I was 16 when my youth group bumped across the border into Baja California. Excitement electrified the air as we eagerly anticipated our first mission trip.
A turn-of-the-century Catholic church sat just over the United States’ line—our base camp for the next week. We unloaded our gear from the bus and threw our sleeping bags and duffles on the floor. We girls began the meticulous task of organizing curling irons, blow dryers, and makeup in the tiny bathroom. (We were 16-year-olds, after all.)
After settling in, it was off to practice the Bible lessons. Our group had the responsibility of teaching Bible stories to the children in the community assigned to us. Our translator coached us in speaking through an interpreter.
The next morning, after last minute instructions from our interpreter and the usual warnings of “don’t wander off,” we tromped onto the bus and rumbled into the small village of El Chimí, Mexico. I stared out the window at ramshackle dwellings that the upper 48s would have seen in an 1800s border town.
The sun didn’t waste any time throwing its heat, and sweat blazed trails through my makeup. I was a long way from my middle-class life in California and butterflies did belly rolls in my stomach. New to this mission thing, I also worried about whether I’d make a fool of myself trying to teach through a translator (who was quite cute, I might add).
The bus rattled to a halt and the doors squealed open, interrupting my thoughts. We stepped down onto the hard-packed dirt street. Wide-eyed kids peeked around the corners of shacks and old stone buildings, staring at these white strangers who had come to their village.
But, true to children in every culture, curiosity got the best of them and they slowly snuck out of their hiding places. It didn’t take long for the ice to be broken as we all gathered in the middle of the street for a lively game of kickball.
After awhile I took a break in the shade of an old mesquite tree, and rested on a low stone wall. Pretty soon, my quiet perch was crowded with brown, barefooted little bodies, snuggling up to my side. One particular five-year-old ran to have first pick at the space next to me and claimed me as her forever-friend. Her soft brown eyes, the picture of innocence and peace.
My adolescent, self-centeredness melted away as I fell in love with these kids. They even made speaking in front of a group easy. My fellow teachers and I stumbled and stammered through the learning process of speaking through an interpreter, but their innocent faces were intent on every word we said.
I was also amazed at how we could communicate with them as we played. I spoke only a couple or so words of Spanish; They spoke no English. Yet, we understood each other. I began to see how the language of love crossed all borders.
In fact, I realized that the inhabitants of this little village already moved and flowed in a love that could only come from God Himself.
Dust kicked up again as one of the boys sent the ball sailing across our makeshift playground. Squealing and laughter echoed off adobe dwellings as the rest of the kids jumped up and chased after it.
As I waited for my turn at the ball, I glanced up and caught movement between the scattered adobes—a young woman walked toward her home. Her red blouse stood out bold against the tan and gray structures. I thought this odd she would wear red as I had been told that to wear this color was taboo in these parts.
I was informed later, however, that this village was so poor, old taboos didn’t count. You wore what was given or what you could find.
But something else about her struck a chord deep within me: she moved across the dusty street with such grace and poise. She didn’t walk slumped as if apologizing for her existence or where she lived. She walked proud, but not haughty: a woman who could outclass any that Hollywood had to offer.
And for all the dirt and dust in that place, she should have had at least one speck of dirt on her … or a stain, or something of that sort. But she was impeccably clean, despite the shortage of water.
When we were back at the border-church, I mentioned my observations to a youth leader. “Yes,” she said. “I know who you’re talking about. She invited me into her house.” She paused, thoughtfully. “Her home was also clean and organized, and I was shocked to learn that she even swept her dirt floors.”
I also found out this graceful woman was the mother of my little forever-friend I’d grown so fond of. Her peace, smile, and well-being was reflected in her daughter.
The week passed way too quickly, and we said goodbye to our new friends in El Chimí.
I arrived home a different 16-year-old. I looked around my wealth and privilege. And although thankful for the many blessings I had, I felt a strange staleness toward, and a detachment of, all things material, and a sense of something more important than things.
It’s been almost 40 years since that mission trip. Since then, I’ve been invited to mansions and gawked at the gold faucets and the ornate marble sinks shaped like sea shells. I’ve had dinner in dining rooms that could house the New York Jets. And I’ve watched diamond-draped hostess’ dressed in the latest of Saks Fifth Avenue, gliding across her spotless marble floors, proud of the wealth she possessed.
But as I dined on the wealth of the wealthiest, I felt its emptiness. My thoughts drifted back to the quiet elegance of a mother striding across her dirt streets. I remembered the soft, peaceful brown eyes of my forever-friend, and the innocent, carefree laughter of her playmates. And I decided, that of all the wealth there is to attain, I would choose the wealth of El Chimí.
“He who trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will flourish like foliage.” - Proverbs 11:28