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Tijuana Ministry Reflections

Monica Rising  2007

The Tijuana Housing Ministry Workers have returned from Tijuana after successfully completing its tasks.  Thank you to everyone who sent prayers and contributed to the cost of this huge project.  Thank you to the staff, Helen Lopez, Marjorie Habenicht, Chrissie Griffith, and the teens who helped with the car wash for your time and efforts.  

We finished building a pair of two-room houses complete with electricity, ceiling fans for cooling, and linoleum and carpeting for the cement floors. Now a family with three children has a safe shelter and clean place for their little ones and a couple who has been married for 27 years will be able to have a room to themselves for the first time.


Our children's classes started with 35 children, almost twice as many as last year and more than doubled to 87 the second day when we added pancakes to our curriculum!!  They loved our crafts and soccer balls, but perhaps they loved their teachers even more.  


Our mother's program was designed to help the women get to know each other and join together to support one another, share fellowship and help each other in the highest crime area in Tijuana.  They agreed to meet twice a month and elected a President, Secretary and Treasurer.  What wonderful women and what a great start to a new community.


Tijuana is a boom town with a population that is growing so fast that the city cannot keep up with the infrastructure.   The communities will need to start organizing to provide their own services.  The problems are huge, complex and self perpetuating.  We took time each day to study the area from a larger perspective.  We went to a memorial for all those who died crossing the border illegally.  Casa del Migrante, a men's shelter for those deported by the US, found us listening to the stories of those who were risking their life to come here.  Fr. Pablo, pastor of this enormous parish, came and explained the complexities of those living in the Tijuana area and why 85% were living in poverty. We found the greatest gift we gave was faith, hope and sharing.  We hope we left the light of Christ from within each of us to those we touched so they can share it with their neighbors.


These were 25 incredible people who shared their gifts.  There were 14 women and 11 men, including six teenagers and two retirees who all united in wanting to help make a difference.  Each one was essential and gave their all. We learned new tasks and built new strengths.  Some learned to run power tools, how to roof, how to put in electricity or how to use a hammer.  Others were flexible in schedules and curriculum, learned how to communicate without speaking Spanish, how to navigate without street signs and some learned how to start their work day by 5 am.  Fr. Jon showed no task was too much or too dirty to handle by cleaning all 8 bathrooms each day.  We were all challenged by our tasks, amazed by the overwhelming poverty and touched by the generosity of people who have so little.   We are forever changed. 

Norma Basanese 2007


Twenty-five people, mostly strangers to me before we started, journeyed in carpools to Tijuana.  Now I consider them close friends and family - people that I want to know better.  The one unifying thing was that we all wanted to help the people of Mexico with St. Julie’s building project.  Sunday, July 15, 2007, was a long day.  Just the first of many.   Getting up at 4:30 to be at St. Julie’s by 5:30.  Loading the trucks and trailers.  Leaving in a car with no one I already knew.  Then came the 10 hour drive to San Diego (Chula Vista, actually) where we were met by our guide to cross the border.  We talked the entire way and by the time we got there I felt that I now had three new friends.  Entering Mexico went very smoothly for us; but we quickly realized we were no longer in a familiar place.  The signs were in Spanish – many painted directly on buildings.  The traffic was quite heavy and the red “alto” signs seemed a mere suggestion.  Our caravan was stopped at a military check point complete with small machine gun emplacement and weapon carrying soldiers.  While their intention might not have been to stop everybody, we all followed the car ahead of us into the check point.  We were told later they were checking for drugs.   We left the paved road and headed for the parish of San Enrique.  We bumped along. Our drivers working to best navigate the roads that we later referred to as moguls.  We passed a feed lot.  The dirt was dry and gray.  We finally reached our destination which contained a church, catechetical classrooms (made from garage doors), a kitchen/dining room building and the sleeping quarters unassumingly enclosed by a chain link fence with razor-wire on top. We were instructed not to venture out on our own and to only leave the compound when escorted by a guide.


We unloaded everything we brought with us into the lower floor of the dormitory where the men were to sleep including all the coolers and boxes of food since the kitchen was being used for a fiesta and we could not put our stuff into it until morning.  We were part of the “cook team”.  We would have to make Monday’s lunches and breakfast downstairs with one light on trying not to make too much noise preparing the meals.  Between 5:00 and 5:30 the others started eating breakfast.  They left for the worksites around 6 a.m.  When breakfast was over Chris moved our many boxes of food and coolers up the hill and into the kitchen.  Mary & I cleaned the 8 bathrooms in the dormitory and put up new shower curtains.  We then went to the kitchen to put things away.


The children’s and mothers’ programs had started at 9 a.m.  with Yolanda, Maria P. and Giovanna busily teaching the lesson and organizing the day’s craft project inside the dining room. The program ended at noon.  We helped them clean up the dining room and prepared our own lunches.  While we ate we got to know the women who worked on the “children’s and mothers’ team”.   After lunch we locked up the kitchen and went down to the dorm to take showers.


By 2:30 we prepared a snack for the workers as they returned from the building sites.  At 3 p.m. the bus arrived to take those going to the border for the prayer service.  Chris who was head cook and I stayed to prepare dinner.  The others returned by our 6 p.m. scheduled dinner time.  At 7 p.m. we had our reflection and business meeting in which we shared how the day went for each of the teams.  For those not already asleep, lights out came at 10 p.m. 


As Chris and I climbed the hill to the kitchen early Tuesday morning to start preparing the day’s lunches for the builders, we were greeted by our security guard who had kept watch while we slept.  I realize now that I never felt unsafe.  We were soon joined by Yolanda, Maria and Giovanna and Harvey who became indispensable to getting the lunches ready each morning.  After our workers left, we finished our housekeeping chores and then helped out with the children playing outside as they waited their turns to do the craft project.  Marissa and Kayla stayed at the compound today to help with the children.  It was a very good thing too as we counted 87 children who came to take part in our program.  We took some soccer balls with us.  We played with the kids as soccer needs few words – just the ball and something to make goals with.  We used 2 concrete blocks for one goal and a bucket and broom for the other but they did the trick.  Our “field” was the open area in front of the dining room at the base of the stairs leading to the church – no grass – only the same dry, gray dirt (with lots of rocks and some nails) but the children seemed to be used to this.  One little girl, Sylvia, had come this day in a skirt and sandals with a low heel.  Unable to play in these shoes, she took them off a played in bare feet.  She promised to come the next day ready to play in “pantalones y tenis” and she did.  I took pictures of the children that had come that day.

Monica had volunteered to take care of Tuesday night’s dinner so Chris and I were able to join the group who went to Casa Migrante, a homeless shelter for those men who have traveled to Tijuana to try to cross the border or who have been deported back to Mexico.  Our guide explained their program to us and we shared a simple meal with the men and listened to their stories.  It really made me think.


Wednesday, Chris joined the building team to install doors and windows.  Patricia stayed at the compound to help me with the food.  Fr. Jon said mass for the children and their mothers (all in Spanish).  It reminded me of my childhood when the mass was still in Latin.  I followed the order of the mass the best I could; and, even though I know the prayers well in English, I got lost when trying to recite the English as the Spanish prayers were being spoken. It gave me a better understanding for how many immigrants must feel when they must learn to adjust to an English speaking country.  Following the mass we continued with the regular program until noon.  By now we were getting close to 100 children coming to the program each day.  Thankfully our teens, David, Kayla and Marissa were there to help with the children.  Much progress was being made with the women who came.  In the afternoon Fr. Pablo came and shared with us his observations of and concerns for the area of Tijuana.  It was very informative and thought provoking.


Thursday was our last full day of work.  After breakfast but before the children’s program we drove to each of the home sites to see the progress and Fr. Jon blessed the homes and the families who would live in them.  It was a very moving experience.  Then the builders continued their work and we went back to the compound to meet with the women and children.  After lunch Fr. Jon and Monica took us to see the new clinic at San Eugenio parish.  It is a well constructed modern building where the people can receive medical and dental care.  They can also take classes in sewing and computers, and English.  At five, after all the work was finally finished, we had a mass of thanksgiving and celebration for the work completed.  After the mass we held a fiesta for the two families, the Mexican workers who helped us and their families, and our workers. One of the women whose house my son Paul had worked on gave me the gift of a hand crocheted doily to show her gratitude for the hard work he had done.   I was deeply moved by her gratitude but also by a mother’s pride of having a son who would work so hard and risk so much for people he didn’t even know just days before.  We have begun to know these people for who they are.    We are no longer strangers but we are all citizens in the family of God.   They are part of our St. Julie’s community.

Friday morning we got up at 3:30 to pack up and leave by 4:30 in order to make it to the border by 6 a.m.  We were back in the United States before we knew it and on our way home. 


It was an incredible 5 days.  I was stretched.  I did more in those few days than I ever thought was possible before we left.  I now have a better understanding of myself and of the people of Tijuana.  As I write this I am very tired; but what I bring back with me is an unforgettable experience of hope, faith and love.

By Norma Basanese

Paul Basanese 2007


As I sit here thinking back on the trip so many thoughts come to my head. My first impressions of Tijuana: The look of the city as you stood on the job site looking down on what seemed to be a city whose look could only be described as varying colors of dust. The broken and beat up garage doors that were to be used as building materials. As I look back and try to recall all the horrible things about Tijuana, my thoughts always turn to the beauty of this hell on earth.


As I sit here at home on my laptop the thought of being blessed with the things I have comes through my head, but really they are the ones who I admire. To live in such a horrible place with nothing, but the hope of something better than dirt is truly I gift I do not have. To see the dedication of the Mexican workers who led us through building. To see those two families as Fr. John blessed the houses, their complete gratitude for what to me seems like so little. To see kids faces as you hand them a shiny new soccer ball for their very own. Seeing their faithfulness to God and those around them even in that hellish place. Knowing that they are just like us, striving for a better life for them and their families.


By the last day when we found out something was dangerously wrong with the electrical and little time was left to complete, I recall that as tired as we all were, no one was willing to leave a dangerous house for these wonderful people. Thinking back, I realize now that I risked my life to fix a family’s house I didn’t even know existed 4 days before; and even knowing what I know now, I would gladly have done it again.

Before we left, 5 days in a place with nothing seemed like it would drag on and I was sure I would be wishing to be home by day 2. It was a horrible place with a horrible smell and horrible sanitary conditions, and by the end I truly wish with all my heart that I could have stayed longer.

By: Paul Basanese

Lisa Brooks 2007


It has been 4 weeks since I left with 24 others to Tijuana, Mexico to build houses for the poor.  I had heard about the trips in previous years from others who had gone.  I had seen the pictures.  Still, I was a little apprehensive, not fully knowing what to expect.  I did not look forward to the trip with the feelings that one looks forward to a vacation.  I looked forward to the experience and the opportunity to put faces and stories to the statistics that I had read about.


In the past year, as coordinator of the Generations of Faith program at St. Julie’s, I had the opportunity to learn a lot about poverty and how most of the world lives.  I had watched DVDs on poverty in the US, DVDs on fair trade issues throughout the world, read articles on safe drinking water shortages, the effects of global warming on agriculture.  But, I had never actually met anyone or talked to anyone who had experienced any of these circumstances. 


The area of Tijuana that we were in is an ugly place on the surface.  There is no beauty there.  No flowers, nothing bright.  Everything, and I mean everything, is covered in dust.  What little plant life there is, is covered in dust.  Nothing seems to be new.  But, that is on the surface.  The beauty was in the people we met.  They were friendly, welcoming and hospitable.   


We had the great fortune of having several parishioners who spoke Spanish.  This was a blessing as they were able to communicate with the families that we were building the homes for.  Through them, we all were able to learn about their lives and their families.  We learned about their jobs, their hopes for the future and their hopes for their children. 


At the Mass to celebrate the completion of the two homes, during the sign of peace, I crossed the isle to shake the hands of some women from the surrounding community.  These women were not women I had met or who were members of the families that we built the houses for.  As I crossed the isle and extended my hand, they pulled me in to a full embrace and said “Gracias” over and over again.  They seemed so thankful that we were there.  It really made me feel that we were making a difference and it brought home to me the knowledge that we are all on this journey together.


I came away from this trip having met new people in my community, having gotten to know fellow parishioners on a deeper level and having had the opportunity to listen to the stories of my brothers and sisters in another part of the world.  While I am fully aware of how fortunate I am to live in the United States and to live well,  I have come to realize that not all of these “gifts”  hold the same value to me.  Yes, it is nice that I have a nice home, drive a car, have a job and have healthcare.  But,  I am more thankful for my family and friends, my community, and my faith.  These are the gifts that I truly value and that I know will carry me through my journey.

By Lisa Brooks


“It was the worst place I’ve ever been.  It was also the best place I’ve ever been.” This was the way Norma Basanese summed up her recent week-long trip to Mexico with 24 other Housing Ministry volunteers from St. Julies parish.


For the third consecutive year St. Julies sponsored a parish outreach to the Tijuana area of Mexico to build houses for the poor and conduct catechetical programs for children and mothers.   St. Julies teamed with the local Mexican parish of San Eugenio de Mazenod, which takes in a population of 250,000 and is subdivided into 11 chapels staffed by four priests and 12 nuns. Father Daniel Crahen, O.M.I. has been the spiritual inspiration and practical driving force for this partnership with volunteer groups from the US. The parish also has a modern clinic that not only provides medical care but also offers classes in hygiene and life skills.


San Eugenio’s is located in La Morita, a hilly, dusty, hot desert area east of Tijuana that sees an influx of an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people a year coming from other depressed areas of Mexico looking for employment and a better life for their families.  But there are not enough jobs, and people often resort to living in makeshift shelters and unsanitary conditions. Infrastructure has not been able to keep up with population growth.


Parishioner Monica Rising has organized all three of St. Julies house building trips.  A background in scouting helped Rising deal with the daunting task of transporting, housing, feeding and insuring the safety of the volunteers.

Besides Rising and Pastor Jon Pedigo, three others have volunteered all three years: Rich Ceraolo (a contractor/developer who helped organize the building process), his fourteen-year-old son David, and teen Michelle Mederos. “Visiting Tijuana is heartrending,” said Mederos. “The poverty and hardship of the local people confront you as soon as you exit the tourist-ridden downtown. I am amazed by their ability to endure life’s starkness and remain optimistic.”

The first two years there were 40 and 39 volunteers who built one complete house during the week; this year there were only 25 volunteers, but they were able to finish two houses.


Husband and wife team Chris and Norma Basanese did all of the food preparation for the group.  Several volunteers conducted the daily children/mothers programs. The first day 35 children attended the faith sharing/activities session; by the last day there were more than 80.  The mothers were encouraged to build an on-going community that would continue to meet for sharing and problem solving.


This year’s house building mission was a natural adjunct to St. Julies Generations of Faith program that had a social justice theme.  Rising felt the group of 14 women and 11 men was truly multi-generational: having three 14-year-olds, 4 other youth, and 18 adults up to the age of 65.


The cost for building and program supplies, food, and transportation was about $20,000.  Fundraisers included a car wash and game night. Local companies matched donations. The rest of the funds came from very generous offerings from St. Julies parishioners.  Rising felt the Tijuana house-building trip was truly a total parish commitment. Rising made sure the parish was constantly informed about the mission, with frequent talks, articles in the bulletin, and a “sending forth” liturgical ceremony.

The caravan to Tijuana included vans and trucks that carried not only food, tools, and building supplies but also donations of clothing, household necessities, and toys for the children.  Volunteer Paul Basanese was touched by seeing “kids faces as you hand them a shiny new soccer ball for their very own.”


The group started their building day at 5 a.m. to get a head start on the extreme heat and finished by 2:30 in order to participate in an afternoon social justice awareness activity. One day the group traveled to pray at a memorial at the border wall and was saddened by the fact that last year 3700 people died trying to cross the border.  Volunteer Joanna Thurmann noted that “more people have died trying to cross the Mexican border than died trying to cross the Berlin Wall.”


Another afternoon the group traveled to share a meal and talk with the residents of Casa Migrante, a Catholic shelter for men who have been recently deported to Mexico from the US.  One day Father Pablo, pastor of San Eugenio’s, spoke to the group about the challenges facing his parishioners in employment, housing and other basic necessities, education, health care, dealing with crime and drug abuse, etc.


The final evening, after the two completed houses were blessed by Father Pedigo, the group celebrated a mass of thanksgiving, which was also attended by the two families for whom the houses were built.  Many baskets of house warming gifts were presented to the families.  Mass was followed by a Fiesta complete with Piñatas for the children.

Rising said this year there was much more interaction between the St. Julies volunteers and the families being helped. The local people said they were inspired to continue helping their neighbors as they had been helped.


Volunteers expressed over and over how their own lives would be forever changed by their week in Tijuana.  Lisa Brooks, who learned how to be an electrician on the trip, said she is now “more thankful for my family and friends, my community and my faith.”

Volunteer Ricky Critchfield, who is the president of a construction company, was moved by the resilience and faith of the people he had gone to help.  “They were some of the happiest and hope-filled men and women I’ve met in a long time.  I’ll be back again and again.  If not me, then who?”

Valley Catholic Article 2007

Norma Basanese
Paul Basanese
Monic Rising
Lisa Broks
Valley Catholic Article
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