It’s been 27 years and the phrase still rolls off my tongue with ease: “Escribe Su Nombre Aqui.”
“Write your name here.”
A few days after I turned 19, I traveled to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico for a week and it changed my life. I know, you’ve heard that a hundred times, but it’s true. I spent six days in a border town sleeping on a driveway, deeply immersed in a language and culture that I could not understand, lost in a place that caused me to (almost) forget my own life back home. My view of the world was completely altered, never to return to its former state. And this is a very good thing. Very good.
Last weekend I spent time with my dearest childhood friend who also went to Nuevo Laredo that summer. We’re not the same people we were back then: now we have husbands, children, aging parents, careers, households, smile lines, creaky knees, mistakes made and lessons learned. We’ve weathered (and are weathering) storms. We’ve basked in joys and endured seasons that we’d rather forget. So there we were, sitting at my friend’s kitchen table surrounded by all of that everyday life stuff, and we’re talking about what country we each long to visit. No, we’re not world travelers who jet from resort location to tourist city to outdoor adventure trip. We occasionally travel this way, although she prefers the downtime trip (cruise, beach), and I prefer the sightseeing adventure (New York City, but no shopping please). But our hearts long for something more. Something like we experienced in Nuevo Laredo.
There, we met children. We spent five days doing Backyard Bible Clubs with a limited supply of crayons, glue, paper, and scissors. We held the children on our laps, braided the little girls’ hair (they returned the favor), joined in the boys’ soccer game (I think I kicked the ball maybe once), ate beans, beans, and more beans with them, heard their prayers, and joined them in laughing over my futile attempts to speak the language (my friend knew enough Spanish to get by). I’ve never felt so loved. On the day we left, the children came running to the bus to bring us gifts – trinkets pilfered from their homes, not purchased items. These were poor children. They didn’t buy things; they re-gifted from the little they had. I came away with a cassette tape by a south-of-the-border band called Alabanza. It was the kind of music you might hear from a Mariachi band at a Mexican restaurant. After I returned home, I wore that cassette tape out and drove my friends crazy. I would pop it in the cassette player in my Volkswagon Dasher and instantly be transported back to the children. For many months, that was where I wanted to be. And for many years, it was where I thought I should be. In fact, I believed that so strongly that I dedicated myself – in front of friends and family – to serving somewhere with “the least of these.”
Over the years I’ve felt both regret that I didn’t pack up and move somewhere to fulfill that commitment, and resignation that the passions of our youth are naturally tempered by the passing of time. Those passions, some would say, are born out of naivety and idealism and thankfully we grow out of both so we can get on with the living of life. Yes, indeed on the surface it would seem so. But here is what I know: 27 years have passed and the only communication I could really have with those children still rolls off the tongue. “Escribe su nombre aqui”, “Cristo me ama.” Yes, a random combination of practical instruction and life-changing truth. I’ve forgotten a million details in my life, but the feeling that I had when I was with those children wells up in me in one instant when I think about that summer trip. There is no passion lost there. It’s just been crowded out and sometimes it has to push its way back in.
Lately, I’ve been hearing this over and over: God is most present with those who have the most need. If this is true (and I’m thinking that perhaps Scripture just might back this up), then there is a reason why the feelings of that trip remain with me in the strongest way. I’ve felt it when I’ve been sitting on the floor surrounded by children in an Azerbaijani orphanage or giving makeovers to women in a psychiatric hospital. My soul soars when I spend afternoons learning photography with teenagers who live in a protective custody group home. Is God more present in these places? Or is He simply more present in me when I step out of trying to find myself in my world and step into serving those in need in their world? I guess it doesn’t really matter. It’s a proven fact in my life that I feel closest to God when I am immersed in places that take me out of my world. So despite the decades of changes, perhaps my friend and I are still the same people we were during that mission trip summer.
I still have my Alabanza cassette tape in a box of memorabilia, and my friend still keeps a note written in brown crayon from that summer trip. For one week in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo, we lived the most beautiful paradox: In another world, we felt like we had come home.