Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Is It Safe?

Every year when our family prepares to travel to Tijuana with Sherwood Oaks Christian Church and Amor Ministries, we field lots of questions about our sanity the safety of traveling to Mexico. On our first trip to Amor in 2007, when it was just Sam and I, my main safety concerns had to do with water and rusty nails. I hadn't even contemplated thoughts of drug violence. Turns out, in 2007 Tijuana was at the height of its drug-war violence. I had no idea. None. One of the campers got a stomach upset in the middle of the night, and another bruised a fingernail with a hammer, but that was the extent of the danger during our first trip.

For several years we tried to promote the trip to a Christian community with which we're involved. We thought we would have no trouble organizing a team of families to "Come Build Hope". I did get several inquiries, and one family who was interested, but I also received no less than 30 emails/phone calls from people scolding me for promoting such a dangerous venture. Didn't I know such a mission was too dangerous for Christian families?!

Too dangerous? For Christian families? It still puzzles me. Yes, there are drug-related, and I'm sure other-related, homicides in Tijuana - 492 in 2013, up from 320 in 2012. Most of the victims were involved in street-level drug trafficking, according to KPBS news. By the same token, the number of homicides in Chicago was 415 in 2013, down from 503 in 2012, according to CNN. Yet no one thought twice when the school's music department traveled to Chicago. Theoretically, at the time of the trip, Chicago was MUCH more dangerous than Tijuana.

But is it safe?

Amor has a campsite down a long, bumpy, dirt road somewhere in rural Tijuana. Security guards on bicycles patrol the campsite 24/7. This year Paul was fascinated by the morning guard, Santiago, who always had a fire going near his post. Between Santiago's accent and Paul's accent, they had a bit of trouble communicating - "What name? Powell? Pole?" - but they struck up a relationship, nevertheless. At 64 years old, Santiago biked 2 1/2 hours one way to get to work. He loves Amor, the in-country personnel as well as the short-term teams who come to build - and he took his job patrolling the site seriously. (One morning several of the boys Paul managed to move some embers from one campfire or another to a stack of wood in hopes of starting his own blaze. Santiago came rushing to Trent. "Pole? Fire!" The incendiary science experiment was quickly extinguished.)

The team travels from the campsite to the worksite in vans or buses. Amor works through the local Mexican pastors. Those wanting an Amor house apply with a pastor, and the pastors meet regularly to discuss each family's need and circumstance. (The family for whom Sherwood Oaks built this year was living in a three-sided shack - with a curtain providing privacy - made of garage doors.) Each family must own the land on which to build, and they must put in "sweat equity" leveling the land for building. (Often more difficult than it sounds due to the rocky and mountainous terrain.) Because Amor has worked so closely and positively with Mexican churches, local government and police for the past 34 years, Amor teams are welcomed and beloved by the local residents.

The view from this year's worksite. Fairly typical of the neighborhoods in which we've worked.
Dirt, tires and shacks cobbled together with garage doors and baling wire.
But is it safe?

From a ministry standpoint, Amor has an extensive safety protocol. They have had no incidences of violence in their 34-year history, comprising scores of in-country staff and hundreds of thousands of short-term volunteers. Sherwood Oaks has taken family camp teams, including children ages five and up, for nineteen years.

They have made the across-the-border trip to the emergency room exactly three times in those 19 years. One of those trips was for dehydration. The other two? MY children.

Fifteen stitches and seven stitches respectively.

If you drink enough (purified) water, and aren't a Thompson progeny, you should be fine. As a friend commented when I shared news that Trent and Paul were on the way to the ER, "Is that some sort of rite of passage in your family?"

But is it safe?

Several recent and compelling articles explore the issue of safety and children. In "The Overprotected Kid" in The Atlantic, Dr. Sandseter writes that children "have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk." Books like Free Range Kids examine the statistical likelihood of dangers we most fear, and encourages parents to let children explore and learn free from overprotectiveness. Mrs. Gore's Diary blogs about learning to let go of fear and trusting God in spite of internet news of brain-eating amoebas and secondary drowning.

In short - what, on God's green earth, could possibly be too dangerous for Christian families?

Paul and buddies, just hanging out next to the 50-foot drop into the neighborhood dump.
Just as Sam did before him, Paul talks daily about his time in Mexico - the fun he had, the friends he made, the 24/7 community, the work he others did. When can he go back? Can he go next year? Can we all go? Can he bring his friends? The discomforts of dust, outdoor banos and seven stitches in a busted lip barely register.

But safe?

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you." -- CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Safe? Who said anything about safe? But it's good, I tell you.

All smiles and bandages in front of the casa de amor.
*photo credits Brad Pontius, Sherwood Oaks Christian Church

Saturday, June 14, 2014


In retrospect, it was crazy.

To be honest, at the time it was even crazier.

In June, 2006, we were in the middle of a gut-wrenching move from Bloomington, IN, to Louisville, KY; Trent was working a new territory with a new manager so couldn't get away; and I decided to take our sheltered, innocent eight-year-old daughter to Tijuana, Mexico, to build a house with a Mexican family.

Because we had absolutely no construction experience.

And we didn't speak Spanish.

And also because she had never slept in a tent nor managed without electricity or running water. It had been a good twenty-five years since I had (thanks be to God).

So Trent was working in Kentucky. Sam and I spent Friday night at my parents' house in Indianapolis so we could catch the 7:00 am flight to San Diego. But my parents weren't home, so I arranged for a taxi to pick up us at 5:30 am.

Sam and I and our mountain of luggage (including the tent we had borrowed, tools, air mattresses, sleeping bags, clothes, Cipro (because the water), solar showers, and flashlights) waited and waited. No taxi. I called. And called. Finally at 5:50 am: "We have a driver en route to arrive around 6:30 am." WHAT?

We threw the bags in my (nearly empty of gas) car and I floored it. We made it to the airport in record time, screeched into a parking spot, grabbed the suitcases, and I chased down the airport shuttle that had just pulled away while my eight-year-old stared, wide eyed, at her crazy mother. I remember thinking, "God, I don't even really want to go to Mexico. And if we miss this flight I'm content to spend the week camping by Lake Monroe in Indiana. So if you want us there, You're going to have to get us there."

We made it to the gate with minutes to spare.

An article in the airplane seat pocket detailed the current drug situation in Mexico. It was not reassuring.

But then we arrived and set up camp.

Happy, happy, happy! (Feliz, feliz, feliz!)
By day two, Sam and I were plotting how to persuade Trent to join us for FamCamp 2007.

Our 2007 Mexico FamCamp family.
In 2008, we returned with my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, and our best friends from Bloomington. Crazy. Todos locos.

Each year brought new adventure, new heartache, new joy. 2009 was the year Sam sliced open her knee on a tent stake. "Quince puntos in mi rodilla." I can't explain why we returned to Tijuana after getting her stitched up at Balboa Park Naval Hospital in San Diego, except that there was no question in our mind that we would return. She had a knee brace and a makeshift crutch and a heart as bright as the desert sun.

We missed FamCamp in 2012 because we had just returned from Lesotho, Africa, with Paul. And we missed last year because Sam was in Germany and Paul just wasn't ready. We're crazy, but not that crazy.

This summer a friend from Spain is living with us, plus Sam is in the midst of travel softball, taking the ACT and preparing for a trip to Ghana.

So Trent decided to take our post-trauma, street-smart eight-year-old son to Tijuana, Mexico, to build a house with a Mexican family.

In retrospect, it's crazy.

Crazy love. Amor loco.