|Texas church crosses the border for ministry|
Children attend "Saturday school" in a tractor-trailer on
the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico. The school is part of the border
ministry of St. Mark’s United
Methodist Church in El Paso, Texas. UMNS photos by Jan Snider.
By Jan Snider*
Aug. 26, 2008 | JUAREZ, Mexico (UMNS)
The worn, rickety shack resting along the fringes of the parched
U.S.-Mexico border seems to mimic the characteristics of its lone
His face etched with years of hard living, Mr. Antonio crouches in the
plywood doorway. His frail body is in a permanent stoop, making it easy
to pet a dog tied up to a nearby water barrel.
It’s Saturday and Mr. Antonio and his dog wait anxiously for a special
visitor, Blanca Rivera, who treks the dirt road with a sack of food for
As a member of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, across the U.S.
border in El Paso, Texas, Rivera visits often to check on Mr. Antonio’s
health following his surgery and to make sure he has enough to eat.
Mr. Antonio waits for a delivery of food from a member of St. Mark’s. aaaaaaaaaaaaa
Once a week during the school year, St. Mark’s members such as Rivera
venture to the outskirts of the impoverished community of Juarez to
provide food and medical assistance.
They also operate a "Saturday school" to teach basic reading and English to children and adults.
The makeshift school consists of three tractor-trailers formed in a
U-shape. Children and their mothers gather in the center to help unload
water, food, clothing and school supplies. Within minutes, the students
convene inside one of the trailers, painted bright yellow and furnished
with discarded school desks.
Leading the group in song is Carlos Chacon, the local pastor who sees
this effort as an essential one. "Most of the people living in this area
are squatters," explains Chacon. "They’ve built houses out of wood
pallets and cardboard."
The people are often immigrant laborers who view this barren land as
more prosperous than their native areas of Mexico and South America.
Saturday school is an opportunity to learn basic reading and English and
to worship with the volunteers.
Some have been attending the school during all three years of its
existence and they are anxious to try out their English skills on
visitors. "My name is Maria. What is your name?" says a smiling young
girl. Maria giggles at the answer and races to play with her friends.
Al Lindstrom, a lead volunteer from St. Mark’s, says recent drug wars in
Juarez have made the volunteers more careful about how they travel to
and from the colonia. For instance, they now travel in groups and never
venture to the city.
Many residents live in homes made from scrap wood, cardboard and metal.
"Most of the violence has been directed at Mexico residents who are
involved in drugs, and there have not been many incidents involving
innocent people or Americans," he says. "However, the danger is there.
Over 800 persons have been killed so far this year."
The volunteers vow that the political landscape won’t affect their plans
to break ground for a school building in a few months on land being
donated by a St. Mark’s member. The church has partnered with St.
Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Amarillo to build a fully
operational school, where they plan to start a pre-school program and
build up grade-by-grade.
The Saturday school has resulted in Sunday worship services, weekly
Bible studies and youth activities. Additionally, the group has
organized medical, dental and optical campaigns and they help to make
homes more structurally sound.
Lindstrom says the dedication has paid off. "I can’t underestimate how
strong the mission is becoming," he says. "We have about 40 families in
the colonia that are regularly involved in the mission. It is reportedly
the second largest church in the area of Juarez."
Inside the trailers, the El Paso volunteers progress through school
lessons, but other lessons are taught by example. "One of the most
impressive things that is happening is that the colonia families save
some of the food that is donated to take to families who are more
needy," says Lindstrom.
Children and mothers enter their
tractor-trailer "classroom." aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
Recently, St. Stephen’s and St. Mark’s, two United Methodist churches
separated by more than 400 miles of Texas terrain, encouraged the
formation of the nonprofit Borderland Missions of Mercy. The ministry
oversees the dream of making a long-lasting difference in the lives of
their border neighbors.
Chacon says it’s already becoming a reality. "There’s been a big change. A revolution is going on in this area," he said.
*Snider is producer for United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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