Tijuana Ministry Reflections
Joanna and Martin Thurmann
Valley Catholic Article
Andre Thurmann 2015
My name is Andre and let me tell you the Tijuana immersion trip was an amazing experience. Although this is my first time going, I have been involved with the ministry for quite some time through the various car washes and garage sales. My mom has been a leader from some of its earliest years, and my dad and sister have also been involved and have gone on multiple trips. So finally going my first year was very exciting for me. I was really surprised when I saw the economical difference from our lifestyles to theirs. Yes I did hear the stories and I had the common sense to know that they were not as fortunate, but when you see it first hand, it’s a whole mother perspective. Throughout the week I got to talk to and learn the stories of the people through various events such as the visit to casa de migrante, aids clinic, and the childrens program that we hosted. And I remember my mom saying, “Are you sure you want to go, because you’ll be ruined for life”. And what she meant by that was that when you see the daily struggles that we aren’t accommodated through, you can’t go back to the daily life that you once had and not think of what you saw and heard.
For example, the heart wrenching stories of Alley. She is a 15-year-old girl who lives in Tijuana but studies in San Diego. Each school day, she wakes up at 4:30am so she can take a bus, make deals with the street vendors so she can get to the front of the line, and then find a stranger, get into his car, so he can take her across the border. All this, just to get to school.
And then there is the story of Govani -- who has to take care of his young siblings as young as 3 years old. He is never allowed to have friends over or go to their house because he has to take care of the younger kids. So when he finally came to our kids program, he was overjoyed when he saw that there was a separate children’s and teens program. So he could finally enjoy some free time for himself. This is something that we take for granted.
But how does all this connect to what we heard in the readings today?
So let me tell you a little story. Like Father Saju always does.
One day an old man walks onto a beach and finds millions of starfish stranded there after a big storm. He also sees a young boy who is throwing them -- one by one -- back into the water. The old man asks the boy, “Why are you even doing this? There are so many. You are barely going to make a difference.” But the boy simply picks up one more starfish and throws it back in the ocean. Then he says, “For that one …..it just made a difference”.
Well, poverty in Tijuana is like seeing a beach full of stranded starfish. You may look at it all and say ‘there is no way that we can help all those people. We are just a little group of people from St Julie’s and other parishes. We could lose hope and not even try to help at all. Because poverty is such a big problem.
But the point is that we just need to do “something” and then God multiplies our efforts. We just have to be open and generous. The disciples told Jesus that there was not enough food to go around. But Jesus took the little amount that they gave him, and he made so much that he fed 5,000 people and there was even more food left over.
And so through the Tijuana ministry, we have done a little every year. And it makes a huge difference. We built 5 houses this year. All together, we built homes for 32 families and a school for disabled kids and a church. And we gave hope to kids like Alley and Yovani. And all the support you give us as well as the donations make this all possible.
Thank you for giving me the chance to go to Tijuana. Like my mom says, “now I am ruined for life.”
Kathy Cargnoni 2015
When I was asked to share a reflection on my week with the Tijuana Ministry with all of you, I had trouble paring down my experiences. I could easily spend several hours sharing with you. But, as we only have a few minutes here, my main focus is on the word “Encounter”.
At our last meeting before the Tijuana Missions team left, Father Jon Pedigo came to speak to us. Fr. Jon stated the importance of not just going to TJ to help people, but of the importance of encountering Christ in the people we met in TJ. He advised us to get to know them, to become community with them, and to hear their stories.
In all honesty, as a newcomer to TJ Missions, I went into this trip with trepidation and a good dose of anxiety mixed with enthusiasm and curiosity. Although my husband, who has made this trip four times over the past seven years, has shared many pictures and stories with me I didn’t quite know what to expect. I had fears of my children or myself getting ill from the food or water, I had worries of my children being exposed to things they had never imagined or seen and not knowing how to address their questions and concerns. I went with an open mind, trying to be upbeat and positive for their sake, all the while bracing myself for the worst scenarios and praying for strength for the days to come.
As I drove the nine hours to TJ, Fr. Jon’s words “encounter Christ” became embedded in my mind and these words became my internal mantra for the week and my goal was not only to not only find Christ in the people I encountered, but also for them to encounter Christ in me.
As we crossed the border from California to Baja California, I was surprised at how drastic the change in the surrounding environment was. We went from green rolling hillsides and coastline to an austere, colorless, trash strewn, landscape in a matter of minutes. As we drove closer to our destination of La Morita, and further from the border, I was profoundly shocked at the expanse of hillsides crammed with one room shacks, cobbled together with pieces of miscellaneous boards, topped with makeshift roofs of tarp. My first thoughts were “ghetto” and “war zone”. Even the larger buildings and shops were not much better, mostly unfinished with exposed rebar and crumbling balconies. Aside from a larger community market and a modern shopping mall with a theater and a Wal Mart, even the larger buildings we saw were in serious states of disintegration and disrepair. My heart sank as we drove closer to San Enrique parish, our home for the week. My husband had described the circumstances he had seen in Tijuana, but until one has seen firsthand this kind of poverty, it is hard to really internalize. I felt that I was as aware as most people of what poverty looks like, but what I was seeing defied description and was almost otherworldly. I sensed that what was going on in my head was being shared by the two teens in the back of my car, as my daughter and her friend became completely silent as we followed our caravan of cars to the parish compound.
Looking around, it was hard to imagine Christ in these surroundings. Little did I know that He was in every corner of this harsh environment. My encounters with Christ were many throughout the week in Tijuana, beginning with mass on Sunday, where we were welcomed and embraced by the local residents. Throughout the week I had the pleasure of working in the children’s program, seeing how the children of La Morita were just as happy or perhaps happier than children who have all they want. Like children anywhere these kids were curious, eager to play, loved affirmation and personal attention. So many kids would show me what they had created, and would excitedly try to converse with me, unphased by my limited Spanish, the kids would smile at me and run off to the next activity. Every moment seeing the joy in their work and the light of appreciation in their eyes was an encounter of Christ in these children.
The following days, in between volunteering at the home site, I was blessed with the opportunity to work with the mother’s group. It is here that I felt of most use and where I have since connected Fr. Saju’s words from last week’s homily to my experiences.
Last Sunday, in his homily, Father Saju spoke to us of the importance of finding something in common with others, something similar that we share, rather than focusing on our differences. In looking back at the week, I found that I could relate to and empathize with the women I spent time with. Like them, I am a mom, and like them, I want to give my kids the best that I have and make sure they are healthy, helpful and respectful. I want to share their joys, help them to deal with their disappointments and raise them to be good people. I can relate to the feeling of the sacredness of the families we are blessed with. I am one with them in their hopes for all that is good and desirable for their families. On the other hand, however, I cannot relate to their struggles, of which there are many. I cannot imagine having to walk dusty hills and dirt roads to get fresh water every day, and use it to clean up, and wash clothes and dishes. I do not have to take care of multiple children in a hot stuffy one room house with dirt floors. I do not have to work in the dump all day and then take two buses on a two hour drive home to take care of my family. I do not have to choose between food, shelter, clothing, education and medical care. I have admiration for these women and the strength and determination and pride they possess in the face of the many challenges of their day to day lives. I was delighted by these women and their hunger for fun and diversion. They came in small groups to the program the first day, but by the end of the week their numbers quadrupled. They immersed themselves 100% into each discussion, prayer, song, lesson and craft, from making candle holders for their homes, to sewing purses and bags and making jewelry to take home. Many of the women would arrive in the morning as strangers to one another and would soon be talking, laughing and building community with each other. I was struck by how many very young mothers would show up each day. Some of these girls were not much over 16 and would have a child with them. Mother’s would show up with their small babies, without carriers, strollers or help, and would try to participate in crafts with a fussy baby in one arm. These mothers would gratefully accept help when offered, trusting us enough to hand over their babies to be rocked to sleep or fed while they participated in the projects and discussions with free hands.
I found myself wishing that I knew more Spanish and could converse with these women. I would have loved to have learned more about their lives through their stories. Working with these women made me realize again, how much we take for granted in our lives…Upon completion of the decoration of a votive candle holder, one mother proudly held up her finished project and stated that she would finally have some light in her home at night.
Although I could barely converse with the women, in the end, once again, all it took was a smile and an embrace and a few words of encouragement to these women to receive a grateful smile and hug in return. I found myself looking forward to seeing these same women in the days that followed. Every smile, every acceptance of an offer for help and every sweet baby held for one of the moms were encounters with Christ.
The rest of the week, these encounters came in continued succession:
The energy, enthusiasm, and selfless giving of self from the teens who came to work with the children and youth of TJ, and their undeniable love for the children were beautiful witnesses to the love of Christ working within them.
Working alongside long term veterans of the Tijuana Ministries programs and witnessing their enthusiasm for their years of involvement in the ministry, as well as hearing the stories of success and gratitude from past and present recipients of homes, made for many more encounters with Christ throughout the week.
On Sunday afternoon, we paid a visit Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter that connects people released from immigration detention with resources and helps them get back on their feet. The light of Christ was encountered in the director of this organization, Father Pat Murphy, as well as in the young men who either currently live and/or work at the Casa and shared their stories.
Another day, we visited a local HIV/AIDS clinic that provides 24 hour care and spiritual direction to adults and children with HIV/AIDS and their families. The level of love and care seen here as we walked through the intensive care room was undeniable. Christ was deeply present in the volunteers at this facility.
Finally, we had the honor of attending the blessings of two of the five houses built. Words cannot express the pride and joy and gratitude that I saw on the faces of the families receiving the keys to their new homes. It was an honor to be able to be present at these house blessings and to see what was perhaps one of the happiest moments of these familiy’s lives. The impression of many people is that the residents of Tijuana are to be pitied and that groups like ours go in to try to “save them”. But in truth, these people, with the little they have, are a people who have a joy for life, intelligence and a desire to seek a better life for themselves and their children. They are a warm and welcoming people and are proud and dignified, strong in their faith, culture, and family values. We go in not to save them, but to share with them, build relationships with them and to learn from them. As Father Jon said, we go to encounter Christ in them. And the belief that I have long held, that those who have, are not necessarily any happier than those who have not, was reaffirmed in my mind. In fact, it seems that, after spending a week with the beautiful, warm people of TJ, they are actually happier than most of the people we come in contact with in my day to day life in Silicon Valley.
As tired as I was at the end of each day, I found it hard to sleep most nights in TJ, and even now, a week later, I close my eyes and my head is filled with visions of the rubble and trash strewn hillsides and streets, the streams of smoke scattered here and there from burning garbage, the gaunt dogs and the ramshackle shacks packed tightly together. I can still hear the sounds of the night: loud music, dogs barking, babies crying, and loud conversations of people passionately enjoying life as they know it. I can still smell the pungent, nostril burning smells of garbage burning and sewage baking in the hot sun and meals being prepared in tiny cramped homes. However, I also hear the laughter of children and teens running and playing, and the giggles and cheery conversation of mothers sharing stories and spending time building community.
The days flew by, and I left with the all-encompassing feeling that we are just a tiny drop in a vast ocean when it comes to what can be done for the gentle people of Tijuana. I find that I have so many questions to be answered and so many emotions to be settled. I left wishing we could do so much for these people, yet I keep remembering the words of Mother Teresa:
“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop”.
Without a doubt, I know that I have encountered Christ in the people of TJ, and I can only hope that they have encountered Christ in me.
I am already thinking about my next trip to La Morita, and I invite anyone who is even remotely thinking about being part of this ministry to make the journey sometime. You won’t regret it, and your involvement, however large or small, is significant. On behalf of all of us who traveled this year, thank you for your prayers and support. It all matters
Raul Leanos 2015
Hablando de mi Corazon: Filipenses 2,v2-4, El tema de server imitando a Jesus humilde que nuestra Fe se Demuestra con las obras.
1Pedro 4,v10, Que cada uno ponga al servicio al carisma que ha recibido, y de este modo serán buenos administradores de los diversos dones de Dios. For faith without deeds is dead.
Yo vi a Cristo en la cara de todos los que participamos en este ministerio de server para glorificar a Dios.
After wanting to participate for the past eleven years in the Ministry of TJ Mission; I was fortunate to participate this year for the first time.
God is Awesome to have let me participate under his plan to serve. I feel blessed and grateful for the experience he has given me.
After many years of wanting to participate and go to TJ Mission I finally got the opportunity this year July 11- July 18, 2015.
My encounter with the people feels like an extended familia having met the locals like Jose, Francisco, Willy and David and their families during our dinner opportunities to break bread and have a well deserved beer after a hard day working.
My other blessings of having met over 90 beautiful participants in this ministry giving of their time and talents in so many ways.
Raul A Leanos
Margaret Bennett 2015
Last Sunday Father Saju talked about sharpening the axe to cut down a tree and how we sometimes need to find ways to sharpen our axe in order to go out into the world and make a difference… this trip to Tijuana sharpened my axe…
At first what struck me the most was the extreme poverty.
I’d seen the pictures.
But I didn’t really comprehend the extent and vastness of the poverty until I had a chance to stay in the community…
Think of the worst neighborhood you can imagine in east San Jose. Then imagine that neighborhood with one room dwellings with no plumbing, no electricity, no roof or a roof made out of scrap wood, or pieces of scrap metal, or ragged tarps littered with holes … then multiply that image by 1000’s - and that is what I saw in Tijuana.
It was miles and miles of what our government officials would condemn as unfit or unlivable - utterly inhumane….
It literally made me speechless…
But the unique thing about our Tijuana Ministry program is that it is not just about going down there and giving a few families a house. It’s about building community. This is a program focused on love, compassion and building relationships.
It’s about immersing ourselves in the community to meet people and hear their stories.
It’s about finding commonalities and it’s about encountering Christ in each other.
We build houses when we go there, but we also build community. We help the people in Tijuana to support each other, we build relationships with the people in Tijuana and we build community among the travelers from California who go on the mission trip.
As you probably know, we had volunteers constructing 5 homes this year, but we also had another 20 or so teens and adults running a free day camp for some 200 children, 100 teens and 80 moms from the Tijuana neighborhoods. I am a high school English teacher here in CA, so I thought I could use my skills best to help lead the teen program for youth in Tijuana.
For many of the teens, these days at camp were a welcome break from babysitting their younger siblings. We’d see families come together and you’d have teens caring for their younger brothers and sisters because both of their parents worked all day in the factories, which might earn the family the equivalent of $60 a week.. or maybe the parents earned money “recycling” which meant leaving the house at 6am and returning late at night after sifting for hours through the landfill for metals and recyclables to sell… While the parents are gone, it becomes the children’s responsibility to look out for each other. Our little camp provided them a safe, fun place to go for a few hours. I found with many of the teens, they did not know each other at the beginning of the week and they quickly became friends as they talked and shared laughs while working side by side making projects. I encourage you to look at the photos from our week at the St. Julie’s Tijuana ministry on Facebook and on our website and you can get a sense of just how much fun we had!
One teen who really struck me was Johvanny, who was 13. He came each day with his 10 year old brother and 5 year old sister. He was quite protective of them, but we could also tell he was enjoying a little break from babysitting because when they came over to the teen’s area to try to do the teen crafts with him he’d send them back to the children’s area. But, Johvanny spent his time alone making gifts for his siblings. He sewed a purse for his sister, made a kite for his brother and created God’s Eyes for his entire family. The next day when more of the little kids wanted kites and God’eyes, he showed them and the other teens how to make them. That to me is building community and encountering Christ.
Yes, I want to go back to Tijuana next year.
And I also wanted to do more here.
This trip to Tijuana sharpened my axe…
The effects of poverty can be overwhelming… the needs are just so great…
And it can make us, who are more fortunate, question how can we possibly make a difference. But, I know our ministry this year made a difference to the 5 families we built homes for and for the 100’s of children, teens, and mothers we worked with at our daycamp.
And it’s made a huge difference to hundreds of other families over the past 11 years.
And it’s made a difference for all of us who were able to go on this mission.
In today’s second reading, Paul talks about how we are called to have patience and love and to “strive to preserve the bond of peace.” Paul talks about how we share one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all… it truly was a privilege to go on this trip to witness how we really are one in Christ.
Not everyone can travel to Tijuana, but please know that your donations and prayers here are making a difference there.
Thank you for supporting the Tijuana ministry.
Thank you for making a difference, one person at a time…
Luke Wangsnest 2015
I thought Tijuana was just going to be another one of those things my mom was “encouraging” me to do to get involved and that I would want nothing to do with it after it was over. But Tijuana was far different from what I expected. I experienced Christ in every single person I met in Tijuana. These people have nothing, and it was extremely inspiring and touching to see the grace on the faces of the families when they saw their new homes and the on the faces of the children as they were doing the crafts that the children’s program provided. I worked in the children’s program when I was in Tijuana, and there were a few times where I specifically felt the presence of Christ. One afternoon I was supervising the Lego table, and the kids had already made a big mess. Legos were strewn all over the dirt under the table. It was close to the time to clean up and I was trying to encourage the kids to put the blocks away, when I saw one boy crawl under the table to clean up. This boy’s name was Marcos, he was five years old and he had been at the program for most of the week. Marcos was not even playing at the lego table, but when he saw me struggling to clean up, he voluntarily came and picked up every lego that was on the floor. I was so grateful for his actions and it made it a lot easier to clean up the rest of the things. This was such a little thing, but it made a big difference to me, and on this trip I learned to really appreciate the simple, kind actions that usually go unnoticed.
Another thing that really impacted me while I was in Tijuana was visiting the AIDS clinic. I was amazed that anyone who tests positive for HIV can come and live with their family at the clinic for free for as long as the person needs to. The clinic has no doctors or nurses and yet it still provides tremendous care. Sometimes hospitals send what they call sacs, or people who are predicted to die in only a few days. The clinic welcomes these patients and they have had miracles where these people have lived months after their predicted time of death. When the hospital doctors asked the clinic director what is your secret, he said, we are giving them love. The clinic really feels like a loving home, and I was so deeply impressed and inspired by what I saw. Tijuana was an amazing experience, and I hope to go back again next year. Thank you for supporting this awesome ministry.