Texas Mission 2020 Update #5

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth. While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

Usually, the “work” portion of our week in Texas ends on Thursday afternoon.  That’s when we tidy up loose ends and begin the process of packing up, as Friday is reserved for a drive to San Antonio to prepare for a flight early on Saturday.  This year, however, we found our opportunity cut short in an unexpected fashion: for what I think is the first time in the history of these trips, we were unable to finish a day’s work due to rain.  It was chilly here in the morning – maybe 50° or so – and the mist hung in the air throughout the first half of the day.  By the time we broke for lunch, however, it had turned into a more determined rain.  This is good news for the farmers in the Rio Grande Valley who depend on this rain for their livelihoods, and who have not received much this year.  But it is, of course, disappointing to us and the folks who are counting on getting their homes built.

This trailer was totally enclosed in the structure we demolished on Tuesday and Wednesday. Today we tore it apart for recycling and scrap.

The first step in building Dulce and Pablo’s new home is setting the foundation blocks – there were 28 of them in all. They had to be measured, laid out, and then brought to level.

Lynn, Josie, and I did a little happy dance each time the level told us that we’d finally gotten things squared away!

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about the power of friendship and shared experiences to shape lives and mission.  On Thursday, we had the opportunity to dive more deeply into the realm of friendship with those we have become privileged to know and serve in our time here in the RGV.  Our hosts for this week, a couple named Pablo and Dulce, had asked us if we’d be willing to share a noontime meal with them.  When we got to the place in the morning, the charcoal was already hot and the chicken was marinating.  As we worked through the morning, we were enticed by the smells emanating from the home and the grill, and the noontime feast of chicken, sausage, guacamole, rice, onions, and… CHEESECAKE was indeed a festival.  As it became clear that we would be unable to continue to work safely and effectively in the rain, the lunch break went on longer than usual as we shared stories and dreams.  Before we left, we spent some time in prayer with these folks, and in doing so we talked about the ways that Moses prayed for the Promised Land without ever getting to enter it.  In the same way, we stood with Pablo and Dulce in the very first stages of their new home, trusting that it will be built in the days to come.  They’ve insisted that we come back and visit them next year to see them settled in.

The grill is fired up and ready…

… and Pablo is at his post!

What a feast!

Pablo and Dulce

The Texas clay tells the story of why digging wasn’t such a good idea this afternoon…

While most of the crew was on the construction site, Susana returned to the Catholic Charities Hospitality Center in McAllen, where her life experience and linguistic skill make her a valuable volunteer indeed.  While on site, she was able to spend time with a young women who, now 8 1/2 months pregnant, is about to be reunited with her husband in the USA.  In addition, Susana was able to escort a Haitian family (whose journey to the USA has taken them through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, and Mexico at least) to the bus station, where they departed in order to join friends and family in Florida.  If you know geography, you understand that this is about the longest way imaginable to travel the 900 miles from Port Au Prince to Florida…

Next stop: Florida!

A long journey is nearing its end!

When evening rolled around we were privileged to visit a family that we first met in 2015. Our team was privileged to meet Juani and her family as we were assigned to their home five years ago, and we have sought to reconnect with them on our annual visits as well as through social media.  How encouraging it is, and what a blessing, to enter this home that we had a hand in constructing!  What joy it brings to feel the love that reverberates from every wall in that place.  It’s been deeply rewarding to watch the children grow into new places of maturity and development, and to hear about their hopes and dreams.  Juani and her family fed us like royalty, and we ate some of the most amazing beans, chicken, rice, sausage, and “Five Cup Cake” that you can imagine.  The food was dynamite.  The conversations were even better.  Heck, they even had a FaceTime call with our old friend Nemorio, who was present on the 2015 team and was able to greet us in that place.

We didn’t finish all of the labor that we’d hoped to accomplish on Thursday.  A wise mentor of mine once told me (and thereafter reminded me again and again) that in ministry and in life, one very rarely gets to finish – but every day, one must choose to stop.  And so we stopped building, because we had to.  But we engaged in a relational pattern that reminds me of the Gospels.  Time after time we hear of Jesus dropping a truth bomb or sharing great grace with folks in the context of a meal.  He frequently compared the Kingdom of God to a party, or a feast, or a celebration.  When we get to travel to Texas, some of you might think that all we do is eat.  Some days, you’re not wrong.  But as we do so, we know that we have been given the great gifts of fellowship and shared time, characterized by the abundance that the Divine intends for each child of God.  We know more about all of that stuff than we did a week ago, and so we prepare to leave this part of Texas a little heavier and a lot more grateful.  Thanks be to God!

Throwback Thursday: here’s the team in 2015 outside the newly-completed home…

…and here’s the 2020 team celebrating INSIDE the same home!

Tim and Vicky (and, I think, Ricky) in 2015…

Tim and Vicky sharing time together this evening…

I am deeply impressed by the ways that Julio continues to reflect maturity and love in the world. I am privileged to be his friend.

Kimberly was in middle school when we showed up five years ago – and now she’s a senior, contemplating her future. She has so many positive things going on in her life!

Sharing stories around the feast…

When we were preparing to leave, we prayed, and then Vicky asked to read us this note she’d written. It says, “I love you guys with all my heart and I will always love you. I loved how you are funny and I like when you come in my house. And you play with me. And that you [buy] my mom a present. And me dancing when I was little. And that you liked my mom’s food and her cake.  And that you liked Ricky’s pictures of the characters that he likes and that I like.  And thank you for coming to my house.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself…

Texas Mission 2020 Update #4

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth. While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

There’s a word I throw out a lot when I am involved with ventures like this.  It’s “partner”.  Words matter to me, and I choose to use that word intentionally when describing the kind of relationship that we seek to build with those to whom we travel or whom we receive in the context of church travel.  “Partner” has been defined as “one that is united or associated with another or others in an activity or a sphere of common interest”. That’s a serviceable enough definition, particularly when one considers the words that I will NOT use in the context of mission relationships: donor, client, recipient, benefactor, well-wisher…  

One of the best things about taking part in our annual Adult Mission Trip to Texas is the fact that we get to stay with those who partner with us for the accomplishment of our shared goal: that is, to help people be attentive to the ways that God is moving in their lives, and how God so very often uses people like, well, US to do that.  This entry will celebrate the fact that for the ten years that we’ve been coming to Texas, our hosts have become friends.  We have so enjoyed the ability to worship together, to receive encouragement from, to share prayer requests with, and to hear of how God is moving in the lives of the folks in this part of the world.

My friend Roland has worked with folks who have experienced critical need for a long, long time. We met about a decade ago when he was our “Site Supervisor” on an early trip, and we’ve figured out a way to be together each year since then. He’s brought a couple of groups to Pittsburgh, for which I am deeply grateful.

We’ve stayed with the First Presbyterian Church of Mission ever since we started these trips, and it’s clear that we kind of like each other.  In addition to simply offering us space to sleep and meet, these folks are above and beyond hospitable.  For instance, a few years ago some of the folks at church decided that lunch on the job site would be a lot easier if we didn’t have to pack it ourselves, and so they came up with a system that allowed members of the congregation to deliver a hot nutritious (and delicious) meal to us as we worked.  By extension, that allowed some of the folks in Mission to participate in the housing work that we’ve been doing, even if they themselves were not in a position to hang drywall or swing a hammer.

Add to that the way that “Texas Bob” is here to greet us every morning and send us on our way; or the fact that Judy is willing to wait up until 1 to let us into the building on the night of our arrival; or the faces that greet us when we show up for worship on the day after we get here.  John texted and called me a couple of times prior to the trip to make sure we’d have everything we needed; Bill has been a gracious and kind friend who makes sure we don’t lack for clean, safe water; Cathy has been managing the tools and scheduling our meals, and Martha cooked us a heck of a brisket for dinner.  We do not deserve such kindness – but how it enriches our time away from home and makes us feel welcome in South Texas.

Grant and Donna made sure that the 18th was “Taco Tuesday” in the RGV!

Donna with a satisfied co-laborer!

Martha is the woman who taught me about Grapefruit Pie. Here, she prepares a brisket to share with our group.

Cathy (far left) joins the group in watching Martha slice it up.

John is a member of the FPC Session that plans for hospitality at the church.

We celebrate the ways that God is using the congregations of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights and First Presbyterian in Mission to not only care for each other, but to magnify the commission that each church has received – to go into the world and share the love, peace, joy, and justice that we sense in Jesus the Christ.

FYI, it wasn’t all eating on Wednesday… we did a little work too!

Tearing the home apart… it’s somehow exciting to break stuff on purpose…

Josie and Lynn working to remove siding.

Bob leads the “train gang” – the homeowner with whom we’ve been working was delighted to show our group old photos of this train filled with the neighborhood children.

The house is dismantled into a pile, and then the pile is put into the trailer and taken to the dump.

The stickers on our trailer say a lot…

Lynn and Lindsay are measuring for the foundation blocks for the new home!

Lindsay drove with the dumpster and got rid of our debris.

Susana took advantage of the opportunity to serve alongside our partners in Matamoros, Mexico.

Migrants waiting for the friends from Catholic Charities to set up the daily distribution.

Texas Mission 2020 Update #2

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth. While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

Our team at the beginning of the day, along with “Texas Bob” Sherwood, a key member of our crew!

Monday was our first “work” day, and we dove right in.  After seeing us build for ten years, our friend and site coordinator Roland has had enough, and he’s asked us to demolish a building, rather than construct one.  I’m not sure whether that’s a demotion or not haha but we’re happy to lend a hand no matter what!

Most of our number visited the community of Mercedes, Texas, where the United Methodists are constructing a number of new homes for families in crisis.  Our job today consisted of removing a carport and a porch to make room for a new home to be built on the property.  Once that’s done, the homeowner, Dulce, will be able to move into a safe, decent home with her family!

This is not quite a “before” shot, but you can see the carport and back porch/room that were gone before 4.

The dismantling proceeds apace…

Josie carries the corrugated…

One of the joys of this trip is getting to spend time with Tim, and watch him at work!

Progress…

It was tough out there by the afternoon…

A little plumbing issue that was truly “CHUPped up” a bit…(note Bob’s finger in the pipe, plugging the dike…)

The weather today was in the mid-80’s and by the middle of the afternoon we were all feeling the effects of being inside in Pittsburgh for so long.  We were hot, thirsty, and tired – but we made good progress in terms of the work that got done as well as team-building.  One instance of some heavenly timing… on what we thought was going to be the last swing of the day for the demolition hammer, we managed to break the small pic water pipe.  There was a little bit of a “gusher” in the yard for a while until we located the tools and equipment to cap it properly.  It was, to say the least, demoralizing and frustrating… until we heard the happy sounds of the Ice Cream Truck coming into the neighborhood!  Some frozen concoctions lifted our spirits and put us in the van as happy people!

Who doesn’t like Ice Cream???

Susana, who has a personal attachment to the ministry of Catholic Charities, stayed in McAllen and assisted in the hospitality mission there.  She was pleased to meet with a number of families who have come across the border and are awaiting the next step in the process of obtaining legal residence in the USA.  Susana shared many stories with our group and we hope to send more of our team there as the week progresses.

Susana with a young friend from the Congo, getting ready to start a new life in the USA.

Some volunteers and clients at the Catholic Charities Center, where everyone is offered a good nutritious meal, a shower, some clothes, and a place to rest.

Our evening ended with a dinner of chicken and rice and some great bonding time around the game “Codenames”.  We are a blessed group indeed.  Thanks for joining us on this mission!

Texas Mission 2020 Update #1

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth.  Some of us have been a number of times, while each year there are a few “first-timers”.  We fly somewhere – often Houston, this year, San Antonio – and then drive to Mission, TX, which is just west of McAllen and just north of the Mexican Border.

Jahn, Lynn, and Susanna are ready to get to the sunshine!

Bob, Lindsay, Jon, Josie, and Tim join me in anticipation!

While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

Our hosts provided us with a welcome breakfast of tacos and fruit! A taste of the Valley!

We left Pittsburgh bundled up and fighting the cold and journeyed through the day, arriving in Mission just after 1 a.m. on Sunday morning.  We woke on Sunday and worshiped at First Presbyterian, where we had the opportunity to greet many old friends and make some new ones.

One of the highlights of the first day of this journey is recollecting that one day we were wrapped in layer upon layer, salting walks and scraping windshields and the next day we were wearing shorts and walking under palm trees.  That’s a nice recollection!  We visited the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the “jewel of the National Wildife system”. It’s not a big park – just over 2,000 acres – but it is lush and diverse.  Here, we took a tram ride through the Refuge and heard about the history of not only the park but the surrounding area.  It was a great time to be together and a wonderful opportunity to encounter God’s wonder in this part of the world.  Our day finished with a dinner of homemade shrimp alfredo and an opportunity to hear stories and play games.  It’s been a great start.

Spanish Moss hangs from the trees at Santa Ana. Henry Ford collected this stuff and used it to upholster the seats of his early models.

The Rio Grande River, with Mexico behind us.

The cemetery at the Santa Ana Refuge, once once a family ranch.

Walking the trails at Santa Ana.

On board the tram in the refuge.

A view from atop the observation tower at Santa Ana.

Not unsurprisingly, the US Border Patrol is highly visible all around these parts. This is the station from which they launch the boats that patrol this stretch of the Rio Grande.

2019 Texas Mission #5

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

There’s a couple of hundred yards of Crooked Creek shoreline in Erie County, PA.

There are my two black chairs right next to my fish tank.

There’s a spot on the road between Liwonde and Ntaja, Malawi.

There’s a room in the cardiac care wing of Presbyterian University Hospital.

I don’t know where they are for you, but I’m betting you’ve got one or two or more… spots from which you have glimpsed the Holy – places to which you have returned more than once because you have found that those are spots where you simply know that God abides, and because you have sensed it there, you think, it’s reasonable to assume that the Presence might be anywhere.  You have places where you have found belief that remind you that you can continue to carry belief even when it seems nonsensical, or wearisome, or simply too heavy.

Most people think that those spots are functional – fishing holes or furniture or paved road or a health care center –  but to me, it’s a place where I’ve fished and heard the voice of God, or the location of some of the most deeply personal and intimate conversations with which a pastor has been entrusted, or the place where I remember the beauty and wonder of the God with humor enough to create Baobab trees, or a spot where I’ve witnessed faith and family and healing that strengthens my soul.

Thursday evening I was privileged to be in one of those spots – a place to which we’ve returned several times over the past few years.  It’s a lovely tree next to a little purple home outside of Mission, Texas.  It’s a tree that has provided me with shade on some really hot days, conversation and friendship on many days, and incredible glimpses of the kingdom on a few occasions.

In 2015 our team worked on a home that afforded us the opportunity to strike up a wonderful relationship with the family who lived there. In the years since then, every single time we’ve visited the Rio Grande Valley – every single time – we have been invited over for conversation and a meal.  Tonight, we visited that family again, and saw more chicken and sausage than anyone knew what to do with.  There was a bigger pot of beans than anyone from Pittsburgh had ever seen before.

We sat by the fire, we sat under the tree, and some of us who were there for the first time engaged in conversation with gracious people.  Others, who’d been there before, took the opportunity to hear and learn and share things that one does with friends in holy places like this.

I heard from one of the young adults in the home that when we were first there, they didn’t know what to make of us.  We sure laughed a lot, and we spilled a lot of paint.  But I was told of how it felt to go from having five people sleeping and living in a single room with a single bed to having a real house, where when it rains or storms, you are safe; of how it feels to be able to go to school and know you have an address; of what it means to be able to think about a future in service to others.

And I was reminded of those holy places in my life, and I thanked God for glimpses into the eternal.

All of the above was just AFTER dinner.  Before dinner, we did a lot of stuff that you’d expect from us this week: painting, roofing, drywalling, laughing, and spilling paint.  Here are a few images of our Thursday, as selected by our team’s primary photographer, Josie.  We appreciate your prayers.

Karren continues to conquer her discomfort with being on the roof by teaching that shingle who’s the boss…

Jon and Lindsay are taking care of the other side of the home…

Our hallway transitions from lime green to sunshine yellow…

Kayla, you really shouldn’t be having this much fun painting the house…

Jessica? Where’s Jessica? The last time I saw her, she went into the dining room with a paintbrush…

Every day we are here, the people of Mission Presbyterian Church offer us a hot lunch. Today, we were blessed to have homemade noodles from our friend Carol. She and her late husband Rog have been stalwart supporters of this mission.

Sacred conversation around the Lord’s table…

And here is the tree that reminds me that God is faithful, even when I doubt. I hope you can sit here one day.

 

2019 Texas Mission Trip #4

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.

Today was a great day to be on site as we continued our trip in the Rio Grande Valley.  The sun made an amazing appearance, and we had a lot of pink shoulders and faces around the discussion table this evening. The team that worked up on the roof (which, frankly, was most of our number) made some fantastic progress on the roof.  Meanwhile, a few of us remained inside – which felt increasingly like a cave as the sun shone more brightly. We were able to finish piecing in the drywall that we’d cut out due to flood damage and most of it has a second coat of mud on it already.

Following our work day, we were able to spend some time with Daniel Behrens, a Deacon in service to the Anglican Church through a mission called Trinity On The Border.  It was Daniel who gave us the idea to pack the hygiene kits for the Respite Center.  Daniel was eager to see some fellow Yinzers (he grew up in the South Hills) and to share his perspective on the nature and needs of the communities here.  We had a great discussion on the value and purpose of short-term trips like this (I might have said something like, “Seriously! Why should we spend all this money bringing us down here when we could send the money to someone local, who could hire roofers who probably need the work, and who would do it better than we would… because, frankly, we’re not very good roofers?”).  It was a rich time of conversation about the fact that the little house on Rhode Island Drive is not the only that’s getting worked on this week… We are all being shaped.

It’s late – so here are a few photos that will give you a glimpse of our day…

What IS that burning orange ball in the sky?

Jahn and David putting on the shingles…

Brian prepares our next piece of sheetrock…

The roof isn’t THAT pitched, but Josie is creative…

Phillippe, the homeowner, gives me some advice on cleaning the drywall equipment.

Daniel leads the conversation pertaining to Trinity on the Border

2019 Texas Mission #1

Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster.  In 2019 we have returned to the scene of most of those trips, the small city of Mission, Texas.  Here, as we enjoy the hospitality of our partners at the First Presbyterian Church of Mission, we’ll join forces with other mission networks to work to rehab a home that has been damaged by recent flooding.

We were commissioned in worship on February 10 and left Pittsburgh on the 16.  We flew to Harlingen and drove the final 45 minutes to Mission, arriving after midnight on the 17th.  Today was a day to get acclimated in several ways.  We joined our friends in worship, and then we visited the small chapel called La Lomita.  This historic site offers us a chance to think about the Christian virtues of hospitality, welcome, and faithfulness in the small things that shape us in large ways.

Lunch was a sumptuous affair at a local Mexican restaurant and then the team divided.  Bob, Lindsay, and Jahn went to the grocery store to equip us for our first few meals at the church, while the rest of the team visited the Bentson-Rio Grande Valley State Park located just a few miles away.  This is a sprawling area of trails and scrub that offered us the chance to soak up some warmth, to stretch our legs, and to see a few birds.

The visits to La Lomita and the State Park were bittersweet in that both of these areas are destined to be closed to the public as a result of construction of the proposed border wall that is currently a matter of no small debate. It was difficult to be in these places and to think of the fact that in years to come such will be inaccessible for political reasons.

Our dinner back at the church was fantastic, and we ended the evening with a rousing game of “Codenames”.

We appreciate your prayers!  Check back tomorrow for a glimpse at what we shall encounter next!

Amongst all the luggage we brought were three large cases of “respite kits” to be distributed to those seeking asylum in the USA. These small hygiene kits were assembled by dozens of volunteers in Pittsburgh and will be distributed with love.

The Chapel of La Lomita

Lunchtime at Tacos La Silla!

Lunchtime at Tacos La Silla!

A Crested Caracara keeps a watchful eye on our group.

Walking through Bentson-Rio Grande Valley

If you don’t know this game, you should! Codenames!