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  • Writer's pictureAmelia

Missional Reflections: 10 Years On From 'ReBuild Mexico'

Updated: Mar 28

In April 2013, I went on my first trip outside of Europe, my first without my parents, and my first overseas volunteering project. A huge amount has changed since then, but the impact of this trip is still something I can recognise a full decade later.


For those of you who haven't heard of the Urban Saints x Amor Ministries project 'ReBuild Mexico', the vision is to provide practical help to the people of Tijuana, Baja California by building homes so that families can stay together and have a safe place to live. Homes are assigned by a board of local pastors who assess the needs in their communities and nominate recipients. The recipients of homes don't have to be Christians - the house itself is a pretty good evangelistic tool! The one requirement is that families must own their own land. This may sound surprising, but land is often somewhat cheaper to obtain than an actual house for most families. Most do, of course, have a roof and 4 walls of some description already, but the conditions of those places are often severely cramped and are rarely secure enough to keep a family safe in a place like Tijuana, which is not exactly the most unproblematic city in Mexico. Under the supervision of trained builders or engineers, mission teams build a 1-storey, 2-room house over the course of 5 days, including the installation of windows and doors, the basic outline of each day being the following:

  • Day 1: Foundations

  • Day 2: Wall frames

  • Day 3: Roof

  • Day 4: Insulation and stucco

  • Day 5: Windows and doors

  • Day 6: Finish any left-over jobs; handing over the keys ceremony

As well as the construction, each team member spends one afternoon during the week at a kids' club, helping out with crafts, games, and Bible stories.


During the trip, teams stay on a remote campsite about an hour outside of Tijuana, with minibuses coming every day to transport everyone to the construction sites, guided by a driver from Amor Ministries. We took out a team of 16 from Hope Baptist Church and were paired with a team of 7 from a church in the South East.


Team Hope Baptist x Eden Christian Trust outside the finished house

As you might imagine, I came back from the trip absolutely ecstatic. Not only had I learned a huge amount, but it had truly been an adventure and of course, we'd had a fantastic time as a team with many, many shenanigans on record. I was obviously super keen to go back, and I definitely had a feeling that God was not done with the Latin American missional adventures, which was a pretty exciting prospect (spoiler alert: I was right!), even though at the time I had no idea what that would look like.


I figured that now the 10-year milestone has officially arrived, it would be good to look back and see what ReBuild taught me. A lot of this is stuff I think could use real improvement on the part of Amor Ministries - I certainly don't pretend to be the authority on all things biblical mission and ethical volunteering, but I have learned a lot in my experience of those things and I do believe there is room for improvement in the way the project is run. I'm aware that things at Amor may have changed in the last 10 years - I can only speak from my own experience - but either way, I think it's important to look at these things and try to glean wider lessons from them. However, it's not all bad! My love of travel and of Latin America most definitely started there, and the project does meet a real, serious need whilst giving first-world teens a solid introduction to physically demanding work and a straight-up reality check about the serious needs of those living below the poverty line. More than that, however, God taught me a huge amount about compassion, humility, and reliance on Him, as well as a substantial amount about the true heart of mission.


Re-Reading the Diary

Given my love of travel, I'm ashamed to say this was one of the only times that I've actually managed to keep a diary on a trip! Now of course, this diary was written by a rather angsty 16-year-old, so I do take what I wrote with a pinch of salt. Not sure who I was trying to impress with it to be honest as there are some pretty dramatic and/or whimsical statements in there, but let's move on or I'm definitely going to embarrass both 26 and 16-year-old me.


Anyway, the main thing that really stuck out to me is how I used to perceive the whole thing as an 'us and them' situation. We, the first-world teens were off to change the lives of some poor, helpless Mexicans who had absolutely nothing until we showed up, all in the space of 10 days. How compassionate. And, of course, it was our job to bless them; they certainly couldn't do anything for us. I can't tell you where that viewpoint came from, I have no idea whether it was down to a lack of education about what ethical mission really entails or whether it was just my own arrogance - probably both in all honesty. In fairness, societal awareness around issues such as the 'white saviour mentality' has grown tenfold since 2013, and so an orientation before we went with an attempt to quell that kind of thinking would have been a bit of a novelty anywhere.


However, it's clear from what I wrote that the trip itself did help me to start seeing things differently. Reyana cooked for us twice (forget Taco Bell, these were the best tacos I've had in my life) and the family bought us all ice pops on one particularly hot day; they were so generous with their hospitality, even though we had just entirely taken over their yard and couldn't communicate with anything more than a combination of sign language and some of our almost-GCSE Spanish. It was a real demonstration of godly community. Latin American culture is generally very hospitable, but it was honestly amazing to see the extent to which they really wanted to share what little they had. It's an example I would definitely struggle to follow and I admire them so much.



It really goes to show that you have to be open to being taught. The 'white saviour' mentality can be so damaging in so many ways, and it is not the true heart of Christian mission. What I learned from this lovely family is that we have to enter into mission with the mindset of not only going to bless others but with an open heart to be blessed in return. This isn't supposed to be an expectation - we don't get to go and demand 'blessings' and nor should it be a mental prerequisite where we judge afterwards how 'blessed' we feel, but instead it's asking God to grow us in humility and other godly characteristics through what we allow our global church family to teach us.


The inequality we witnessed, however, was still absolutely staggering and it really cannot be overlooked. This was the first time I'd seen anything like that level of poverty with my own eyes, and it was genuinely heartbreaking. When we arrived at the campsite, there were 2 women looking for clothes in a skip. The family we were building for had 2 mattresses between 6 of them: 1 for the adults and 1 for the children. You wouldn't think that there could be such a difference in the space of 50 metres, but I can tell you that the contrast between San Diego, California and Tijuana, Baja California is a stark one. It's easy to forget that there is so much need in places like Mexico, maybe because the perceptions we have relate only to gorgeous beaches, mariachi music and great food, but I can assure you the need is there and it is big.



It's a hard one to swallow for those of us in recovery from the white saviour mentality, but we can't solve global poverty by going on one trip to a developing country for a week. The difference we make is minuscule in the grand scheme of things. However, what God has shown me through this trip is that what we are able to do is follow where He leads in the everyday. All of us have a part to play in mission, whether you're called overseas for the next year or to your local community for the next 40. The difference that an Amor house made to the situation of Marco-Antonio, Reyana, Petra, Marco, Bruno and Krisna Jimenez-Valera was a substantial one - it may not have solved the issues surrounding their income or ensured that they'd always have everything they could ever want, but it gave them a secure space to live as a family and in the grand scheme of their lives, God used our team to make a huge impact.


The Complicated Ethics of Short-Term Volunteering

The question is: do I really think that this project was ethical and sustainable? The answer is both yes and no. What the ReBuild program does is fantastic - it sees a need and meets it in a wholly practical way. It's a quick solution for families in need but also a lasting one and so in that sense, it's certainly sustainable, not to mention the fact that there'll likely always be teams to serve given that people can go from basically anywhere as long as they can 1) fundraise enough to go and 2) have someone who can read and correctly interpret the building plans. Outside of the long-haul flight (not exactly avoidable for non-American teams), the trip is also extremely low in terms of carbon emissions - all teams are transported to and from the building site by bus; everyone camps and uses solar showers during the trip; and all building work is done with manual tools, not power tools. ReBuild's degree of sustainability gets the stamp of approval.



The ethics, however, have me a bit more on the fence and honestly, I'm not sure if I can reach a definitive conclusion about it. On the one hand, the trip starts and ends with the team. The contact with the family lasts a grand total of 6 days and is then cut off entirely, and most of that time is spent concentrating on a task that doesn't physically involve them or require much of their input. The focus of it felt a lot like it was all about us: our project; our house; our trip; what we could get out of it. As far as I remember, little of our attention was directed towards the bigger picture of any ongoing work in Tijuana. This is especially an issue regarding the kids club I mentioned above - as far as I understand, it was only run during the time that teams were going to be there, which was 1-2 weeks over Easter, and I remember seeing a grand total of one Spanish-speaking adult there. Trips that revolve too much around the team can actually be really damaging: there is a risk that the focus is taken off the needs of the local community and placed onto the experience had by the volunteers, which is where organisations run the risk of partaking in voluntourism. This wasn't necessarily the case with Amor, but there were definitely aspects of it that felt as if they were running along those lines.


In terms of working alongside the local community, it's a mixed bag. As I mentioned above, a board of local church pastors choose those who receive houses, and it's clear that they do have a fair bit of input into the overall process, as well as hosting the ceremonies at the end of the week when the families are handed their keys. It would have been nice to get more involved with the family and wider community, but given we only had a week there and considering the strong presence of the Mexican mafia (no joke) in Tijuana, my assumption is that it probably wouldn't have been possible for us as a team to spend too much time away from the campsite in the interests of safety. I guess it's one of those things one might have more insight into with a bit more time spent with Amor Ministries to see how they really work and get to know the behind-the-scenes processes. I'd definitely be interested to know whether there's been any attempt to train local contractors or community members in building the Amor houses - if a bunch of UK teenagers can do it then anyone can - and if the funding were available to pay them a fair wage for it then it would absolutely be beneficial for everyone involved and make the project more sustainable.



I was definitely taken aback, however, (even more so now that I've thought more about it) to find that barely any of the Amor team who were on the ground with us spoke any Spanish. You'd think for an organisation that works primarily in Mexico that it would be a requirement for the staff to speak at least basic Spanish, but at least when we were on site, we were entirely reliant on those of us doing the GCSE. At one point the Amor team member based on our street asked me to come with him up the road to a different team's site so that I could tell the house's recipient that she needed to tell the children to stop playing around the team because it was too dangerous for them, and at that point, the construction team were on the brink of tears having tried and failed so much to communicate this themselves. If I hadn't been able to just about muddle through and get the message across, I'm not sure what they would have done, but what concerns me is that if the staff can't communicate with the local community, how they think that they can work alongside them effectively is beyond me.


One thing I'd say was also definitely lacking was orientation. We did receive a leaflet with some brief points about covering knees and shoulders, basic building tips, and not saying the word 'estúpido' (stupid) as that's apparently offensive, but very little else that I can remember in regards to any kind of training. This may just be a personal preference, but I feel I would have gotten a lot more out of the trip if we'd been properly 'introduced' to Mexico and its culture by either Mexicans or someone who worked there on a longer-term basis. I realise this may not have had too much of an impact on the 1 week we spent there but again, what we have to remember is that mission is supposed to have a lasting impact on the missionary, not just those the missionary goes to reach. We have to allow ourselves to be transformed by God through mission, and in my experience, so much of that comes through gaining a certain level of respect for the target culture, which to a degree we can only do by increasing our understanding of it, not to mention it can really help to dispel some of that white saviour mentality I mentioned earlier.


All of that said, I do think that overall, the way the trip was run was very good. From the perspective of the teams, the layout of the trip was great with clear goals to meet each day and again, it may sound like a given but witnessing poverty like that was a really important eye-opener for all of us. More than that, though, we had some brilliant times of prayer, worship and teaching at the campsite every evening. There was a lot of concentration on how we need to go forward allowing God to continue to change us and letting our lives be 'disrupted' by a missional outlook, which is a brilliant way to focus teams on the bigger picture. Plus, it's not the most important aspect by any means, but a day to relax on the beach in San Diego at the end of the week was ideal!



 

It's funny but until recently, I had rarely thought about ReBuild in the everyday. It was only when I realised that it was coming up to 10 years on that I started to really reflect on it, at least for the first time since those first few months post-trip. But now that I've had the chance to sit down and write about it, it really is amazing to realise the impact it's had. There are things in every mission organisation and in every trip that could be improved on, but I really am so grateful to have had the opportunity to go and for everything it sparked. It feels a lot like this trip was a springboard for me, both in terms of the love of travel that has developed, and the start of God growing my understanding of what it means to live a missional life.


Churches: teach your teens about mission and send them out. You never know what God might do.



 

Thank you for reading! If you have any questions or if you'd like to guest-write for The Classicist with an Atlas then I'd love to hear from you - you can get in touch via the form on the Contact page or on Instagram @theclassicistwithanatlas.


Thank you Jemma, Steve, Mark, Mel, Anna, Sam, Allie, Amy, Abi, Kate, Hollie, Liam, Will, Matt, Saskia, and the Eden Christian Trust group; we made a pretty good team. Huge love to la familia Jimenez-Valera: Marco-Antonio, Reyana, Petra, Marco, Bruno, y Krisna. Dios los bendiga y gracias por enseñarnos tanto, espero que nos encontremos otra vez en el futuro.


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