Growing up on the Big Island of Hawaii, I never went anywhere as a kid. Times were rough on my parents and they were barely able to make ends meet. Family trips were very rare, if at all, and we never went on vacation. Because I was the oldest of five children being raised in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with just enough money to get by, the thought of escape was always foremost on my mind.
The first time I ever left the state of Hawaii was in October of 1993, when I turned eighteen and I moved to Denver, Colorado. Seeing California for the first time as I flew to the mainland was a landmark event in my life. I got the added bonus of a layover in Salt Lake City before my final destination, so I was thrilled to have visited three states in one trip. With a total of four states visited under my belt, it became a desire for me right then to step foot in all fifty states within my lifetime.
A free trip to New Mexico, Texas, and to the country of Mexico was, naturally, my first thought when I read in the Christ Lutheran Church bulletin that some members were planning a mission trip to Juarez. But after shaking off the initial selfish appeal, I was attracted to the fact that the Mission Team would be building a home for a family that otherwise would be living in a make-shift shanty. I remembered what it was like to rent a different house every year as a child and recalled the joy and sense of security I felt when my parents were finally able to buy a home. It stirred in my heart the desire to be part of giving that feeling to another family. So I decided to become part of the Mission Team.
But there was a deeper and more hidden reason for wanting to go on the mission. One that I didnít dare share with the other members.
In my years growing up in Hawaii, I had never encountered a person of Mexican descent. To meet Mexicans who spoke Spanish so fluently in Denver was an exciting and new experience for me. I accepted them readily and even engaged in conversations with them, hoping to learn their language and be able to communicate with them. But as more and more people began to mistake me for a Hispanic, and treat me with prejudice accordingly, my heart began to harden against the Hispanic people as a whole. I was Hawaiian and fiercely proud of my culture. It angered me that I was stereotyped for my facial appearance and lumped in with another culture that society thought of as secondary.
And so conflict began to stir inside of me. I was excited at the prospect of touching the life of another family, but disenchanted that it was a Mexican family. I knew Jesus had commanded, ďLove each other as I have loved you.Ē(John 15:12) But I ignored it, nonetheless. I kept a civil and courteous outward appearance toward Mexicans, yet in my heart I held a grudge, and still had the audacity to think myself a Christian. A cancer of contempt had grown on my heart for Mexican people over my first seven years in Denver and I felt God calling me into the heart of my derision to find the cure. In May of 2000, despite my discord, I heeded Godís call and boarded an RV in a five vehicle convoy bound for El Paso with a heart ready to receive a change.
The trip through southern Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, was protracted, yet offset by frequent stops and the fact that everything that I was seeing was brand new. The landscape changed from jagged and broken mountainous terrain dotted with evergreens to barren plains of sand blemished by defiant, brown fauna. The homes along the way transformed from cedar-paneled mountain homes with acutely steeped roofs to flat-roofed, southwestern adobe structures crowned with swamp coolers. And the climate went from pleasant, embracing, summer warmth to intolerable, subjective, desert heat.
In El Paso, we were picked up by a bus provided by the Mexican church we were helping and transported into Mexico to the motel where we would spend our nights. Crossing the border was a momentous occasion for me, because it had taken me eighteen years just to get to the mainland United States. The fact that seven years later I was entering another country was an unprecedented event amongst my parents and siblings. I was breaking new ground.
The next morning we were transported by the same bus to the jobsite, where we met with the Mexican crew that would be assisting us. They were headed by Gary Fields, an American and a coordinator of Missions Ministry. Our mission was to be a three day project that was carefully planned out and scheduled. They managed to be thrifty with expenses by using the same basic blueprints for all of their structures. Because the plans were standardized, a concrete slab had already been poured for the foundation and the necessary materials needed to complete the building were waiting there for us.
But upon arriving at the job site, we realized that our plans had been changed. Instead of building a home for a family, we were awarded with the new task of building a classroom on an existing school grounds. We would be building right in the midst of the school day, permitting us to be able to experience the Mexican Motherís Day Festival at the school, and allowing the children to see hope and progress rise right before their eyes.
We began that first day with a prayer in the morning and instruction from Gary in the cutting and assembling of the 2x4s to frame the walls and the roof. Our excitement and anticipation seemingly overwhelmed us as everyone in the group was more than eager to get right into the thick of things. Those with construction experience assigned themselves to the power tools. The younger children worked alongside their parents, doing menial tasks. And the elder women, who made up the majority of the team, surprised me with their vigor and willingness to put aside their femininity in order to get dirty and sweaty doing work men were usually accustomed to. My preconceived expectations of clueless workers, lazy kids and snooty seniors were quickly dashed.
The mission was also a good opportunity for me to meet and get to know the names of the members of my church. Since I had attended Christ Lutheran Church sporadically and really only went because my wife grew up there, I didnít really know a whole lot of people. Many people had seen me in church and knew my wife and children well, but had never gotten a chance to meet me or see my true character. And after becoming acquainted with everyone on the drive and at the worksite, I realized the veracity of their Christianity and saw the love for Christ in their hearts. It moved me to call Christ Lutheran my home.
We worked hard together, under the heat of Mexicoís May sun, nailing wood together for the first half of the day. When noon rolled around, we welcomed the lunch provided by the wives of the men on the Mexican crew with open arms. It wasnít anything fancy; chicken, rice, vegetables, and, of course, refried beans. But the simplicity of the meal and the love and appreciation served with it brought back fond memories of the pot lucks my church held when I was growing up.
As the day wore on and as the classroom began to take shape, I also began to interact with the Mexican workers. They, too, thought I was Mexican, by my appearance. But their inquiries were different. It was almost as if they were saddened to know that I wasnít part of their brethren and didnít speak their language. Their attempt at communication with me made me feel like they thought I was worth getting to know, so I decided the most Christian thing to do was to return the favor. I talked with them the best I could and got to know them as well.
But it wasnít just the workers that were interested in who I was. During the breaks in the school day, there were children of all ages buzzing around me. Some stood at a distance, while others had no apprehension about coming up to us and talking or taking pictures. They were full smiles. Short statured collections of joyous atoms held together by their pressed trousers and sparkling white shirts. They were interested in our names, where we came from, and what we were doing. They spoke very little English, yet understood why we were there. I couldnít understand what they were excited about, but I could tell by their expressions and gestures, that they were hoping and dreaming that they would get a chance to be taught in the new classroom. They were happy despite the current conditions of the country they lived in. To me, they were a lesson in contentment.
In my room that night, I opened my Bible and my heart to Godís direction. I wanted Him to show me something in His word that would help me to overcome the hardness in my heart. I had opened myself to creating friendships among people that I went to church with. I met with the Mexican workers halfway on the bridge of amalgamation. I saw the joy of life in the eyes of the children. I just wanted God to tear the cancer off my heart and be done with it. I allowed my heart to be softened, but it would take more to remove my affliction.
The next day was spent skinning the skeleton of the classroom with paneling, installing windows, insulating the ceilings, and laying tar and shingles on the roof. The sun was just as hot as the day before, though less noticeable as we had become accustomed to it. Lunch was again provided by the wives and again reminded me of meals back home. I went out of my way to eat my lunch amongst the Mexicans, who had become familiar with me.
Of the four Mexicans on the crew, I had gotten to know Jose the best. When I told them I was from Hawaii, he was the only one who knew where it was. Throughout the day, he would come up to me and talk about the little scraps of information he knew about my home; hula dancers, pineapple, surfing. He asked me about the language we spoke and we exchanged translations of English words. He asked me about the color of the skin of my people and what types of homes we lived in. He asked me to draw a map in the dirt to show him where my island was in relation to his country.
His life was interesting, as well. He told me that he was married and had two children with one on the way. He also told me that he was walking around his neighborhood one day, fresh out of jail, and came across a construction site full of white Americans. He was curious as to why people who stood out so much were willing to travel to the heart of a bad neighborhood in Juarez. Gary, who was also running that project, explained to him that they were volunteers from churches in America and that they were in the process of building an orphanage for the neighborhood. Jose was so moved by the apparent display of generosity that he immediately joined in. Later, he accepted Christ, became a full-time employee of Missions Ministry, and then the head of its construction crew.
He was a simple man just trying to survive and provide for his children, much like me. He was thankful for our help, not invidious of it. And he was proud of his country, his people, and his heritage, just as I was of mine. He was a man in a nation of people oppressed and neglected by their corrupt government and keep uneducated and ignorant to all of Godís possibilities in an attempt to keep them under control. It wasnít until I understood that concept that I was able to understand the background of Mexican-Americans as a whole. It was as if the sun had finally risen out of a great midnight.
That night, in my room, after more prayer and meditation, God led me to the scripture in the Bible that became the cure for my cancer. In Ephesians 4:18, it said, ďThey are darkened in their understanding, and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their heart.Ē It stunned me because it was an accurate narrative of my condition. I had hardened my heart against people of Mexican descent because I was ignorant of them Ė who they were, where they came from, what they believed in Ė and in the process, darkness had been cast on the understanding I thought I possessed and I had become separated from the kind of life that God truly wanted me to live. Remorse led me to repentance and forgiveness was like gauze on the wound of my removed tumor. My shoulders felt lighter and everything around me was clearer and brighter.
On the third day of our project, we finished trimming the exterior of the classroom and painted it. I found myself ditching the task of painting to play basketball with the school kids, who, with all the bumping and clawing for the ball, really played as if it were rugby. But even as I took time to play with the kids, I found myself being called back to the project to be consulted on painting techniques and safe ladder positions and even being teased in jest about slacking off by the others on the Mission Team.
As the painting drew to a close, Gary and his crew summoned the teacher for which the classroom had been built for and led her into the building. The rest of us entered behind them and formed a circle within the structure. As the teacher looked around her new space, she joined hands with us and Gary led us in prayer. When the prayer was done, Gary handed her the key to the door, and we watched as she wept with joy. All of us were touched deeply, some of us crying along with her; the rest of us just a bit stronger at keeping it hidden. I felt as if we had had a profound influence on someoneís life and the many lives of the children she would come into contact with. Even though she did not know our names, our faces and deeds would live in her heart forever.
That night, we attended a service at the Mexican church that was affiliated with Missions Ministry and that had sent the bus for us in El Paso. It was a cinder block building filled with tarnished pews surrounded by white walls wincing under the weight of the air conditioning units that seemed to want to compete with the PA system. It was definitely a work in process, but the desire and struggle of the setting only made it more beautiful to me.
The Pastor called for some testimonies from us during the course of the service and provided an interpreter for the Spanish speaking audience. I was a little nervous about speaking, mostly because I was in front of people that I didnít know and people that I had just gotten to know. But I felt that my road to reconciliation started there, so I decided to share with everyone what God had led me into and what He had brought me out of.
At the end of our final night in Juarez, it felt almost selfish for me to have gone to Mexico with the purpose of serving only to come away with new friends and experiences, compassion for the Mexican people, and a transformation in my life. I had gone there to bless, but wound up being blessed. I had been given by God a replacement for my contempt. Something that was even stronger. The fierce love that I held for my own people now dwelt in my heart for the Mexican people as well. Thus, with my heart and life in correct alignment with God, I looked forward to returning home a new man and renewing kinships with the people who I had allowed my opinion of to fall foolishly into disdain.