Candidate TJ Summer Experience

By: Christopher Green

Hey everyone, I hope all has been well with you in the past week. Happy memorial of Saint Junipero Serra! I’d like to use this opportunity to let you know about my first week in Tijuana.

When I left Los Angles on Saturday of last week, I was excited about this opportunity to clarify my understanding of God’s vocation for me through two months of service in another country. At the same time, however, there was the inevitable nervousness about learning and speaking a foreign language in a culture and environment that’s notably outside what I’m used to, trying to build relationships with those who may or may not understand me, and make sure I’m receptive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit at all times.

However, my worries proved to be worse than the reality I found when I arrived. The folks living at the Castillo, where I’m staying, had a limited, though workable, grasp of English, and, with my limited grasp of Spanish, we were able to communicate surprisingly well. My first night in Tijuana was vastly different than my first experience in the same place last November as I was on my own and forced to manage without constantly looking to others for translation. The team made me feel very welcome despite the language barrier.

Day 2 was Sunday, so we walked for Mass at Maria Auxiliaora. As we walked, I got a good view of the state of the majority of Tijuana as I saw all the trash strewn on streets and paths, dilapidating buildings, and more. It was comparable to some of the most impoverished parts of any American city, but it encompassed every place I went. As I returned home with one of the volunteers, I was surprised again how much we could communicate with our limited understanding of each other’s languages.

On Monday, I had a chance to settle in a little, as it was the volunteers’ day off. Since I was familiar with the rooms from November, it was definitely less of a shock to move into such a sparse and seemingly unfinished room (at least compared to rooms back in the States). When you think about it, though, a bed, dressers, a desk, and cabinets are all a person really needs, even if they’re not the nicest in the world. The only thing lacking was a crucifix and a good wi-fi signal. That evening we went to see Toy Story 4 in a local theater. I was surprised it was in English until they explained to me that English with subtitles is better than voice over in Spanish.

Since Sunday, the priests of the house have been at some sort of meeting, so I wasn’t able to figure out exactly what they want me doing. Therefore, I simply followed two of the volunteers, Diana and Gonzo, in their ministry for the week at the Desayunador. Tuesday was the first full day of work. We arrived early and were there until around 8pm. In the past week, I have begun to see the other side of the Desayunador as a home for men in difficult circumstances. At one point, I was able to go down and talk to the guys, finding one who speaks English well and listening to the story of his difficult life. On this day also, I was introduced to Jose, a young man who’s been trying to learn English. I was able to help him out with a little English class. Even though neither of us spoke much of the other’s language, we were able to proceed with the help of volunteer Gonzo.

Wednesday was Diana’s 22nd birthday, an occasion that really brought to the front the family type relationships present all throughout the Desayunador. Even though these folks come from widely different backgrounds and often seem sort of intimidating on the outside, they care for each other. During a special lunch for her birthday, I met another volunteer from the parish San Juan Bosco who’s in my level of formation with the Mexican Salesians. Their first year of formation is apparently mission work. It was interesting comparing our pre-novitiate formation programs and asking him about how he came to learn English.

On day six, I was starting to see my starting impetus wear down and was coming to realize more clearly my level of Spanish speaking skill. When others are talking with me, they must either:

1) use some amount of English, or

2) use very simple Spanish, spoken slowly and clearly, to communicate. When someone doesn’t do either of these, I understand very little to nothing of what they’re trying to say.

On Friday I met a guy from Milwaukee in the Desayunador who was raised near Anaheim named Luke (or Lucas). He is currently a psychologist living in Tijuana but had a very long and winding road to lead him to this point, which he related to me as we worked. He joined the Missionaries of Charity brothers in his twenties, when the order was still new. After many years there, he joined the contemplative branch and, after a few more years there, was allowed to leave. He then plied the psychology masters he earned in the professional world, but retained his love for serving the poor, continuing to serve them in places like the Desayunador when he can.

Saturday marked my first real interaction with the kids in Tijuana at the Desayunador oratorio, which took place at the same time as breakfast and consisted of games, organized activities, and lessons about the faith for the seven or eight kids who showed up. My main difficulty was interacting with the kids when I couldn’t really speak to them. Nevertheless, they became more comfortable around this white strange after some time. I suppose the lesson here is to come in more prepared. In this day, I began to understand more the role of the volunteers at the Desayunador. Yes, they help with the breakfast until eleven, but they also organize activities such as the approaching summer camp ‘VAFEJE.’ and are a contributors to community and supports for they guys living there.

Yesterday was my second Sunday in Mexico, and it was an interesting one. Gonzo, Diana, and I left around 8:30 to attend Mass with the folks from the desayunador. When we arrived, we found an interesting situation awaiting us. Apparently, a family from Guatemala was attempting to enter the US and was rejected, forcing them to spend a night on the street after which the Guatemalan consulate made a call to any available place to take the family in for a night. None were available, so the desayunador coordinator decided to let them stay there for a night. They were supposed to leave this morning, but when we arrived around 9 am, they were still there, and the volunteers were needed to stay with them until they left. We waited a few hours, but they were still there and were likely to stay for another night, so we left for Mass at the Cathedral. It was an experience that reinforced to me the necessity of the Salesians’ work in Tijuana for those in need of shelter and even a new lease on life.

I hope you will continue to pray for me as I certainly will for you!