Tijuana Ministry Reflections
Joanna and Martin Thurmann
Valley Catholic Article
Jesus Rosales 2013
I will be brief because we are short on time, please listen really fast.
My name is Jesus Rosales. As you heard a few weeks ago, if you paid attention, Anahi, my daughter, and I went to Tijuana this year, with the TJ Ministry.
I had been wanting to go for quite a few years, but it wasn’t until this time we did it. I decided to go mostly because I wanted to get my daughter disconnected for at least one week, from facebook, from the phone, and from all those distractions teens have nowadays. The other reasons was to see how this bunch of people would “build” a house in Tijuana in just one week. It was hard for me to believe that they go there and in one week’s time they build a house.
There were about eighty + people going this time. Some from this church, and some from a few other churches. Anahi and I represented our 1PM mass.
Well, to my great amazement, the house did go up, with doors, windows, roof, paint and everything else a house is supposed to have. Two roof structures were also built for people who did not own the lot, and the addition of about one half of a church. That was amazing to watch!!
There were several things I took away from this trip, but I will mention just a couple. One of the things that touched my soul were the kids. Every time we would break for lunch at the construction sites, a bunch of kids would gather around for food. Having lived by the border myself when I was very young, I feel their hunger and their needs, on a very personal level. There was one kid in particular who started calling me by name since the first day. He would yell out, “Jesus”, when he saw me. I thought it was because my name tag read Jesus, with big letters, but then I asked him for his name and he said, “My name is Jesus”. From then on, I had to share my lunch with him daily. I also noticed there was always extra sandwiches packed so we could share food with the kids and some of the community. That was very special to me.
Another thing I took away, and will remain with me, is the additional respect I now I have for some members of our community. I got to see up close what can happen when regular people add action to their faith, and my respect for Monica Rising, Stan Taylor and Joanna Thurman has grown tremendously, and also for many other people who came along that I had the pleasure of meeting.
Is this worth it?
Is it worth it sharing hope with others?
Is it worth improving the human condition for even just a few people?
Is it worth it adding action to your faith?
Is it worth it seeing your reflection in a stranger’s eyes?
Is it worth it to come to terms with what’s really important in life by looking at the needs of others?
In closing, as my daughter and I were coming back from the trip, without asking her, my daughter told me, “Dad, before we left for Tijuana, I thought my problems were big”.
Martin Thurmann 2013
I have been to Tijuana 2 times in 2006/2007 and I thought I know all about Tijuana. Well, was I wrong! 6 years after my last trip we set out as a family and took our daughter Paulina along to experience a life different to what we are used to and experience on a daily basis. I admit I left with worries and had more than one discussion about safety and precautions with Joanna. Was I wrong again!
Going to Tijuana allowed me to experience a world different from the outside with a lot of run down shacks, smell of burning trash and a lot of dust everywhere.
But these obvious differences where quickly forgotten when we arrived at our “home base” and where greeted by friends and families from the past years. An incredible amount of sincerity and love was all over the people. The large group of 80 people was in a constant stage of peace and openness to the world. I was quickly introduced to families from the past years, my wife did a great job on telling them about me and they knew so much about me already. I felt like being part of the family, I felt safe…
It was mindboggling to see how many deep friendships have grown over the years between families. We have families that are in contact throughout the year, we have godparents that get to see their godchildren. There is a tremendous amount of love that was seen throughout the week.
While I used to spend my time on construction sites in the past years, for this year I helped the homesite team as well on the childrens program. It was amazing to see that the attendance grew form Monday with about 50 children, to well beyond 200 children on Friday.
With that, I was able to witness the smiles of children working on crafting projects or playing soccer all morning, the skills some children brought along was impressive. The children “mostly” acted with discipline and kindness towards other children and us, these kids acted in no way different than any children that we see here on American school grounds, eager to learn and succeed in the community. My happiness, experiencing children being happy, craved the feeling inside of me that for many children it is about lost opportunities. Seeing children with so many god given skills are likely limited in their future. What “career” are they looking forward to? Will they have an opportunity to smell fresh air that will not give you a daily headache, will they live in a house that protects them with windows and door locks. Will they be able to provide their children a life of security or will they have to leave their homes to work in the factories that pay minimum wage for them barely to survive? I was glad that I went this year, you have to see and experience it. It strengthens my desire to work on change, change inequality just because of a border that was drawn to limit opportunities on the other side of the fence. Where we are born is not a choice, it inspires me to look beyond my own fence, reach out to the one in need and call them my brother or sister.
I am glad that I went and experienced hands-on living for and with Christ.
Joanna Thurmann 2013
My 7th Year
Most cells in your body renew over a period of time. Most people say that’s a period of roughly 7 years. The rest of us changes, too. We learn, we grow, and we become different, and yet, more like our true selves than ever before. We undergo metamorphosis. This was my 7th year in Tijuana. I helped to build one more home and two roofs, I met more friendly faces, I ate more tomales, and I learned more Spanish. It was the same trip as in previous years and yet it was also profoundly different. I was no longer a visitor. I became family.
I became the godmother to an 11-month-old baby girl named Daniela, the daughter of a young couple for whom we built a home four years ago. Jesse, another one of our Tijuana ministry leaders, became her godfather. And the baptism was performed by yet another ministry leader Bob Malone along with the Fr Nick from Tijuana. The seeds we sowed years ago, have taken root in a land that’s dry, harsh and unforgiving, but in a community that is welcoming, accepting and loving. I speak passable Spanish, which gets a tiny bit better after a glass of mild sangria. Yet, I have no lack of words when it comes to speaking from the heart to those who listen with their heart. God provides the facial expression, the hand gesture, the loving smile, the heartfelt laughter, the gentle touch and the genuine hug that can relate much more than words ever can. More love can be conveyed by looking deeply into someone’s eyes than can mere words themselves. We share our souls, our very selves. And it changes us.
The gospel reading on July 28 from Luke 11:1-13 tells us that God hears our prayers. I used to pray for love. No matter how much of it I had from family, I somehow always felt unloved or unworthy. I felt a sense of not belonging, not being enough, of not measuring up to something or someone. My 7th year changed that. I feel a deep sense of belonging and purpose in the world through my work in Tijuana. I feel more complete.
My ministry work is my answered prayer. In giving, I receive. In loving, I am loved. Love unites and saves - from our everyday challenges and preoccupations. It gives our life on this planet meaning. It feeds our souls. And although it also pains us to say good-bye at the end of a week, we carry and multiple that love upon our return. A part of me remains somewhere there, 10 miles south of the border, still speaking Spanglish, tarring roofs, and making crafts for smiling children. But the rest returns home to become more open to all of what God calls me to do and to become for the next 7 years and beyond.
This was my first year on the trip. I expected a dirty, sad, dreary-looking place with shacks for homes and injured animals as pets. And I will tell you, you have to experience it to know what kinds of daily riches we get here in America. I found that out in Tijuana.
It all started when my mom went on the trip a bunch of years back. When she came home, she was glowing from head to toe. I right away knew that something more than marvelous had happened and little did I know, that in 6 years I would find out what that was.
It was the family. I can tell you, within my first day spent there, I felt at home. These people I had never seen before seemed to me like I had known them a century. I called this a homey-feeling, while when I asked my mom about it, she called it the Presence of the Holy Spirit. And boy, was the holy spirit there because everywhere I looked I felt safe, comfortable and, like I said, at home.
Speaking about being safe, I figured you’d all be wondering how a 13-year-old girl felt safe on a rough, tough trip like this into a rough, tough area. But don’t worry, because in the days leading up to the trip, I was worried about safety as well. Believe it or not, I wasn’t concerned for a single minute about anything happening. The worst thing that crossed my mind was Montezuma’s Revenge. And trust me, I was sure cautious about that one!
For the majority of my time spent there I was on the children’s program, which I thought would be terrible with the language barrier. Fortunately, that didn’t come into play very much. As it turns out, a mish-mash of hand-symbols, actions, and a few easy Spanish words all jumbled up together comes out pretty clear that they know what to do!
But I was also part-time on construction which, even though the little ones are cute, I think I enjoyed it a bit better only because, like my mom, I like to see progress being made. So when you’re building a house in a week, there was a lot of progress to be seen as I walked around build sites, handed people tools, and got paint all over the walls, myself, and a couple friends, too.
But to finish up, I think the Tijuana trip gave me the courage to care for those not known to me, a more familiar meaning of the phrase ‘putting faith into action’, and the knowledge to tell others about the wonderful, breathtaking time I had!.... Along with a few new Spanish words and how to put up drywall! Thank you.
Paulina Thurmann 2013
Larry Cargnoni 2013
This was my 4th journey to Tijuana. I traveled 2008, 2009, 2010. So it’s been three years since my last visit. In summary, it was a good trip. The team met many of the physical build objectives and pulled of wonderful mothers and children’s program. Relationship were built, reviewed, and cultivated both between us and the people of Tijuana, but between team members. We worshipped, worked, and celebrated with the locals, side by-side. Overall, from my perspective and pay grade, the trip was a success.
During trip and since returning, I spent time pondering and processing the plight of the kids and families we encountered. I have more observations than answers.
We went to mass on Sunday. I sat in the back, as I’ve learned to do, where there is better air circulation and the view of the locals is better. In front of me, I watched several teen-aged moms cradle newborns. I swear they looked between 15-17 years of age. I have a 14.5 year old daughter and my “dad radar” is tuned to other girls around her age.
I’m not walking in those teen-moms’ shoes, but I’m fairly certain that at least 1-2 of those young moms had a look of despair, worry, and angst in their faces and eyes. Almost, like “what the hell is going on? Is this my life? I don’t want to be doing this.”
And then to the side of me, I watched 3-5 year old kids run around the pews, greeting friends, pestering their older siblings, giggling, getting “shushed” by their parents and generally having a good time. I was struck by the two scenes: one of happy, not a care in the world group of kids, (probably) not aware of their environment and the other one exuding uncertainty, (possible) hopelessness, and fully aware of their situation and probably thinking “it gets no better than this”.
I mulled over a lot of questions…Some of the answers may be obvious, but I mulled them regardless . When do these kids internalize that they are not as well of as others in their neighborhood, which they are different from others further down the hill, perhaps in down town Tijuana, or as say in the US? What do their parents tell them? When do these kids realize that they perhaps don’t or won’t have a future other than that of their parents and family? What goes through their heads when they realize that what they have could be the best that they’ll get? Who are their role models? Who is
helping them? Do they have hopes and dreams? Who is cultivating those dreams and helping them become real? My wife and I are lucky enough that we can provide our kids choices and show them opportunities. I want to think that my kid’s dreams have a shot of becoming reality.
I worked on the construction of the roof structures and a house. The house is a small 16x32 rectangle home with a peaked roof, locking doors, windows, drywall, insulation, electric, and a shower and a toilet. If you didn’t know better, from the inside, you might be looking at any apartment in San Jose. It will house a family of 5; their mom is recovering from brain cancer and uses a wheel chair and walker. This home was a prototypical home that the Tijuana Ministry typically built.
It turns out however, that among the poor, there are poorer people still. There were two families, living next to each other, that had built their homes on public land, in this case part of a dirt road that the city of Tijuana has yet to develop. To call their accommodations “homes” or “houses” is a gross understatement. One was barely a shack which housed a family of 6 and the other was more of small shed/barn that housed a family of 8. Both were under furnished, had no running water, and
bootlegged electricity. Both roofs were rotted and covered with a variety of tarps and wood; clearly these would leak in during any significant rainfall.
I see two mattresses…filthy, ragged, and smelling like urine. I see one small table and a broken chair. Where are the clothes? There is water in barrels, open-topped with stuff floating it. Left-over food was in a skillet. I don’t see a lot of toys. How in the world do they do it? I wondered. Where do the kids sleep and eat? What’s going through the parents’ minds? What dreams and futures can come from these places? Do the kids go to school? Will they? I know education opportunities in that neighborhood is not a given like it is here in the US. Whatever problems I carried into Tijuana were
rapidly being put into perspective.
[For these families, we build roof structures over each of these houses. Think “car port” basically we built a 16x32 foot, slightly pitched roof, supported by 6 pillars. We went this route, instead of building full on houses, because the families were squatting on the land - and they didn’t have the funds to purchase their own lot. We build the structures, mainly with screws thinking that they could move the structures (with some help) if they were forced to leave. We then bolted on to each, 4 16x8 wooden
garage doors to as to provide some stability to the structure and enclosure for the families. They have enough supplies to complete the enclosure. We also cut in lockable doors and a few windows.
During the week, the construction crew built relationships with the kids and family. We often fed lunch to 20-25 kids during the week. We kept the moms and dads apprised of what we were doing and often asked their approval or agreement before painting, putting up walls, moving furniture, or working inside their homes.]
I also discovered that neighbors in Tijuana can be harsh and vindictive too. Adjacent to one of the roof structures, there was a piece of property and on it were shade tree and a chair that kids and moms (for whom we were building) would sit and play. We saw them on Monday. On Tuesday, it seems that the property owner was annoyed that we were there. The owner decided that they needed to clear their property and proceeded put up a barbed wire fence around it and toss the chair and other debris off the property and into the street, in front of one of the roof shelter build sites. I watched the
moms and kids staring both at the mess and the now-off-limits tree…and I could see hurt and sadness in their eyes. Another boot kicking them down.
It strikes me that we in the US have the same type of issues: teen-aged moms, families with no hope, and kids not necessarily having a future. Don’t we have kids with no role models? Don’t we have vindictive neighbors, exclusive, gated communities? Don’t we have families living in substandard conditions: living in cars, tents, and makeshift shelters? It seems that we share a cruel parallel existence from that perspective. For my family and me, I know that 1-2 unexpected events in our lives could put us on undesired path. I count my blessings that we able to make some choices for our and our kids’ futures.
During the trip we talked about the fact that none of us chose where we are born. Any one of us could have been born into those situations. In fact, I learned that some of us had been born in that environment and managed to get out. It’s only by the grace of God that I was born into my family and that I had opportunity to grow and prosper.
I know I can’t solve all of San Jose’s and Tijuana’s problems. But this trip reinforced that I do need to act locally, with compassion, and to share my talents, time and resources with others. I’ve come back with a bit more conviction to help with of the more vulnerable here in our neighborhood.
[Prior to leaving, I was not in a good place spiritually. My attitude was pretty bad. I carried pressures and worries of work and family. A series of events had me (still have) questioning my purpose, value, and direction. Saint Teresa tells us to trust God that we are exactly where we are meant to be…I have a very hard time with that.
I’ve not left my “bad place”, but I feel that I’m on the way back. There’s nothing like a week-long immersion to Tijuana to put my life and blessings into perspective.]
John Moore 2013
Since I am waiting for Fr. Joe Bisson to arrive from New Guinea will leave for Chicago around this time, I won't go with the team this year to Tijuana. I will miss the trip. This would have been consecutive year 14 for me. We have pre-built the roof, here in San Jose, along with the walls for the houses. This material is on trailers waiting to go.
The roof is designed to go over houses that families do not own. If for any reason they are kicked out of the houses, they can dis-assemble the roof and take it to another location. I left a trailer in Tijuana that can be used for that purpose. Fr. Nick, a former lawyer, was concerned that we were serving what one might consider the "middle class", not the gravely poor, in this city of severe injustice. This transportable roof, designed by Frank Fanger, here in San Jose, solves some of their problems. There are many more problems these people face: health issues, water, schooling, tuition, jobs, fair wages and the list goes on and on.
The first time I attended Mass at Rojo Gomez, it was with Fr. Nick. So many of the temporary chapels need help. I attended a wedding with Fr. Nick in an incredible downpour. I thought everyone was going to get electrocuted. The only roof was several tarps and the water was pouring through with strings of christmas tree lights strung up across the church space. The bride and groom were decked out in their finery, but didn't seem to mind and were not going to allow anything to destroy their special day. That week really pushed Fr. Nick up on the rung of my scale of appreciation. I know of no other priest who would go through so much, under such dire conditions for his people.
I encourage everyone to please watch the video about our chapel expansion project. Then, if you can help us, please participate in this very important mission to a very poor, disenfranchised people of God. You can donate to the Tijuana Ministry here.
Chris Chow 2013
For my Social Justice class this year, we had to reflect on the service we participated in to help the socially and economically disadvantaged. I took this opportunity to look back on the Tijuana immersion trip last summer since I believe it was the most impactful out of all my service this year. I was really excited to go last year since it was the first time traveling south of the border, and I’m equally excited this summer to be able to participate again with the Tijuana ministry. I first heard about the trip during mass when I saw a video played after mass about the trip two years ago. When watching the video, I was really entranced by the way the volunteers were able to learn how to build houses and renovate buildings in such a short time. For me, a part of the reason I wanted to join last year was as a testament to see if I could also make the same impact with my own hands. Since I had never really worked with construction and didn’t speak very much Spanish, I was relying on my friends and family to help me get along on the trip.
Luckily, or through God’s help, I was able to make some great friends that not only taught me Spanish and how to build houses, but also what it meant to do God’s work. The people on the trip seemed so motivated to help that it really became contagious. Every day, even in the exhausting heat and sweltering environment, I would work and play with the local children without a sense of tiredness or laziness in my system. All the ministers, from the chefs that woke up extremely early to make breakfast to the adults that kept me on task and busy, were a great inspiration to me not only for my work ethics, but also as a model of Christianity. Yet for me, my greatest idol was young Jesus. I talked to Jesus a lot during the trip because he was not only my translator with the neighboring kids, but he also seemed to have an amazing story and background. When I first met him and his brothers, I thought they were some other kids who volunteered for a week to come down and build houses. Yet he changed my whole perspective on the fourth night when he told me his life story and how much he had suffered with his parents being deported and having to live with his parents so far away. I never really realized how well off I was living with a great family and an awesome community, but Jesus’s story really reminded me why I had volunteered. Although making friends earning service hours were certainly some of the reasons I had come, the main reason I joined was to help those less fortunate as me.
As I look back on the trip, I am reminded of how much it embodies all of my social justice class. Not only did the trip help the poor and suffering, but it also helped me grow as a person. As a faithful Catholic that has been to Sunday mass nearly every week, I always prided myself on being faithful and good. Yet trips like Tijuana truly show me what it means to be a good Catholic because nothing matters until you practice your faith. For me, Tijuana allowed me to translate my prayers into service and physically help instead of donating money or praying for others. I’m really grateful for the opportunity and I’m really looking forward to see what more I can learn this year. Thanks for spending the time reading this and I just wanted to reiterate how great St. Simon’s involvement with the Tijuana ministry is because I never would have gone through any of it without the help of the St. Simon leaders in the program.