When I was eighteen, my friend Pam's church went on a mission trip to Mexico, to Cd. Mante in the state of Tamaulipas which borders Texas (where I live) to the south. She knew that I was Christian and we were taking an advanced Spanish class together, so she invited me to come along as a translator. I was to help teach Vacation Bible School while some of the others helped with construction and repair projects at the church.
I had been to Mexico before, but only as a tourist. My parents had made an effort that we only saw certain parts of Mexico DF and then one of the pyramids. My trip to the poor side of Tamaulipas was an eye-opener. It was my first time seeing cardboard boxes in a field used as places to sleep, my first time seeing a crippled person without any medical care whatsoever, my first time to realize that poverty in the U.S. and third-world poverty are on entirely different scales.
It was also the first time I'd seen open disobedience to the law in a church ministry: the group was taking donations of clothing into Mexico and also donations of cloth for the ladies there to make into clothing, things which the Mexican government forbids to take into the country. The church leaders had timed their border crossing to coincide with the changing of the guard to try to minimize scrutiny. I had not known any of this in advance. I could see both sides of the argument and was just glad it wasn't my job to make a decision one way or the other. (I have since become glad for ministries such as Paper Houses which work within the existing Mexican laws to provide clothing purchased in Mexico. With any luck, someone will have mentioned this possibility to that church by now.)
When we got to Cd. Mante, we saw the church building and met the people of the church. The church building had no electricity and no air conditioning. In summer in that part of Mexico, it does get hot; fortunately we were all from southern Texas and didn't have any trouble with the heat. Most of the people had no cars; they walked for miles to get to the church services. Some of them walked for an hour or more to be able to attend. Even in their poverty they kept their homes well, sweeping their dirt floors with straw brooms and making what beauty they could. The people were hospitable, kind and generous. They take hospitality and generosity far more seriously than we do, maybe because there's so much more need for it. They were strikingly gracious and polite. The culture was very alive. One of the fellows at the church, untrained but still more than capable with his guitar, had written some Christian songs and had learned many others. I still remember a couple of them (some of them were quite good), and sometimes I still sing them to myself. For someone who went there to help, I sure came home having eaten a slice of humble pie, knowing I had far more to learn from these people than I had to teach them.
I'm not quite sure what was more of a culture shock to me: the fact that we were visiting a non-tourist area of Mexico, or the fact that the people I came with were Baptists. To be sure, living in southern Texas many of my friends were Baptists, but they had their church and I had mine. My experience inside the Baptist church was eye-opening, both the Sunday worship on the north side of the border on the way home and the daily worship in the church in Cd. Mante. The choirs were large and loud. The preachers were often laity. One of the lay-preachers, probably barely twenty years old, had a message that I remember to this day: that when people mock and ridicule us for our faith, it is in exactly those times that they are aware we have something different, something that they need, that those are exactly our best opportunities to witness to the kind of difference Christ makes in our lives. There was less Bible-reading than I was used to, but the Bible-reading was directly from Bibles rather than from excerpts printed on paper. And I had never before seen -- excepting televangelists -- a church meeting where attendees were called to make a decision to accept Jesus into their hearts. For those interested, I did see two decisions for Christ announced that week. One was a kind-hearted and honest woman named Perla; I'm fairly sure she had been a Christian before the week started but her earnestness demanded of her that she rededicate her life. The other -- I would have put money on it that he was mocking them, though he did seem to be the only mocker in the crowd. The prayers were not in the litany style that I was used to, but were more freeform. The preaching was heavily heart-based, as opposed to the head-based fare I had come to expect from my then-current pastor, a retired seminary professor. It was actually the first time I had heard the "walking on water" text preached as "Peter getting out of the boat" rather than as "fixing your eyes on Jesus." The songs were different too. It was the first time I had ever sung "King of Kings and Lord of Lords," except it was "Rey de Reyes y Señor de Señores". My friend Pam and I did it as a round as a going away offering, singing it through first in Spanish then in English.
Most harrowing part of the trip: riding in an oversized van down winding, poorly maintained roads with hairpin turns along sheer dropoffs at the edges of steep hills, and every place you would dearly love to see a guardrail, instead you see a row of white crosses at the edge of the road to commemorate the people who hadn't successfully made that particular turn. Glad I wasn't driving.
Most scenic part of the trip: the sugarcane fields. Not only is cane a beautiful crop, but as an added bonus it brought back fond memories of sugarcane samples I'd had as a kid.
Most memorable part of the trip: The people. Honestly, part of my heart stayed in Mexico with all the people I met. With Miguel and his guitar, Nora and her generosity, Adiel who was willing to travel anywhere for any length of time with no spare food or clothes or money but only his Bible, Perla and her sweet earnestness, little Marisol and dozens of others whose names have since been lost to memory.
I can't say that this was some event which changed the course of my life, but it did make a few things more plain to me. The old saying "there's more than one way to do things" became less of a cliché and more of a living reality to me as I spent some time worshiping alongside Baptists. The lines dividing Christians seemed to me an unfortunate thing. And in light of the needs facing the people in Mexico, it seemed like an obstacle to Christians getting our work done.