Last week I was given the opportunity to take a trip with a friend down to Mexico to get some work done on my teeth.
When friends and family heard about my plans they were concerned for my safety. “Isn’t Mexico dangerous?” “Aren’t there terrible drug-gang problems?” “Aren’t you scared you’ll be kidnapped?” I allayed their fears with the fact that I have friends who are missionaries in that area who had assured me this particular border town was safe, the dentist offices are literally a stone’s-throw (a girly throw at that) from the border crossing, and I would be staying at a hotel on the U.S side.
My 20 year old son was the only one who still held serious reservations. I promised to text and/or call him frequently to let him know I was still safe. Of course, this was after I did some serious teasing about what I would do to draw attention to myself and let everyone know I was a wealthy (not!), naive American woman.
Come on, you know you’d do the same thing—sons are just too much fun to tease.
The drive down was easy and spent catching up on news with an old friend. I had spent Sunday morning speaking at two separate churches so we got a late start, but still managed to reach the border before dark. Since our appointments were the next morning, all that was left was to get some rest.
The next morning we drove to the border, parked on the American side and walked across. Nothing could have been easier. Immediately upon entering Mexico we saw our dentist’s office. Since we were early we decided to walk the streets a bit and look at what the vendors had for sale.
And this is where things got interesting for me.
I was completely and wholly unprepared for the poverty in Mexico. We walked over the bridge, crossing the Rio Grande, and the moment we reached the Mexican side, beggars appeared. Elderly women and small children, all shaking their upturned ball caps at me—hoping I’d throw a dollar or two in, or perhaps a few coins. My eyes filled with tears, which completely shocked me.
I live in a developing nation. I am face to face with poverty every day. How then was this affecting me so deeply?
As we walked along the crowded street, with vendor after vendor hawking their wares, callers trying to hustle us into a certain dentist office with the hope of earning a few cents for the referral, beggars asking for ‘poquito dinero’, the shoe shine boys and men calling out hoping we’ll choose them that day, I struggled to get ahold of my emotions and figure out why I was so upset.
I realized that, for better or worse, I’ve steeled myself to the poverty in Zambia. I know many of the underlying causes and I know of poor choices that have helped to contribute to the problem. Here in Mexico, though I’ve done work here in the past, it was a long time ago. All I saw here and now were the effects of poverty.
I think perhaps the news stories, about Mexico and the drug cartels and the violence, that have reached us even way over in Africa had given me a reason to feel even more desperate about the state of the poor people of Mexico. On the way to Mexico my friend had filled me in on the story of one of our mutual friends who had a wonderful mission’s work in Mexico and as a result became a target of one of the drug cartels. They were forced to abandon their work and leave quickly for the U.S with only what they could pack into their car. All their work stopped because of evil men.
Poverty and oppression are the same the world over. The victims are the same regardless of location. And this was breaking my heart. None of my usual defenses were up and I was horribly vulnerable. It was painful.
Eventually I was able to get myself under control and even enjoy the day—well, as much as a day spent in a dentist’s chair can be enjoyed, anyway. But, I shopped a little—hopefully boosting someone’s economy—and ate a tamale (fine—two!), and practiced my terribly rusty Spanish.
This experience gave me reason to stop and think though about how I’m living in and among poverty. Am I guarding my heart in such a way that it still stays open to the needs around me without becoming battered and bruised? Or have I built up a thick layer of armor that will keep me safe, but also render me less compassionate?
Food for thought, for sure.
(Almost) Exactly One Year Ago: Sundays in My City