Trying to put all that I’ve learned into words is a very difficult task. In order to do so, I began to read over my journals. I was amazed at my transformation…
One theme that repeated itself over and over again was my desire to "make a difference" – to leave Mexico a little better than I found it. Upon trying to evaluate that goal, I began to think about "my kids." The kids that I had the most contact with were in a gang; they are called "cholos." I remember so clearly the day that I saw them for the first time; their baggy clothes, their aggressive behavior and their ever present bags of "chemo" -industrial cement that serves as a cheap drug (which also burns brain cells). They always traveled in a group. Everyone considered them delinquents, but as I looked at them, I saw boys – little boys, needy boys. I imagined that they were the 90’s version of the "Street Boys" that Don Bosco encountered in Turin. It was then that I decided to try and help them. This brought me a lot of criticism from the adults from the colonia and also from my own partner. Everyone considered them a lost cause. I insisted that they were just like Don Bosco’s boys and that we needed to help them. I found little support for my "cause," but I always felt that God had put me there for a reason; so I ignored the criticism and got to work.
I found them surprisingly accepting of me. I think the novelty of being the only American woman in their midst worked to my advantage! Slowly, I got to know them and eventually earned their trust and friendship. I must admit, this was not without its difficulties! I describe it in my journal as, "one step forward, two steps back." Just when I thought I was making progress, I would arrive to find the oratory full of graffiti or some other occurrence. There was never a question who had done it, because it was always stamped with their artistry "33" – the name of their gang. Daily, my friends in the community would jokingly ask me what my cholos had done to me that day. One day, all the baby trees that we had planted had been burned down; another day the outhouse was gone; I could go on… Of course, this only fueled the fire of those who disagreed with my work, but I was determined to reach the cholos somehow. There were times when I felt so frustrated, I wanted to go home. Some days I felt that my efforts were in vain. On a day that I was particularly upset and on the verge of tears, I began talking to one of my cholo-friends. They called him Chinola. He was very profound and quiet, yet he was one of the leaders. I confided in him my frustration and asked him what I could possibly be giving them. He answered by saying, "a friend, that reminds us that we’re not all bad." I walked away and the tears came rolling down my cheeks; maybe I was doing something.
At the end of November, only two months after I’d arrived in Tijuana, my Mexican partner left to care for his sick father. I was left alone in the oratory, which was actually a blessing in disguise. It gave me the chance to really try with these kids without the opposition of my partner. As I got to know them individually, I found that they were basically good kids that had terrible home lives. They desperately lacked love and attention. They looked for somewhere to belong and to be accepted – hence "33". They didn’t value anything, not even themselves. They were under the impression that life was short and they claimed not to have any dreams or aspirations. I remember before going home for Christmas, I brought them rosaries, prayer books and fruit. I think I was the only one who gave them Christmas presents that year. I knew that I had begun to reach them when they actually listened as I told them how to pray the rosary (something I myself had never done in its entirety, before going to Mexico). I became for them a friend, a teacher, a sister, a counselor and even a mother. I stood up for them when I knew they were innocent and I reprimanded them when I knew they weren’t. At every possible opportunity, I asked them to challenge themselves and to reach for their dreams. I talked to them about Don Bosco, about God and about Mary. I told them to pray for help and strength. But, I think what impacted them the most was my presence. They couldn’t understand how I could have given up living in "paradise" (that’s what the USA is to most of them), to be with them. I think that’s how I won their trust. They knew that I didn’t want anything from them. They knew that I just wanted to help.
I knew that my presence had made a difference during Holy Week, when some of "my" cholos agreed to participate in the Palm Sunday procession, in the portrayal of the washing of the feet, and the living Stations of the Cross. For some of those activities they had to shed their security and a big part of their identity – their cholo clothes. They had to stop being cholos for a moment and become the disciples of Jesus. I knew this was extremely difficult for them to do… I cried.
I’m not saying that all of them turned completely around and became upstanding citizens, but some of them went to confession, started going to mass, and became my best helpers is the oratory. I had beautiful relationships with some of them. Although for two months I was the only SLM there, I never once felt alone or frightened. They protected me and defended me and all they wanted in return was my friendship. I think they taught me just as much, if not more, than I taught them!
I recently went back to visit. I looked in all the old hang-outs: street corners, game rooms, stores… I had a hard time finding my cholos. I soon found out that many had gone back to school, gone to work and two were even in drug rehab. There really isn’t a "33" anymore. Did I have something to do with that? I don’t know, but I do know that God did. I was just lucky enough to have been his instrument; to plant the seed. He gave me the strength and the patience to continue with them, even though it was not what everyone else thought I should have been doing. I found that a little love and friendship can go a long way for someone who needs it. When I finally found a few who had been my closest friends, I began to ask about everyone else. One stopped me mid-sentence and said, "What about you and your life? What are you going to do, now? You can’t spend all of your life saving the world!" I laughed, but I was deeply touched by his concern for me – a true friend.
Being a Lay Missioner has its ups and downs. The Peace Corps has a great slogan; "the toughest job you’ll ever love". It’s true!! It has its discouraging and frustrating times, especially not knowing the language and finding yourself doing things that you’ve never done before. There are a lot of things to get used to and to accept. There are a lot of sacrifices. However, the benefits are countless… I met a Salesian Bishop who told me a story about Don Bosco. He said that a young priest once asked Don Bosco if he could join the Salesians. When Don Bosco asked him why he wanted to, the young priest say that he wanted to lighten Don Bosco’s load. Don Bosco turned him away, saying that those who came to work with him had to want to become saints, themselves. In other words, to become better people. I realized that I, too, had been searching; searching to become a better Christian, to strengthen my own faith and to figure out God’s plan for me. There were times when I felt useless and doubted my abilities. But, through those hard times, I became stronger and discovered a lot about myself. I think that I found what I had been searching for. God taught me a lesson in humility and showed me what my strengths and weaknesses are, among other things. I don’t regret my time as an SLM. On the contrary, I thank God for every last second of it.
The people of Tijuana taught me to cherish life and family and friendships. They taught me about being thankful for all that I have. They taught me more about God and having faith than all of my CCD classes put together. My kids taught me about being patient and understanding; and accepting people for who they are, not who they appear to be. My kids also taught me that being someone’s friend and loving them unconditionally CAN make a difference.