In my last blog, I said that my time in Tijuana was “unforgettable, truly life-changing.” Now that I’ve had a few peaceful days in Xalapa to reflect (with our cat firmly planted on my lap!), I’d like to share a little about what made the experience so impactful.
First, there were the people I helped. My daily encounters with people in need were deeply moving. There were men, women, and children. There were babies in strollers, folks in wheelchairs and on crutches, and homeless drug addicts drifting in from the dangerous river area called “El Bordo” (just a few blocks away), many days shivering in the surprisingly cold Tijuana mornings. There were caravan members on the run from danger, desperately waiting for the opportunity to seek asylum in the US. There were people seeking medical care, a shower, a blanket, or the opportunity to call home. There were the poor kids and teens coming together for fellowship, learning, and diversion at the Oratorios.
So many of the people I saw were deportees—there are more streaming in every day, dumped in Tijuana with nothing but the clothes on their back by the US Border Patrol. I spoke English with people who had been deported from the US and separated from their families after living there for years. One man had lived in Chicago for forty-five years. Another, a volunteer colleague at the Desayunador named José, had lived in Utah for twenty-five years; his children are still there. There are countless others just like them.
It wasn’t just these people’s call for help that was moving—it was also their resilience and their gratitude. We tend to think of them as victims, and in a sense they are. But in general, while individuals of course varied, most of the people I met struck me as courageous, creative, and hopeful people, determined to make the best of the situation they are in. In the midst of tragedy, we had lots of laughs. And so many of the people I encountered expressed deep gratitude that a güero from “Trumplandia” would come to help them. (And I wasn’t the only one.) Connecting with these fellow human beings on a daily basis made Trump’s blathering about a “national security crisis” sound like a bizarre cartoon.
Then there were my volunteer colleagues, both the young people I worked with and the priests and brothers who guided us. It was amazing to see men and women in their early twenties (and one incredibly mature young man who was fifteen) so utterly devoted to helping their fellow human beings. No, they weren’t saints, but I was in the presence of uncommonly loving and committed people. Our leaders—Padre Felipe, Padre Pablo, and brother Gustavo—guided our work and kept us on track with love, grace, and good humor. Everyone was unfailingly kind and helpful to me, and infinitely patient with my bumbling Spanish. There was never a sour note. Thank you so much to Jonás, Marie, Anna Sophia, Jenny, Juan Carlos, Chuy, Maira, Margarita, Ashley, Marisol, Claudia, Juan, Tony, Gladys, Martín, Luis, and the many others whose names I’ve missed.
Given all of this love, patience, and commitment to service, I have to give credit where credit is due to the Catholic Church in general and the Salesianos in particular. Yes, I have most of the usual progressive objections to aspects of the Catholic Church’s teachings, structure, and sociopolitical stances. But it’s a many-faceted institution, and I have to say that the social doctrine regarding marginalized people is awesome, rooted in the conviction that every human being is a precious child of God who deserves dignity, respect, and love. And thanks especially to the liberation theologians here in Latin America, this doctrine entails not only humanitarian help for the marginalized as at the Desayunador, but also addressing the sociopolitical factors behind that marginalization. I have to say that at least in Tijuana, the Salesianos are doing a great job of putting this doctrine of love into action.
In short, what was so powerful about my experience in Tijuana was being a part of this love in action. And as a student of A Course in Miracles, a path that says that “Nothing in the world is holier than helping one who asks for help” (P-2.V.4:2), I have to wonder: Why aren’t Course groups doing things like this? I know a lot of the reasons, based mainly on what I believe are misreadings of the Course’s teachings about acting in the world, but I still find it puzzling.
To fulfill my yearning to be of service, I’ve had to turn to the Presbyterians and Unitarians (the people behind No More Deaths in Arizona) and the Catholics in Tijuana. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; on the contrary, interfaith work is a great thing. But while there are individual Course students doing wonderful acts of service, there’s nothing organizationally that remotely resembles what the Salesianos are doing in Tijuana. That strikes me as a gap that really needs to be filled. It seems to me that a Course-based service organization, with both humanitarian and sociopolitical activist components, would be a mighty companion working side by side with all the other wonderful organizations helping our brothers and sisters in need.
So, now that I’m back in Xalapa, I’m wondering what my next step is. I would definitely like to continue doing this kind of work. I can easily imagine going back for another stint with the Salesianos in Tijuana at some point; they’ve told me I’m welcome any time. It would be great if Patricia and I could do it together. After all, both of us have worked at the Desayunador at different times. Why not at the same time? We would both enjoy that.
But what about the long term? Tijuana really was life-changing. I’ve been bitten by the service bug, and I don’t think the itch is going to go away. And I can’t help but wonder that if I’m the guy complaining that there aren’t any Course-based service organizations, maybe I’m the guy who needs to start one. No, that’s not a commitment to do it; I have to pray a lot about this. The way forward looks a little foggy right now. But I’m so grateful for my experience in Tijuana, and I’m looking forward to finding out what God has in store next!