people have so little and look what they’re sharing with us. I mean, can they even afford this?”
“I think they’ll be reimbursed. We brought some money from home to give to them. That should help.”
The money he was talking about had been accumulated through a love offering. We were going to be giving them $8,000. I nodded, thinking about the nearly $30,000 it had taken to coordinate and mobilize 30 teens plus a handful of adults.
“Well, good. I hope so. These people look like they can barely feed their own families.”
On the last night, back at the Bible College in the mountains, Scott and I were taking a nighttime stroll around the campus. The place was beautiful at night. The trees were lush and thick and a mist had settled close to the ground due to a recent rainfall. We had found an abandoned shack at one point which we thought would be fun to explore (Read: each other), but when we shone our flashlight in through the door, we discovered with our flashlight hundreds of glowing moth eyes staring back at us. Rethinking our strategy, we stopped at a beautiful reflection pool to watch how the mist curled up into the sky around a fountain in the middle.
“I love you,” Scott told me, taking me into his arms.
“I love you, too,” I said back.
We had been saying this sort of tomfoolery to each other for quite some time at this point. After dating for the previous three years, things had been getting rather serious and my Dad was starting to fear for his life.
“Just remember,” he had warned me, “if you guys get married while you’re in college, that faucet (the one that apparently was to pay for my clothing, schooling and nourishment) is going to be shut off.” At this point he would make a twisting motion with his right hand as if he were shutting off a faucet, which by the size of it and the strength with which Dad turned it, had been supplying a fire hose full of water. But as I did not consider myself to exactly be soaking wet from that hose—I was still buying my clothing secondhand—the threat had little to no effect on me. Besides, Scott and I luuuuved each other. We would figure out a way to make things work. Besides, the next stop on our trip was Acupulco. It was time to treat ourselves to a little fun. After all that hard work, we deserved it!
We had a great time, of course, and by the time we were returned to our parents, we were exhausted and probably just a little hypoglycemic. But nothing could replace the look of pride they gave us when we told them about all of our adventures. How we worked so hard and learned be Jesus to those people with puppets and putty.
“We gave them the money the church collected,” I told my dad in the car as he and Mom drove me back from the pickup. “It felt really good to be doing something to help them, too.”
“I thought you guys did a lot to help them.”
“Well, yeah. We helped them with their church. I just mean, you know, to help them eat and stuff. To actually help them.”
Dad was quiet. I believe he got it sooner than I did.
It was a couple weeks later when I heard the news. Apparently the pastor had called Pastor Mark to thank him for all of our hard work. Somewhere in the course of the conversation, the subject of the $8,000 came up. The Mexican pastor had no idea what Pastor Mark was talking about.
Mark called Woody.
“And I thank you kindly for it,” Woody said cheerily into the phone.
“But the pastor at the church said that he had no knowledge of the money. You did hand it over to the church as I requested when I gave it to you?”
“Well now, it would seem to me that Mama and I are part of the church, aren’t we? We just used it to cover our expenses.”
Later, when Pastor Mark recounted to us what had happened, there was an unmistakable sadness in his eyes.