"Hands of Service" is a ministry run by Arnie, a retired pastor, and his wife, Jeanie, who live in Northeast Wisconsin. Each year they bring a group to build houses in Reynosa.
Planning and preparation to build the three houses they hope to get built this year began in October. The last three weeks they have been working with a handful of helpers to prepare for the group of over twenty people who arrived last weekend. They laid out and poured three slabs for this year's houses and put a roof on one of the houses from last year.
Jeanie says that by the end of the last week they are usually exhausted and say they "will never do this again", but by the time the middle of the year arrives they start getting excited again.
They started building houses 19 years ago and have completed 50 houses for needy people.
Yesterday we had the privilege to join the group on the first day of their two week blitz. We met Sunday at the Texas Rose RV Park activity center for a hymn sing and returned there early yesterday morning to get into the vans with the 22 other team members and head for the border town of Reynosa, Tamaulipis, Mexico. The team members are retired shop teachers, a lawyer, farmers and a few other occupations we missed who come from various churches in Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas and Indiana. Some of the group have been coming down for two weeks a year for a number of years.
After stopping at a church (built by Hands of Service), to pick up a trailer with tools, the vans drove out across rutted paths through the bush and the garbage to the neighbourhood we were to work in. Paul worked with the larger group and laid block for one house about (best guess) 14 feet by 24 feet. This is the first house the group has built for a non Christian, but Pastor Jesus had chosen them as being needy of having a house. Paul was too busy laying and re-laying block (no risk of violating his amateur status yesterday) to get more details. Juanita worked with a group of ladies to paint the wood work on the house that was completed last week.
We laid block to the height one row below the top row and could go no further because the U-block needed for the top row hadn't been available. It was promised for noon today, but when the promise was made it was yesterday and that would have been "manana" and we all know what that means in Mexico.
We only joined the group for a day as a favor to our curiosity. Today they have other group members joining them to make up for any shortfall. The family that they start a house for today has a man, his wife, a 20 year old son, a widowed daughter with a three year and one year old, and a thirteen year old daughter who was raped at age twelve and now has a baby. The roughly 300 square foot house with a concrete floor will be a vast improvement over the tar paper shack with a dirt floor they all live in now.
January 28, 2007
Thursday was our last SOWER work day at the ChristianCharityCareCenter in Alton, Texas (CCCC). CCCC is a small ministry started by a man and his wife over twenty years ago. They take food and clothes into one of the poorer areas of Reynosa and provide medical assistance to the people at a clinic they have built there. It is a very needy project with just the man and his wife and some intermittent volunteer support staff. The couple is getting on in years and neither is as physically up to the demands of their ministry as they once were.
The men’s main project was building a 20 by 30 foot carport from material scrounged from the property along with material donated by the individual SOWERS. The carport will provide a spot out of the rain to unload donated material.
Other work included grounds keeping and small engine repair to make the grounds keeping practical. The women bagged food (rice and beans), toys and candy; sorted clothes for Mexico; and made quilts for Mexico. The weather here was rainy and cold for the last two work weeks so the men even got involved in some inside cleaning tasks as well as doing some trim work and painting in the chapel. The last work day the weather improved enough to permit completion of the finishing touches on the car port – the flashing where the roof meets the building and the eaves trough and downspout. The eaves trough and downspout were “manufactured” from plastic irrigation pipe found on site.
Juanita got practice with the finer points of quilt making and I got practice with my welding (posts and beams) and small motor repair.
Friday we went with a group of SOWERS from various Rio Grande valley projects and Way of the Cross (WOTC) staff to Puerto el Mezquital. The lady SOWERS working at the WOTC project in Harlingen bagged rice and beans which we took with us along with large cans of tomatoes, large cans of beans, some candy, some bottled water and some toilet paper.
The trip had been planned to be to Matamoros for the previous Friday, but weather had not cooperated so the outing was postponed a week and, since the roads in the destination colonia (district) in Matamoros were still seas of mud, our destination changed as well.
Our guide was Barney, a man from Missouri who spends about three months a year working with pastors near Matamoros, mostly by organizing work groups from the States. Our two vans with twenty-five people stopped near the Veterans’ bridge in Brownsville and prayed for an uneventful border crossing, safety on the trip and that we would be a blessing to those we met. We then carried on across the bridge and through the border. As you cross through the customs area on the Mexican side either a green light or a red light comes on for each vehicle. Green means “go”. Red means “pull into the inspection area and be inspected”. Both vans got green lights.
We drove through the busy streets of Matamoros, a city of close to a million people. I really enjoy being a passenger in a van and getting to look around at all the activities and businesses while I trust the driver to get us through the city and onto the correct highway. Matamoros was where we crossed in November 2005. Driving a truck pulling a fifth wheel trailer for a combined length of fifty-three feet through busy traffic on potholed streets with inadequate signage and no prior knowledge of the route really makes leaving the driving to somebody else that much more appreciated.
We got through the city and headed down the highway to Ciudad Victoria and after about ten or twenty miles came to a turn-off for Puerto el Mezquital. The highway to Victoria is a two lane highway with wide shoulders. There is enough room that anybody who is going slow enough to be passed drives on the shoulder and signals with his left turn signal that it is clear to pass. There is room to pass if the oncoming traffic moves over, which they tend to do if you flash your lights at them. The law is that the one who has right-of-way is the driver who flashes his lights first. Size probably is a factor in practice, of course. The highway to Puerto el Mezquital is two lanes, with no shoulders. As it gets closer to the coast it goes through sand dunes and then starts running down the narrow peninsula with tidal flats appearing alternately on one side of the highway and the other as the road winds Southward.
We passed through a couple of small villages and after about sixty kilometers arrived at out destination – Pastor Abraham’s church.
Barney had been trying to contact Pastor Abraham about our arrival so the women there would have food prepared to feed us. Each of had brought five dollars as a donation to the church women to cover the cost of the food, but with Barney being unable to reach him it looked like we might stop later at a restaurant or food stand. When we arrived in the village the group leaders met with the Pastor, his wife and some other church women about the schedule. The women were all ready to cook for the group as they “expected” us to come.
Once the Pastor had established how much stuff we had brought he knew how far to send word to meet at the church and what time it would take people to get there. It seems it would take to one-thirty (about an hour and a half) to raise a hundred people and somebody went off to take care of letting people know and the group went into the church to hear the Pastor’s testimony and learn about the ministry. This is the tenth church he has started in the islands, including a few on the mainland. The first three he built himself with a few others helping him. After that volunteer work teams working through WOTC built the rest. They all have Mexican pastors and are pretty much self supporting (I think).
This is a village of fishermen. The Pastor was a fisherman in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and was out fishing one day with a partner and they were beset by a storm. They were very cold and he said he was going to swim for shore. His partner argued against it, but he started out anyway since to stay would be to die. He had made it almost all the way to shore and he realized he did not have the strength to go any further. At the point he realized he was going to die before he made shore he cried out to God and felt a warmth come over him starting at his head. He was able to swim the rest of the distance, crawl out of the water and after a falling a few times was able to stand and walk and approach some people for help. He had to approach several groups of people for help before he came to anybody who didn’t think he was drunk because he was staggering. When they went back for his partner he had died. He was a Christian before that, but after that spent his life ministering to fishermen. He has a wife, twelve children and thirty-three grand-children.
After our time hearing from the pastor and asking him questions about his ministry and the area we walked back across the street to a couple of tables under the covered area in front of his house and the meal was ready. It was deep fried trout fillets and rice and pico de gallo and, it goes without saying, tortillas. Muy sabroso (very tasty).
Along about the time we finished eating people started showing up for the church service. Most of the group filled a bedroom to pray for a sister who had been burned in an accident. The room was full so I wandered over to the church and sat down in the back next to a young fisherman and inflicted my halting Spanish on him. His name was Flavio. He is a Christian and married and lives on the next island. His wife was at home on the island. They have no children, yet. We talked about the weather in Canada, and in Mexico and about his twenty-five foot open fish boat with an outboard motor.
By then the church had started to fill up and the rest of our group came in and the church service began. Everybody sang some congregational songs in Spanish. Then our group got up and sang a few songs for them in English. Three of the SOWERS shared their testimonies while a translator translated their words into Spanish and then Ron Mixon, one of the SOWERS at the CCCC project gave a message about his time growing up and his father’s near drowning as a coast guard member. After sharing how God had worked in his own life, Ron continued with a message based on scripture and gave an altar call. This was followed by a short message by Dennis, the WOTC missionary who drove one of the vans and people came up for prayer. About 28 of the hundred or so people made decisions.
The two translators carried on singing in the church with the local people, while the rest of us went out to set up for handing out food. Once that was set up and I had helped Barney with translating for him and the pastor’s wife about what to do with the suitcases of clothes that would be stored and dealt with by her it looked like everybody had something to do and there was no shortage of hands doing it I walked over to the front yard of the house next to the pastor’s house and visited with the fishermen working on their net there. They taught me the simple word for net is red but could not help me get my ears or tongue around the word for gill-net. They were tying the net every four inches or so to a heavier line. They showed me how and suggested I try it, but I explained I was too flojo (lazy) to do it. They laughed. They place a small float (boya like our` word buoyant) every arm’s length along the top line and a lead (plomo) about the same distance apart on what will be the lower line. This way the net will hang in the water and small fishes will swim right through and the fish of the size they are hoping to catch will only be able to swim part way and will become stuck by their gills preventing them from swimming out. The explanation was in language more basic than that and included a fair bit of sign language. They also allowed me to look at the solar still that was sitting in the front yard busily purifying water.
We all gathered together back under cover in front of the pastor’s house and shared and prayed and prepared to leave. Kati did the translating since Indira had gone with a little girl who had come to the service, but whose mother “didn’t come to church. In talking to her Indira was able to lead her to the Lord. Kati is new to translating and seemed a little nervous about it, but was glad when she found out where Indira had gone and what she had been up to.
Then we all got in our vans and headed back across the border to the WOTC in Harlingen. After circling up and sharing what the day had meant etc. we all headed our separate ways. Fred had followed our truck to Harlingen from Alton in the morning, but could find his way home with his passengers so I drove the truck up to the WOTC training center where we are due to arrive next week to see how bad the mud is in the RV sites. Then the three couples of us in our truck went out to dinner in Harlingen before driving back to our rigs at CCCC getting home about ten.
I don’t think anybody had any trouble getting to sleep that night.
Monday, January 29, we hope to cross over to Reynosa and join another group to do some construction on a house for some needy people.
That’s all recent history. Now for some ancient history that happened right after the last update letter on December 23rd.
Somebody gave WOTC a house trailer that had been in a flood. Most of the flooring had already been removed when the December SOWERS group started work on it. We finished the job by removing all the staples, nail strips and any other evidence of flooring and then started laying new sub floor. In the process of doing this we had removed the closet near the door to the living room as well as the door itself. We had replaced the door, the bottom of some studs, a joist and the wall board, but had not got around to replacing the closet. Because I was concerned about the closet going back in the way it came out and because I had spent some time doing a couple of hours of non-SOWER work with WOTC during SOWERS work hours I took it upon myself to put the closet back in. With doing the sub-floor this took most of the Saturday the 23rd morning.
The weather that day was dreadful with thunder showers and winds and driving rain in unbelievable quantities. After lunch I crawled under the trailer and removed the portable “Wayne’s Stabilizer” brand stabilizers. The sheet of coroplast I used kept me out of the mud, but not the water. That was enough for Saturday. I showered and changed.
The rain continued overnight in biblical quantities.
On Sunday, Christmas Eve day the plan had been to hook up to the truck and back up so the truck was not in anybody’s way and change into better clothes and then head out after church service which would be in a big tent since the chapel was now filled with bunk beds for the volunteers coming to the Big Feed.
We woke up to find ourselves in a the middle of a lake, about six inched deep at the deepest, not counting the depth of the mud on the bottom of this lake. Juanita waded around to the ladder to climb up and dry off the slide tops before running them in. She hung the mats to drain on a post. I did all the outside tasks one does before hitching up to the truck. You know – dumping tanks stowing hoses, raising rear stabilizers, wiping the water and mud off the cord to shore power and so on. My jeans were soaked, my socks were soaked from the water being deeper than my duck boots. I dumped out my duck boots, discarded my socks and exchanged my jeans for some nylon wind pants ( A Millar Western Pulp safety or production award) and went forth to hitch-up the truck to the trailer.
Once it was hooked up there was no thought of backing up to be out of the way. The water and mud was deeper that way. I hooked up the rig, put the truck in four wheel drive and started pulling. Once the trailer was out I turned along the driveway and parked. Getting out of the truck and considering the circumstances I made an executive decision that the tent would be just as cold and almost as wet and that we might as well head out. I went over to the site hook-up and started running water into my duck boots and dumping it out until it was somewhat clear, then rinsed one foot at time, and put the “clean” boots back on in turn. Then we did the circle checks and Ben Butler, the founder of WOTC, prayed over us and we headed out into the very windy day, keeping our speed down accordingly.
The plan had been to go only as far as Mathis and then do a push on Christmas day and overnight in the parking lot of Southwest RV in Katy just West of Houston to be there when the shop opened at eight AM on the 26th.
Getting away from Harlingen so early we arrived at Corpus Christi at about lunch time and decided it was too early to stop at Mathis a few miles up the interstate from there and turned, instead, onto the divided highway toward Victoria, Texas. Once we got to Victoria we headed north on highway 77 for a few hours until it crossed Interstate 10 and we turned toward Houston and stopped at a Passport America RV park between Weimar and Columbus. Somebody informed us the owners had just left to visit family for Christmas so we put the fee in an envelope and dropped it into the slot in the office wall. We had asked the person for the wireless password and she came back with it on a slip of paper. So we had internet, and water, power and sewer so we set up camp.
Just before dark we drove up Interstate 10 a few exits to a barbeque place that had been advertised on a billboard, but it was dark and shuttered tight so we worked our way back and found a number of restaurants that were closed and a Denny’s that was open. Having the field to itself it was busy, but we were in no hurry and after a relaxed dinner we headed home to where home was parked. The wind rocked the trailer pretty good overnight and even more so the next day, but we were just happy not to driving in the wind.
Christmas day we talked on the cell phone with our daughters and their families, plus with my mom and sisters who were visiting her, and just enjoyed sitting there relaxing. In the evening we got all set up ready to roll at the crack of the next dawn: putting in the slides, and hooking up the truck.
Boxing Day is observed in Canada, but not in the States so we headed toward Houston in time to be in the shop parking lot at 7:30 and watch everybody arrive to their first work day after Christmas. Once we had talked with the shop people about the repair we dropped the rig in their driveway, went for breakfast and a movie and then headed over to Friendswood to Juanita’s sister’s and brother-in-law’s place. Juanita’s sister had twisted her leg in a fall on Christmas Eve so was housebound. We had a good visit with them and with Juanita’s other sister in Houston the next day.
For the next two weeks life consisted of spending the nights in the rig next to the shop where they had parked it to work on or for fiberglass or paint to set and spending the days sightseeing or mall crawling or visiting relatives. We even did some, ugh, actual shopping. Normal shop hours began at eight a.m., but occasionally to catch up on the backlog the body man would come in at seven. With a long weekend in the middle and the cold weather slowing down drying times the work did not get down until January 3rd at four pm even though shop people worked really hard when the rig could be worked on.
The decal that came in was the wrong colour so we agreed that they would ship it to me and I’d put it myself.
We headed out into the rain that was just starting and drove for about an hour and stopped in the parking lot of the barbeque place that had been closed Christmas Eve.
I checked the side of the trailer that had been repaired and left a voice mail for the service consultant that the repair had started spalling. Further discussions have set the next repair date for March 26 before we are due to head back to Canada.
We went in and ate supper. We had talked about staying overnight in their parking lot, but then realized that it wasn’t very well lit, and was a bit lonely and it wasn’t paved and the rain was starting to make a mess of it. Since the decision to eat there had been based on “which would you rather have tonight, some barbeque for supper or a paid campsite spot?” we carried on to the rest area one exit ahead of the RV park and spent the night there. We went for a walk to the main building at the rest area and watched all six tourist department selections on the monitor there, before turning in for a night of being pelted by thunder showers while we watched the weather radar on both the TV and the laptop through the wireless internet that Texas rest areas provide.
The next morning we waited a couple of hours until the weather reports showed the heavy rain was about to slow down on our planned route and got on the road a little after nine. We arrived at the RV park in Mathis and got the last pull through spot that wasn’t taken or reserved. Actually the park owner had at first said that there weren’t any pull-through sites left, but I guess he remembered one when I started talking about the last couple of times we had stayed there and how much we appreciated him letting us pick grapefruit off his trees. There’s nothing like keeping repeat customers happy, is there ?. When we arrived at the designated spot we found somebody already there who claimed that the owner’s wife had said another one was the only one left. We went there and figured that he had found the site as under water as we had and had chosen the other one, but we were able to maneuver the rig so the doorstep was near a dry spot and we didn’t have to kneel in too great a depth of water to set the front stabilizers.
Then it was off in search of the local library to ask about their wireless service. During our time near Houston we had made use of several of the HarrisCounty libraries and our laptops and their free wireless service. This was not quite so sophisticated so Juanita checked her e-mail on one of the library PC’s on dial-up and I sat in the truck and read. She received an e-mail about a nephew’s wedding planned for Matamoros in February. It looks like we will stay in a Best Western motel n Matamoros one weekend in February. That will be a little different. Not sure I want to take our truck across and park it in a border town overnight. I prefer being deeper into Mexico before we do that, but it is probably a simpler option than using cabs and buses.
The next day we take our time hooking up and give the wind a chance to dry the site out a bit more and then it is on the road to Alton, Texas where we arrive about one pm and get set up in sunny weather, with a temperature of 81 degrees F. The group leader is one of the SOWERS we worked with at the December project and we work well together. He could be my brother-in-law’s twin with the way he looks at things. There are a total of six couples and a single on this project and at the end of it I conclude that I would be happy to work with any of them on a future project.
After getting the rig set up we drove back to the WOTC training center in Harlingen and picked up our internet satellite dish. We put the dish itself in the back seat and left the stand pretty much assembled on the open tail gate and strapped to the fifth wheel hitch. It was quick to set up the next day using the same setting as Harlingen.
Other than work we have done a few other things while here.
Juanita and I went across the border to look around Nuevo Progreso again. That is the third time there this winter. This time I was looking for and bought a hat. Juanita’s three dollar hair cut from a trip there in December has almost grown out (correction - I just read this to her and she said “No. It is still causing her a great deal of grief”).
We took in a RV show and walked through dozens of rigs and only found a few we liked and those were very similar to what we have. There was one quarter of a million dollar motor home that I rather liked, but Juanita doesn’t like rosewood and found it too dark. The layout was nice. Manufacturers have started making motor homes with one big slide down the driver’s side. Most of them are almost useless if the slide is in. The model I liked was okay with the slide in and unbelievably spacious with the slide out. I can’t see a motor home in our future, mind you. I don’t like the idea of needing a second vehicle or of tying up that much money in something because it has a motor and drive train as well as all the comforts for home.
One Saturday we met a missionary named Arland Strong. He was mentioned to us by the SOWER couple we worked with in November. His sending church is High Street Baptist Church in Springfield, MO. He has been planting churches in Mexico for a number of years. He gets it going, gets a Mexican pastor involved and works with them until the church is self-supporting. He knew some of the same people we met last year in Ciudad Victoria so we had a good time comparing notes. The following weekend we had the privilege of traveling across to Reynosa with him for the Sunday service at his latest church. It is a very vibrant work. The pastor was saved as a boy in a church that Arland founded in Victoria and went to a bible school in Victoria his ministry supports. It is good to see such ministries. I have always felt that the goal should be to make indigenous churches such that they do not require involvement from non-indigenous people to keep functioning. There is a time for help and encouragement but it is good to see ministries such as the one Arland is involved in and WOTC, which work in such ways as to avoid permanent dependence.
Another thing we had checked out here was the missionary language school at Rio Grande Bible Institute. We visited the campus and then talked about it with Arland since he graduated from the language program. The program is only for those who are accepted for work with a mission board or sending church upon graduation. Meeting that criteria would not likely be a problem, but the program seems over kill for the Spanish language skill level that would equip us for the type of ministry that we are likely to find ourselves in. However, doing the work we are presently doing is not likely to provide the pressure to drive improvement so we need to be considering some changes. Please pray for us.
For my birthday we went to a professional hockey game with another couple. The Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees are a Central Hockey League (CHL) team that play their home games in Dodge Arena in Hildago, Texas. Hildalgo is right on the border about a fifteen minute drive from where we are at CCCC. There is no tradition of hockey in this area of orange groves so the rink activities tend to compensate for that with a few things that one usually doesn’t see in Canada where, hopefully, the fans have a pretty good handle on what is going on. The off-side calls get big play on the Videotron as do the icing calls. There is a sponsor for each that gets a plug when there is an off-side or an icing call. Each of the penalty boxes has a sponsor that gets a mention on the Videotron when there is a penalty. One of the sponsors is a bail bond outfit - seems appropriate. I don’t know how AT&T makes the connection as the sponsor of the other one - maybe because some cell phone plans are so hard to get out of.
CHL rules have no-touch icing which avoids the dangerous rush for the puck. Of course, maybe the NHL does now too; with being away I wouldn’t know. I have started watching Coach’s Corner clips on the Internet lately to help the transition in April.
But back to the RGV Killer Bees game. The Zambonis (what is the plural for Zamboni? For some things spell check is just no help at all) were all painted up to advertise things. One was a Dodge truck from the front and a Dodge minivan from the side. The other was covered with pictures of pizza advertising a pizza and wings place. During one intermission they had a kid riding the Zamboni who was trying to eat a certain number of super hot buffalo wings. On the next intermission they had a kid riding it as a birthday treat.
Quality of play was pretty good. The team is mostly Canadians with a few token Americans. I had expected the crowd to be mostly white, winter Texans from Canada and the Northern states, but it was pretty well typical of the local demographics – mostly Hispanic with lots of families and kids. We went to a Friday evening game. I expect there are even more kids at games on Family Days. Those games start at 4 pm with all seats for $12 (instead of the normal $12 to $20) and free McDonald’s Value Meal coupons and free haircuts (what’s with that?).
If the Killer Bees get four goals every fan there gets a free hamburger at Jack in the Box. You just take your game tickets into any Jack in the Box in the valley. The Killer Bees won something like 6 to 2 the night we went. The hamburgers aren’t bad.
The next night I found that Killer Bees Saturday games are televised. You can see the play better than in the arena. On the other hand, the play-by is a hoot. The commentator will wander off topic while some fairly intense action is happening on the ice.
One SOWER couple is staying here for February. Depending on how far the next project is away for them, the rest will move out with them all being gone by Friday. One left yesterday. Another couple plans to go today after church. If they are going to other SOWER projects they will arrive at them Friday or Saturday just as the SOWERS who will be working at CCCC in February will arrive here Friday and Saturday.
We leave here next Thursday morning for the Way of the Cross in Harlingen. It is a little over a one hour drive on a back road.
I’m not sure what our work will be at the WOTC SOWER project in February. Best guess is that the men will, weather permitting, finish putting a roof on the mobile home which the January group started. There were supposed to be three couples there in February, but one of the couples did some wheeling and dealing to stay where they were in January. Hopefully that will be enough to handle the roof. The women will probably work in town in the warehouse preparing things to be taken across the border.