Casa Trip Day 1: The Opening Act

Posted on January 16, 2011



Each of the next six days, I hope you’ll choose to share five to ten minutes of your time with me because I want to tell you a story. I don’t want your time and attention because I think I’m special or because I think I’m a good storyteller or because I think my mission story is better than anyone else’s (it’s not). I simply want to share a story. My story. With you.

From December 26th through December 31st 2010, my wife Emily and I went with some people from our church to Anahuac (pronounced “ah-nah-wahk”), Chihuahua, Mexico to work at a children’s home for orphans and abused children called Casa de la Esperanza (House of Hope), or for short, “Casa.” And even though we weren’t at Casa for a full week, what transpired in those few precious days that we were there has changed me forever. And I want you to know why.

My story begins on the drive down to Casa from El Paso, Texas. Thank you for listening.

The Casa Crew from the Arvada Church of Christ, from left to right. Back Row: Gil (Casa director), John McCuiston, John's son Tyler, me, and my wife Emily. Front row: Gil's wife Becky, John's wife Traci, John's other son Austin, and Josie Phillips

On day one, our border crossing went as smooth as could be expected, and around 11:00am or so we were on our way. I was surprised to see that from where we entered Mexico, there was almost nothing between the U.S./Mexico border and the capital of Chihuahua: Chihuahua City. There was one little town and one “town” that was really just a gas station and a couple of other shops. As we ate lunch in the parking lot of the gas station, a small family of Tarahumara Indians/Native Americans- people who are indigenous to Northern Mexico- came up to us and wanted some food. The mom looked like she was maybe in her 40s and her three kids were pretty young. We happily gave her some of her food, lots of bottled water and also some cash. They were very grateful.

Driving through Chihuahua City was sort of a surreal experience for me; not because of the poverty (because poverty is relative) but because I was shocked to see how much Chihuahua reminded me of parts of Los Angeles. The building designs, the colors, the way the signs looked…it was all strangely familiar. I’m a middle class white boy from a Los Angeles suburb, but my family went to church in Van Nuys, which is about 20 miles closer to LA proper and has a very high Latino population. When I would drive around Van Nuys and see the stark contrast between the way that the Latino areas looked in contrast to the more established, “whiter” areas of L.A., I had always naively and ignorantly assumed that those signs and buildings in the predominantly Latino areas looked the way they did because the Latino folks couldn’t afford better materials. And while it’s probably fair to say that the predominantly Latino areas of Los Angeles aren’t exactly flush with cash, it never occurred to me that the buildings and signs might look the way they do by design. Mexican immigrants come to The States wanting the freedom and the hope of a better financial and personal future, but I guess they also want to retain some of the comfort and familiarity of Home, so they’ve tried to re-create bits and pieces of home in parts of L.A. If you were in their position, wouldn’t you want to do the same?

For the entire 6+ hour car ride from the border, I rode with John, the ring leader for this mission trip from our church.  This was John’s 12th trip down to Casa, and it’s probably fair to say that out of all of the volunteers that have worked at Casa over the years (with the possible exception of one other person), no one volunteer has put in more blood, sweat and tears (literally on all three counts) into providing better living conditions for the kids at Casa than him. John is a man’s man, a blue-collar guy that can fix or build anything (compared to me, who gets excited when I actually know the name of a tool), and who has a tremendous heart for helping make Casa kids’ lives a little bit brighter. I already liked John before this trip, but with each Casa story he told me, my admiration for him grew. We shared some great conversation, great stories, and of course some great tunes. There’s nothing on earth quite like a road trip for bringing people together.

We arrived at Casa close to sundown. Once we emptied our trailers that were full of tools for working and food from food drives back in Colorado, we got to meet the kids and eat dinner with them. I had heard that the kids were always excited to see “los Americanos” and that they would routinely jump on you, hang on you, etc. as soon as you walked in the door, but being a former school teacher in a low-income school and a volunteer at a shelter for abused women and children, I wasn’t expecting them to do that to me. Not until I had proven myself trustworthy, anyway. Sure enough, most of them (especially the girls) avoided me the first night, and I happily gave them their space. (Well, “happily” might be a stretch. If I would have had it my way, I would have hugged them all so hard and for so long that they would have felt the love of Christ transferring straight from heaven, through me and into their hearts from the moment I hit the door.) I wondered how long it would take for the kids to warm up to me, especially since my Spanish is pretty lousy.

It was only natural that almost everyone from the different church groups gravitated towards the younger kids. In general, the younger ones are more visibly friendly, more affectionate, and as a result, perhaps more fun. It’s certainly fair to say that with the younger kids, you don’t have to deal with nearly the number of rejections and mixed messages that you would get if you tried to dive in and interact with the older kids. As I was on my way to a table of younger boys, I noticed that there were no adults at the table where all of the older boys were sitting (10, 11, and 12-year-olds). The selfish part of me wanted to have the little girls and boys jumping all over me and hugging me as soon as possible, but I knew that I was not here to satisfy MY needs for attention (which are often substantial), so I joined the older boys. It was probably where I was needed the most. Convincing a group of older boys whose lives have been turned upside down by the tragic loss of their parents and/or their parents’ cruelty and incompetence that some gringo in an LA Dodgers hat loved them whether they liked it or not sounded like a good starter project for me.

Here’s some pictures of the older boys.

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I didn’t make much progress with them during dinner. I think they thought I was kind of weird, maybe even a little dorky (shocker, I know), so if I was going to make this happen, I had my work cut out for me. The older boys liked to joke a lot, and just a few minutes into dinner, they had decided that their new favorite pastime was intentionally mispronouncing my name. Travis became “Trerress” or “Teeevees” or even “Tormenta” at one point. I laughed it off of course; boys will be boys. I knew I had to just bide my time and wait for the right moment to make something happen, and I felt like this whole name mispronouncing thing was providing me with an opportunity to do just that. I just had to figure it out what it was.

After dinner the kids went to bed, and I feverishly practiced a little Spanish with my Rosetta Stone program that I got for my birthday this past summer in hopes that I could increase my vocabulary just a by another word or two before the work really began in the morning.

And there was evening and there was morning: the first day.

Tomorrow, I fight fire with fire in the name mispronunciation game, (briefly) consider peeing my pants Billy Madison style, and get assigned to clean out a storage area that looked like something straight out of Hoarders.

Posted in: Casa Trip, Faith, Life