Learning can happen at strange times, and our teachers can truly come in unexpected forms. A peculiar thing happened to me on my trip to our mission in Rancho Anapra, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, this past holiday season; I suppose one might describe it as an epiphany or awakening. I had no expectations for my trip to Rancho Anapra beyond the notions I held that were fueled and formed by news from the border I had heard over the past few years.
Former Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s increased pressure on the drug cartels has left Mexico spinning from the violence with its people caught in the deadly crossfire of violence with thousands of innocents perishing over the past six years in the war with the cartels. The BBC reported this past December that the most violent city in Mexico in 2010 was Ciudad Juárez, with some 3,100 people killed that year. The same article acknowledges the significant decrease in killings for 2012, but with the rate of murder in Juárez still at 1.3 per day for most of the year, we may still see close to 500 lives lost in 2012 when the reports are finalized. Juárez is still a very violent place, and I expected to find a people whose spirit had been broken and whose faith had been shaken from the years of killing. Imagine my surprise when I did not. Even more so, imagine my incredulity when I realized that the people of Rancho Anapra had taught me and nurtured me more than I could ever do so for them, even if I had a lifetime to devote to it!
Admittedly, I was not ready for the extreme poverty in Rancho Anapra. I have been to some very poor places in the world, including the Middle and the Far East, but the poverty in Anapra is both profound and abject. Thousands live in the shanty town, most in one room homes thrown together from junk wood, tarpaulins, bits of metal and the more fortunate with concrete blocks. The streets are almost all dirt and those that have power get it through lines lying on the ground held together with common electrical tape. Thousands of hungry, mangy and diseased dogs wander the streets in search of food. The desert climate is cruel to the people of Anapra with oppressive summer heat and cold winter nights, especially for those who do not know the luxuries of air conditioning or furnaces.
Many of the families in Anapra are destitute migrant workers who come to the city looking for work in the foreign-owned factories known as maquiladora. They work for as little as $10 per day and try to support their families. The ticket out of poverty for the people of Anapra is education, but it’s a ticket that often seems out of reach. School for the children is a luxury for these hard working people and often an afterthought to basic necessities. Thankfully the Columban Fathers fund and operate a school in Anapra. Cristina Estrada, a wonderful Columban volunteer, operates the school. I visited with this special woman and the children at the school several days during my trip. What started out as reading lessons in Cristina’s back yard has evolved into an actual building where reading, math, science, and history are taught and more importantly, learned!
I waited outside the school prior to the start of class with Cristina and Columban Fr. Bill Morton and watched the groups of children ranging from three years old to pre-teen walk up the hill to the school through the sandy streets of Rancho Anapra. They flocked to the school like bees to honey, some holding hands and all with smiles on their faces. For a moment I thought that they must be smiling just for the chance to go and play somewhere safe that resembled a structure, a place or a home that someone from the U.S. might even recognize, but when the learning started, I realized the smiles were because of a strong faith and trust in Christ and a genuine God given love of learning that is gracing Rancho Anapra’s children.
It was the most well-disciplined learning environment that I have ever seen. The students were quickly divided into age and ability groups, and Cristina and her volunteers took the children through their paces with a diligent, patient, but no nonsense approach that left me wondering how some of our own U.S. schools could learn from her methods. At the end of the day, the students line up at Cristina’s door and in a polite and formal way they address Cristina and ask her for items that they need to continue their homework. Some need a pencil, some need a couple pieces of paper, some need a crayon; all must ask her in the same fashion. “Miss Cristina, may I please have two pieces of paper to practice my math?” After Cristina quizzes them on their plans, the item is delivered, and the deal is sealed with the student’s “Gracias, Miss Cristina.” For the children of Anapra, school is quite obviously a blessing and the students treat it as such.
Late one afternoon, Fr. Bill and I were walking down a dirt street very close to the school when a woman approached us. She had a brief conversation with Fr. Bill, and I was able to catch only bits and pieces as my Spanish is rudimentary at best. I did hear her repeat the name Jessica several times, and I gathered that she was inquiring about her daughter. At one point, towards the end of the conversation, her eyes teared, but she quickly chased them away with a deep breath and a smile. She clasped our hands and left us. As she walked away, Fr. Bill asked me “Chris did you catch what she said.” I replied, “No Fr. Bill, I did not.” The woman, Maria, had stopped Fr. Bill to inquire if he had seen her daughter, Jessica. Jessica would be 16 years old this year, the same age as my own daughter, but she was either killed in the drug violence or abducted and sold into sexual slavery a year ago. Maria asked Fr. Bill if he had seen or heard any news of her daughter’s whereabouts by chance. When Fr. Bill told her that he was sorry he had not, her tears came. Her parting comments to us were that she knew her daughter was o.k., because she has strong faith and believes that wherever Jessica is, God is with her. We all could learn from Maria’s faith.
That same afternoon Fr. Bill and I spent some time at the clinic in Anapra that is a shared project with the Sisters of Charity and the Columban Fathers. The clinic was full of mothers helping to deliver physical therapy to some of the many children there who suffer from multiple sclerosis. The clinic is staffed with loving volunteers all under the watchful and trained eye and hands of Sr. Janet Gildea. One of the volunteers at the clinic is also named Cristina. Cristina had but a few short weeks ago undergone a radical mastectomy for breast cancer, yet she was at the clinic and working through her own pain to give much needed therapeutic relief to Anapra’s afflicted children. At one point Cristina asked Fr. Bill and me if we would go with her on a house call to another breast cancer survivor who had had a mastectomy some months back but was struggling with her physical therapy and mobility. We agreed to go and found ourselves standing in her home, a one room 12 x 12 junk wood shanty that housed a family of five. Cristina spent nearly forty minutes conducting physical therapy exercises with the woman, working through her own pain and the patient’s pain to help her with her mobility. As we left, Fr. Bill prayed over the patient for healing. As he did, I thanked God for a woman like Cristina, who would make a house call in one of the most violent places on earth to bring relief and comfort. I also prayed that our own breast cancer efforts in the U.S. could know such compassion and courage.
Columban Fr. Kevin Mullins celebrated Sunday morning Mass at the Columban Corpus Christi Parish. I anticipated a solemn ceremony full of prayers to end the violence, to break the binds of poverty and for ultimate relief. Once again, the people of Anapra took me to school. I found the Mass to be standing room only. People lovingly embraced one another and shared in the Eucharist with passion, with joy, with smiles and celebration. The music and voices that were lifted in praise to our Lord and Savior touched my very being. These weren’t people praying for something. These were people praying true thanks and giving praise for all that they had been given, true faith, true comfort in knowing that Christ is at life’s helm. I left wishing that Sunday Mass at my own church was as well attended, meaningful, and full of joy.
I have considered myself a learned man, well educated, philosophical and spiritual. I visited Anapra hoping that I could bring some of who I thought I was and some of the lessons that I thought I had to bear on Rancho Anapra Ciudad Juárez’s struggle. Instead, the people of Anapra were the teachers, they taught me with the open, honest, and true earnestness of faith and understanding. They also filled me with the hope that comes with Christ’s love for all of us. I always thought that I knew what St. Thomas Aquinas meant when he said “I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it. I would hope to act with compassion without thinking of personal gain.” I am forever grateful to the people of Anapra Ciudad Juárez for revealing to me what St. Thomas Aquinas truly meant.
This article originally appeared in the Columban Mission Magazine (March/April 2013).