The fact that I even ended up going to Juarez was a bit of a surprise, even to me. Just one week before we left, the seed was planted with an invitation saying “don’t say someone else’s no for them.” So, I requested off work, and lo-and-behold, a mere day before the group left I was officially going to Juarez!
As we prepared to leave, most of our team heard similar things when we told people we were going to Juarez; generally something about fears of us being shot, blown-up, or kidnapped by the “rampant drug cartels”. We had to separate ourselves from news reports and well-meaning friends and family in order to choose to be a part of this trip.
Now I ask you to do the same thing as you think about that desert city just across El Paso's border. To ask you to see beyond a world of fear and pity for the 1 million who spend their lives there, raising their children, seeking meaningful work, building their communities; and instead to celebrate the Juarez that is coming.
I don’t mean to take the violence lightly. I won’t lie, I intentionally didn’t take out my pricey camera equipment during our 1 block walk down the street. I saw no need to draw more attention to my blue-eyed fair-skinned self than I already was. I couldn’t help feeling uneasy when a line of cops drove past. I was somewhat relieved when our wonderful and knowledgeable hosts preferred we did not spend much time at all exploring the town beyond the predetermined couple blocks. There are still plenty of rightful fears, but those fears are noticeably lifting. The community is still struggling, but they are dusting off and finding their feet. Palo Chino is a colonia (neighborhood) that truly believes that “if God is for us, who can be against us”.
I have so much to say about our 3 days in this precious city. I would love to talk about the incredible business training experience, and our amazing friend and interpreter Fred, who somehow made business vocabulary and math more interesting and funny than we could have alone. I could talk about watching Julia teach the Mujeres Fuertes a new tailoring pattern, and then watching their beautiful leader Carmen come alongside and continue to help. And oh, could I talk about the breakfast program at the elementary school that has changed it from one of the lowest performing schools in the city to one of the highest, and all of those sweet, sweet faces that I wanted to sneak across the border with me! But I don’t think today is the day for a novel. I’ll save some of these things for others to elaborate on, or for a lunch/coffee date. Instead, I’ll focus on a few things I want to make sure are celebrated.
A word that came up during the one Juarez trip meeting that I made it to was “stewardship”. Typically this word comes alongside things like farming or finances. However, from the moment we set foot in Palo Chino, I kept seeing the people of that neighborhood using incredible stewardship with what they had been given. They are definitely not the servants referred to in the well-known parable who are burying their talents, but instead the one multiplying them. I can be quite a cynic when it comes to giving aid for impoverished communities, but my experience in Juarez has proved to be a model of growth. Change hasn’t been overnight, but growth over the past year has been noticeable, even to someone like me who has only heard second-hand stories of what it used to look like. What I saw is that there isn't a sense of dependency. Yes, we had some things to offer; a business training, some sewing patterns we’d like to see in product form, able bodies to help with some manual labor, but they weren’t waiting around for us to get started.
The women were finding patterns on their own and already making school uniforms and purses for their own markets. They were making curtains and mending clothing. They have tripled the size of their tailoring school of their OWN initiative. Juan has been making investments in his “farm”, breeding goats and chickens to sell, and giving eggs to the school’s breakfast program (and our lucky team a couple of mornings as well). Carmen is finding additional funding for the Mujeres Fuertes sewing project, and trying new things to sell on her own. They were eager and grateful for our presence and partnership in offering additional training, but they were not looking for a handout, they weren’t expecting an easy solution. Our friends in Juarez want to do and are hungry for the how.
For this, we need to celebrate!
At one point in the business training even my brain was struggling to retain information, and I had everything in my own language. Elvira, a beautiful elderly woman was diligently taking notes at the table I was sitting at, and in my Junior-year-of-high-school-
level spanish, I commented on how it was a lot information, hoping to make her feel ok if she was a little overwhelmed. She immediately replied “Yes, but it’s very important information.” If this woman was at all phased by any of the business jargon and broad scope of ideas, she didn’t show it. She was glowing when she received her certificate of completion.
For this, we need to celebrate!
Yobel is working to “set the captives free” and “break the chains bondage.” These chains, this slavery, is not always so physically apparent. There is bondage of fear, of lack of education, of low self-esteem, of being told you can’t or shouldn’t waste your time, of hopelessness. But, this past weekend I saw evidence of these chains being broken, and people walking away from them. I saw self-respect, confidence, excitement, joy, ownership, and understanding that they can.
We get the joy of not wasting our gifts, but multiplying them with our friends in Juarez. We get the joy of participating, of partnering, and of continuing to see transformation occur.
For this, and all of these things my friends, please join me celebrating!