When I was 18 years old, I signed up to go on a mission trip to Mexico with my youth group. It was my first time ever leaving the United States, and it happened long before you needed a passport to cross the border.
We travelled in bus loads of high school kids and a few brave adults who were chaperoning, and drove straight through from the Midwest to a church in Texas where we camped on the floor for the night. The next morning we were bright eyed and excited to cross over into Mexico.
The border crossing into the country was fairly uneventful, and we quickly reached our destination in the border town of Reynosa. I was struck by the large, beautiful homes that were flanked by shacks constructed of wooden pallets. And the tin huts that had brand new vehicles parked outside. It was clear we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
By visiting Mexico as a work project instead of a vacation, we were able to see everyday life in the city, and not just shiny, polished resorts. Children wandered the streets unattended, and every once in a while a stray donkey wandered by. Our daily work was mainly with children who, to my surprise, mostly spoke English. Although they often acted like they didn’t, I think just to laugh at us stumbling through the little bit of Spanish we knew.
By night we slept under the stars, surrounded by a cement wall with broken glass on top for security. Other than the occasional tarantula or someone’s blanket dangling too near a fire ant hill, it was very pleasant. We brushed our teeth with bottled water, and showered with our shoes on in a makeshift bathroom walled in by blue tarps.
One day we ventured out to do some food distribution. We went to the dump, because people lived in and directly around it. They were the kindest, warmest people we met while we were in Mexico. At one point my group of three got separated from the group and left behind. As we stumbled on our Spanish, trying to ask for directions, one of the Mexican women deciphered that we were with a church. “Church!” she smiled, and offered us some tea while we waited for our group to find us.
On our last day in the country we visited a large open air market. The choices were colorful and overwhelming. Some merchants tried to take advantage of the dumb American kids, and some stuffed our bags with more than we purchased. I ended up settling on a Nike shirt that boasted a plaid background behind the swish. It was such a perfect analogy of my time spent in Mexico.
I haven’t been back since, and probably won’t since so many security issues have arisen. But my visit to Mexico changed my life, I will never forget it.