The email came to my wife, Helen, and me towards the end of our third semester teaching English at Ebenezer Seminary in Tampico. The Vacation Bible School at our home church, Chapel by the Sea in Melbourne Beach, Florida, had raised $300 for a mission project. The email informed us that the $300 will be given to us when we return home for a summer break. We were to use the money to buy shoes for poor children in Mexico.
Exactly what poor children are we talking about? I supposed that I could buy various size children’s shoes and as a poor child walked past our house ask him what size he wore. The Lord intended something else I was sure. There were children someplace in Mexico that these shoes were intended for. Who were they?
As I thought about these questions, one of the seminary students, Erika Hernandez, came to the house for a conversation session with Helen. I took advantage of Erika’s presence and told her about the email and asked what she thought we should do.
Without hesitation, Erika said, “My father will know. When you return for the next semester, he will help you buy shoes and he will know who should get them.”
Although we had never met her father, Erika spoke with such conviction that Helen and I felt the problem of the shoes for poor children was solved.
We returned to Tampico after the semester break with $300 worth of pesos for shoes for poor children in Mexico. When I saw Erika I told her I had the money for the shoes and she told me we would go over to Ciudad Valles the next Saturday to buy the shoes. Her father was ready for us.
Enrique Hernandez Ruiz was waiting at the large Presbyterian Church (Iglesia Divino Redentor) next to the main plaza in Ciudad Valles. A short, stocky man with a great smile and big bushy mustache, Enrique greeted us warmly and welcomed us to the church and city. We learned that Enrique is an Elder in the church and has responsibility for a mission the church had started in Solidaridad, a colonia or neighborhood on the north edge of the city.
Enrique had a notebook under his arm and showed us the names of 25 children from Solidaridad and their shoe sizes. He had come prepared. Not only had he made his list, but he had made a deal with a shoe store. Helen and I walked with Enrique the 2 blocks to the shoe store. The sidewalks were crowded with shoppers and little stands were along the street and up onto the sidewalk. You could buy everything from candy to pirated CDs to fruit and vegetables. We were by far the tallest people on the sidewalk and felt like we stood out like a sore thumb as we squeezed past the shoppers. After negotiating the 2 blocks we stepped into a modern and relatively quiet shoe store.
The store manager took Enrique’s list and with most of his employees headed up stairs to what must have been an attic storeroom. In about half-an-hour, everyone in the attic came down loaded with shoe boxes. Each box had the name of a child on the lid. Enrique inspected the shoes and when he gave his approval I paid the bill.
While we had been waiting, Enrique explained that in Mexico the children must have specific school uniforms or they can’t attend school. Shoes are the most expensive part of that uniform and it has been difficult for many of the poor families in Solidaridad to keep their children in shoes. It is easier to pass a shirt down to the next child than a pair of shoes.
The $300 worth of pesos was more than needed for the 25 pairs of shoes. Since the Lord had provided all of the pesos for the children, I asked Enrique what he thought we were to do with the surplus. To my surprise, he pulled out his notebook and turned to another page where he had listed other children and school supplies that they needed. He explained that the first 25 were the most critical need, but other children who had a pair of usable shoes couldn’t afford many of the supplies teachers wanted them to have. These needs ranged from notebooks to pens and pencils to crayons to glue and even Spanish-English dictionaries. Our surplus was exactly what was needed to buy everything on Enrique’s list.
The next morning Enrique came by our hotel in a borrowed Volkswagen van he called a combi. His wife and ministry partner, Ethel, Erika, and her husband Amado, who was also a seminary student, were already in the combi. We all managed to squeeze in along with the shoe boxes and school supplies and drove off for Solidaridad.
The drive to Solidaridad took us north out of the valley on the old Pan-American Highway. After about 2 miles we turned off the highway and went under an arch that the government had erected when they built Solidaridad a few years earlier. I got the impression that to build the streets, bulldozers were run in straight lines to form a grid. Not a bad idea, except the land was full of arroyos or gullies. We had no sooner driven under the arch and we headed straight down an arroyo on a slope like the black diamond on a ski mountain. Enrique eased down the steep slope and then the combi struggled up the other side. After 3 ravines of easing down and struggling up we stopped in front of the mission.
The cross-country bike adventure in 2001 had gotten us out of our comfort zone and we thought we had seen every kind of living situation. Our first reaction on seeing Solidaridad was that this was another step out of that zone.
The land had been a scrubby brush forest that was much too rugged to be used as farm land. The people who had acquired a lot from the government and moved their families out there had cleared a spot for their houses. The building material at hand was brush, so the houses were constructed from branches and twigs and perhaps covered with a sheet of plastic. Families who had been there for a while had started replacing sticks with concrete blocks. The homes seemed to consist of one room, often with a dirt floor. The cooking was often done over an outdoor fire. There was no electricity and running water. When we inquired about bathrooms, the people tended to just shrug their shoulders, look a little embarrassed, and nod towards the woods. It was also obvious that many of the people were working hard to improve their homes and give their family a better living place. There were a lot of children running around. We had never been anyplace like Solidaridad.
After Enrique conducted a worship service that was very well attended by children, youth, women and a few men, the shoes and school supplies were distributed. It was fun to see the children excitedly showing off their new shoes or pencils. We wished the children from Florida who gave us the money could have had this experience with us. Our hearts were warmed to see how grateful these poor children in Mexico were to receive the shoes. Enrique made a point of letting them know that this was a gift from the Lord.
That evening as Helen and I were returning to Tampico, we were marveling at our weekend experience. The Lord had once again demonstrated that we should trust in Him. We were sure the Lord didn’t intend for this to be a onetime event. There must be something else we could do to help these poor children, but what? We decided to set up another meeting with Enrique and see what ideas he might have.
The events I have described took place in August of 2003. I’m writing this in January of 2011. Helen and I spent last week end in Mexico with Enrique, Erika, and Amado. Enrique did have ideas back in 2003 and the Lord is still blessing them. But that is another story for another article.