September 2004: The Associated Press

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The Associated Press

September 18, 2004, Saturday, BC cycle

American boy and his church share faith, friendship with Mexican orphans

SECTION: Domestic News; International News

LENGTH: 2312 words

EDITOR’S NOTE – A Texas-based Associated Press reporter and photographer observed a suburban Dallas church group before, during and after a work week in Juarez, Mexico.

By BOBBY ROSS JR.

Associated Press Writer

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) – As the sun beats down on the yellow plaster building with the smelly trash dump out back, the skinny American kid with freckles and a crewcut raises his shovel again.

Eleven-year-old Taylor Eckert is part of a crew digging mounds of dirt and rocks 500 miles from his home in suburban Dallas. While friends are at camp or the mall, he’s sweating in Juarez, a world of poverty, hurt and graffiti. It’s his third summer visit here.

“We need a dump truck and a bulldozer,” the boy with the bright red neck jokes as he tosses another shovelful into an old Chevrolet pickup.

When the truck is full, Taylor and the grown-ups working with him at “The Hole” ride up a steep hill and shovel out the messy contents. It’s a labor of love in the 95-degree heat – part of a project to build a retaining wall at an orphanage.

But why have these folks from a land of plenty made this pilgrimage to the Emmanuel Children’s Home?

Taylor himself lost his father to melanoma; that’s part of what motivates him to help orphans. He has a big brother, Lee, a 20-year-old Marine serving in Iraq. Service, too, is part of what brings Taylor here.

But mainly, it’s more mysterious for Taylor and the others toiling in the midday sun.

They’re from a charismatic Christian church in Carrollton, Texas, that started visiting Juarez eight years ago. Besides physical labor, their time is filled with games, songs and door-to-door proselytizing. For all, but especially newcomers, the visit brings complex emotions, questions nibbling at the edges of faith, and tears warring with laughter.

Uncounted congregations make such trips, and some amount to a few affluent Americans spending an Outward Bound-style week in the Third World. Some church groups fly to a destitute city to hand out packages of food, and never return.

Taylor’s pastor, Mike O’Rand, refers to it as the Western gunslinger method of mission work, by which the pious can say, “I went, so I got a notch on my belt.”

But in the case of Sojourn Church, which Taylor attends, members take up a regular collection for the orphanage. Each summer, a youth group and an adult group from the church work a week here. O’Rand serves on the Mexican home’s board and talks with the director, Jonatan Lopez, on the phone 10 to 15 times a month.

“It’s all about the relationships,” says O’Rand, who visits the orphanage two or three times a year with his wife, Celia, and their children, Ashley, 19; Corey, 18; and Jennifer, 15.

When the O’Rand family first came, Velia Dominguez, 17, and Fabiola Pichardo, 18, were in grade school. Now, Mike O’Rand says, “These two are so much like daughters to me.” The O’Rands pay Velia’s $360 tuition to attend public high school.

Says Fabiola, speaking in Spanish: “This really is like our family that lives on the other side.”

It’s 12 days before the Juarez trip, and Taylor has hustled into the planning meeting straight from karate practice. He’s still wearing his white martial-arts robe as he bows his head to nibble a wafer and sip grape juice from a gold communion tray.

Sojourn Church believes in modern-day miracles, a personal Holy Spirit and the laying on of hands to share God’s power – like jump-starting a dead battery with a live one.

Taylor asks for God’s blessings on the journey, then adds, “Lord, I pray that you would bless the children. Help them know that they have a spiritual father even though they may not have an earthly father.”

The sixth-grader lives with his mother, Eleanor, and sister, Racheal, 9, in a modest brick house in Lewisville, Texas, north of Dallas. It’s the type of household where the refrigerator breaking down or the car refusing to start can be a major concern.

“We’re on Social Security and the budget’s really, really tight,” says Eleanor Eckert, 43, whose husband, Raymond, died on Christmas Eve 1995. “But God’s really good, and we’re never lacking.”

A poster of a Marine hangs on Taylor’s bedroom wall. Soccer trophies, baseball player bobbleheads and personalized “Taylor’s Yard Work” business cards decorate his book shelf.

By American standards, it’s a small, cluttered room. But one thing he’s learned on past Juarez trips is that it’s a paradise compared to the orphanage. There, kids bunk as many as 20 to a room.

Taylor’s brother was the first to go to Juarez; he went twice with the church youth group. Taylor heard the stories. How Lee worked with the homeless. How he helped make coffins for families too poor to afford them. How he cut crosses out of tin cans to share with grieving families.

As a young boy, Taylor would run up to Hispanic children on the playground and try to communicate; soon, he talked his mother into paying for weekly Spanish lessons.

When Taylor first asked to go to Juarez, his mother thought he just wanted to follow in his big brother’s footsteps. And yet, on a trip questionnaire Taylor filled out, he said he wanted to go “because I think God wants me to help the poor in Mexico.”

Two years ago, when Taylor was 9, Eleanor decided he was mature enough to join the mission team. O’Rand and his wife, Celia, usually don’t let children that young go without a parent, but they prayed for guidance. The message they believe God revealed: Take Taylor to Juarez.

After a 90-minute flight, the mission team, wearing white T-shirts with blue crosses, arrives at El Paso International Airport, just across the Rio Grande from Juarez.

The team loads its luggage into three vehicles, then squeezes in.

“Do you have an older brother?” a college-age girl asks Taylor. “Is he in the military?”

Taylor nods. “He’s been in two firefights.”

As the van heads to the border, Taylor bounces around in the back with his friend Dustin Swann, also 11, and Dustin’s 7-year-old sister, Rebekah. The entire Swann family is making the Juarez trip for the first time.

None of them, including parents Richard and Janet, knows quite what to expect.

“Really, it’s such an unknown,” says Janet, 49, who found it difficult to sleep the night before.

At the border, a guard glances into the van, then waves the group into Mexico.

Excited, Taylor pumps his arms in the air, as if his beloved Washington Redskins had just won the Super Bowl. But the surrounding scene is desperate: beggars, including women with babies and people missing limbs, wash by the vans’ windows as the team enters a whole new world.

Minutes later, the van pulls through a chain-link gate into a parking lot/playground. Taylor races down a rickety wooden walkway to the dorm room where he and 17 other men and boys will sleep. Taylor claims a top bunk.

Without taking a breath, he grabs his football and he and Dustin hurry outside, looking for friends. They’ll be out past dark, playing.

It will take Dustin’s mom a bit longer to adjust.

Upon arrival, Janet Swann dodges holes in the walkway and ducks under lines of drying clothes. She gasps at the communal showers and beds stacked within inches of each other.

She scrunches her nose as she walks through a dark, musty laundry room where Raquel Olveda works all day washing children’s clothes in mismatched Kenmores, Maytags and General Electrics that look like they’d fetch $5 at a garage sale.

Thrown into a sea of broken concrete and chipped plaster, first-time visitors find their faith immediately tested, Mike O’Rand says.

The first time Sojourn Church came, O’Rand’s daughter Jennifer fell off a swing and broke her arm. Another team member broke his leg. “The enemy was trying to dishearten us that this was not a divine connection,” O’Rand says.

Minutes after arriving, Janet buries her head in her hands and complains about the heat and crowded conditions.

“Is there a cold drink somewhere?” she asks, and her husband rushes to fill a plastic foam cup with treated water.

Emmanuel Children’s Home, which serves about 100 children, occupies one of the highest points in Juarez.

“A light at the top of the hill,” says director Lopez, 29, who started organizing mission teams from Texas, California and elsewhere at age 13. His father, a Salvation Army preacher named Josue Lopez, co-founded the home in the 1960s. The family also operates a nearby medical and dental clinic for the poor.

A bustling city of 1.3 million, Juarez mixes neon lights and one of Mexico’s higher standards of living with large pockets of poverty and despair.

More than 300 women have been killed in Juarez since 1993, making headlines here and abroad. About 100 of the killings were similar, and fears of serial killers prompted a special government review.

It’s a city that can use help.

Each morning, hands clap as the mission team prepares for “prayer walking.”

Corey O’Rand, a lanky high school basketball player with a mop of blond hair, uses an empty water jug as a drum. Beside him, Corben Nichols, 15, strums a guitar to the tune of contemporary Christian hits. Taylor and Dustin mouth the words to “Blessed Be Your Name.”

After the devotional, the team breaks into small groups.

Putting aside fear of barking dogs – and there are many – the groups take to the drug-infested streets to pray with people and invite them to a nightly church service.

Many accept. Maria Jesus Onteverros, 89, wants God to heal her back. Lucia Huertatriana, 32, seeks a blessing as she moves into a one-room shanty.

Inside a pastry shop, a man named Eduardo tells Janet Swann that his wife can’t seem to conceive a child.

“I had a miracle baby,” Janet tells him, “so do you mind if I lay hands on you?” She touches his shoulders as she prays for God to deliver a “special child.”

Later, back at the orphanage, Janet is just as involved in the Bible school, handing out stickers, making bracelets, cutting out construction-paper butterflies.

An old tin portrait of the Last Supper hangs in the faded, lime-green room. Eight old wooden desks form a circle. An incomplete set of World Book encyclopedias, published in 1960, shares shelf space with Building English Skills textbooks issued in 1979.

When the children stand and sing, Janet dances and holds hands with 10-year-old Meni and 8-year-old Jesus.

In a city known for violence and drug deals, the orphanage seems an oasis. It can teach how much the locals and their north-of-the-border visitors have in common.

But not always. One afternoon, American teenagers pull a practical joke: While building a second-floor office for the orphanage, they pull the ladder inside and claim somebody has stolen it.

Instantly, Jonatan Lopez alerts a policeman stationed nearby and sends staff members into the neighborhood to start “shaking people down.”

Although the pranksters apologized, Lopez is not amused.

“Here, it’s not a joke,” he says.

Thursday night – Day 6 – is the next-to-last.

Mexican children with red-, yellow- and green-smudged faces – from the ketchup, mustard and relish on hot dogs the Americans cooked – line up to swing at pinatas.

“Hit it! Hit it!” the children sing in Spanish.

Kids of both nationalities rush for the candy when each pinata breaks open. Taylor pulls up his camouflage T-shirt to hold all his Jolly Ranchers, SweeTarts and Tootsie Rolls.

Later, Taylor helps distribute new clothes to each child, purchased by Sojourn Church members back home.

On Friday morning, as the team bids farewell to volunteer cook Norma Rayas, Mike O’Rand puts a hat on the table and invites gifts of thanks for her. Taylor drops in his last two quarters and a peso.

Next comes the most anticipated event: In rented city buses, the mission team takes the entire orphanage to a water park.

The first year, none of the Mexican children had ever been swimming. While the Americans were putting down towels and taking off sandals, 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds started jumping in the water – and not coming back up. Americans leapt in to rescue them.

This visit, the kids happily splash, float in yellow inner tubes and play water football all day long. They eat cheeseburgers and refill their soft drink cups. Taylor moves his arms and legs back and forth to make an angel in the sand.

On a loudspeaker, “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Rock Around the Clock” play in Spanish. Waves move back and forth under clouds as fluffy as cotton candy.

Janet Swann snaps her fingers and shakes her hips to “Johnny B. Good” as youngsters dry off at day’s end.

On the ride back, many kids fall asleep on the buses.

On Saturday morning, tears flow and no one wants to say goodbye.

Sunglasses covering her eyes, Janet Swann hugs every child she can find. “I love you. I love you. Where’s your kiss for me?” she says as she embraces Meni.

A week away from computer and television has given Janet time to reflect. “I really grew from living in such close quarters with everyone,” she says. A month later, she’ll talk about how her time in Mexico taught her to appreciate her blessings more and made her more eager to help the less fortunate.

“Adios,” kids say as the mission team prepares to leave.

“Bless you, amigo,” team members respond as they share high-fives.

Taylor laughs as he plays a final clapping game with one Mexican girl. His favorite parts of the trip were working in “The Hole” and, of course, the pool. But he’s ready to go.

“I miss my mom,” he says.

At least three times, Mike O’Rand yells for everyone to get in the vans: “All right, guys, let’s load up!”

But Janet Swann cannot bring herself to leave. Finally, Richard gently pulls his wife away.

On the Net:

Emmanuel Children’s Home: http://www.emmanuelministries-juarez.org

LOAD-DATE: September 19, 2004

LANGUAGE: ENGLISH

GRAPHIC: AP Photo package by LM Otero, NY317-332 of Sept. 13.

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