Volunteer days in Tijuana

I’ve returned home after eighteen days in Tijuana. I’m in our Mexico City apartment and will be taking the bus back in Xalapa Monday afternoon. My time in Tijuana was unforgettable, truly life-changing. After taking some time to reflect, I’ll be sharing some thoughts about the experience as a whole. But before I do that, I thought I’d share a little about what my volunteer days at the Proyecto Salesiano were like.

The Salesiano priests/brothers and the volunteer crew live in a large building nicknamed “El Castillo” (The Castle). I assume it’s called that partly because it’s in the Castillo neighborhood (right on the US border) and partly because it’s a large, four-story walled-in edifice. In fact, the place was locked up most of the time for security reasons, and it wasn’t easy to find someone with the several keys needed to let me out when I wanted to run or just go to the Oxxo (an omnipresent convenience store in Mexico) for some goodies.

Here’s a external view of El Castillo—now that’s a border wall:

The rooms are very spartan one-person rooms, so plain that I forgot to take a picture. 🙂 There’s a wing for the priests/brothers, a wing for male volunteers, and a wing for female volunteers. (All of the volunteers besides me were in their early 20s.) There weren’t that many people there at El Castillo, though. I counted eighteen rooms in the men’s wing, and there were never more than three men there. As you know from previous posts, my room had a lovely view (sarcasm alert) of the US border fence:

Here are a couple of nice pictures of our volunteer crew:

A typical day started at 7:15 with Catholic liturgical prayers guided by a priest or brother. I’m not Catholic, but I respect all sincere prayer and I was a guest in their house, so I happily prayed with everyone else. They used the Liturgy of the Hours, the same liturgy that Catholic monks and nuns use. I now know a lot of Catholic liturgical prayers, though only in Spanish!

At 7:30 or so we had a very quick breakfast cooked by our two wonderful staff cocineras, whose offerings were always delicious. Lots of traditional Mexican food like frijoles, rice, chilaquiles, tortillas, etc. Then, at 7:45 or so, it was time to jump in the van or pickup to race to the Desayunador Padre Chava to feed the long line of people waiting for us:

I’ve already said a lot about the Desayunador, so I’ll only add a little here. It’s a very well-oiled machine with strict division of labor, so we could feed a lot of people efficiently—it was an assembly line with a heart. I did a number of different jobs, everything from washing dishes to bringing out the trays to refilling glasses of orange juice to dispensing soap for hand washing before the meal:

My favorite job was holding up the towel for people to dry their hands, because this game me an opportunity to greet and talk with literally every person who came in that day. There were many wonderful expressions of gratitude, especially that a güero from the other side of the fence was there helping them out:

A few more pictures from the Desayunador:

The Desayunador usually started winding down around 10:30, and we usually closed the doors around 10:45. When we were fully closed for the day, we sat down together and had our own shared meal, eating the same food we had just served our guests. (I joked with them that I wouldn’t serve them anything I wouldn’t eat myself!):

After that, we did various tasks, from cleanup to bringing in the food that had been delivered to us to sorting and organizing our donations of clothing, personal items, and toys for the kids:

Finally, at 1:30 or so we jumped back into the van or picked up and zipped back to El Castillo for a 2 pm lunch. (Yes, we ate a lot.) After that, we usually had a little free time, which I normally used either to take a nap or, if someone with all the necessary keys was there, to escape the fortress and go for a run. At 4:15, it was time for more liturgical prayers before heading out around 5 pm for our evening volunteer work.

Evening volunteer work usually involved working with children and teens, either at El Castillo or at one of the “Oratorios,” or youth centers. The two main Oratorios we frequented were one called María Auxiliadora and another called Domingo Savio. I use the work “work” a little loosely, because often the work involved simply playing with the kids: traditional active games like various forms of tag, and board games:

And then, of course, there was soccer. I even took a turn as goalkeeper, though I literally hadn’t played soccer since the 1970s. That’s me in the far goal in the first soccer picture below. Most of the time those talented teens pummeled me pretty hard, and I think even the little kids in the other soccer pictures would have beaten me down pretty good. But I’m happy to report that I also made a few good saves. 🙂

At 8:15 or so we returned to El Castillo and foraged in the kitchen for dinner. There were always lots of delicious leftovers to heat up. Finally, at 9 pm we concluded the day with more prayers, after which I wrote a few e-mails and crashed into bed. It didn’t take me long to get to sleep. These were really full days!

Of course, there were variations to the typical day, especially since it was the holiday season. We took the kids on Posadas, the traditional Christmas religious processions that I talked about in an earlier post (you can see little Mary and Joseph in the picture below):

There was a holiday celebration for the guests at the Desayunador:

We had occasional leisure outings like a couple of trips to the beach, with its infamous border fence:

By sticking my fingers through the fence, I was able to briefly visit my home country while remaining in Mexico:

More from the beach:

And we helped with religious services, especially given all of the special holiday events. There were a lot of Masses. One Sunday, we ferried one of the priests, Padre Felipe, to three different masses at three different churches. I did preparatory work for these services that as a non-Catholic I never imagined I’d be doing. I even filled the censer, the device used to burn incense during the Mass. The Masses were a little long and repetitive for my taste, but I did learn a lot, and I appreciated the love and devotion people brought to these sacred rites.

All in all, it was a very rewarding experience. True, at times I found it tiring, and some days I just didn’t have much energy, especially when I caught a cold early on. I even fell asleep during the first Mass I attended, for which my compañeros gave me a gentle ribbing. And there were times when I really wanted to climb the walls when there was no one around with the keys to the castle.

But overall, the experience was deeply gratifying. Wrapping our whole day in prayer reminded me very much of the Course in Miracles practices that I do (and did a lot while I was there). Most of all, it was a great honor and privilege—a holy experience, really—to spend the day with people joined in the common purpose of helping our brothers and sisters in need. While I’m glad to be home, a part of me already misses it, and  I’m sure I’ll return in the future—perhaps next time with Patricia.

Down the line, I hope to find different ways to continue this kind of work. I don’t know what the details of that will be, but I trust God to reveal the next step. As an oft-repeated motto of the Salesianos says, “Happiness is holiness, and holiness is happiness.” Amen!

• • •

P.S. They said these guys were a secure taxi service, but after thinking and praying about it, I decided to try a different service…

5 Replies to “Volunteer days in Tijuana”

  1. Amen to the happiness quote. A Course in Miracles has much to say about happiness. You are a wonderful example of them, as in “My happiness and my function are one.” 🙏🏻❤️

  2. Greg, I feel speechless. Thank you for your service and sharing. I feel sad about the vast homelessness. May we speed on to learning we are all one, and with love there can be meaningful space for everyone. Thank you for providing sustenance, hope and love.


  3. Thanks for this pictorial review of your experience, Greg. I smiled as I saw you in your work setting and especially with the interactions with kids. “Here to be truly helpful” comes easily to mind. And you look happy in the doing.

  4. Thank you Greg. I love all the pictures.

    Amen Barb.
    To ‘wake up to know my brother is my Self’ is a prayer I say to help remind me that we are one. The Golden Rule is at work in Tijuana. ❤️❤️❤️

  5. Thank you for all of your kind comments, everyone! I’m back in Xalapa now. I’m glad to be home (and our cat is very glad to have me home!), but I do already miss the work I was doing in Tijuana. I feel like I’ll definitely be doing more of helping work in the future in some form. We’ll see what that looks like!

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