Traveling to Tijuana, Tecate, or Ensenada, México, for District Advisory Board meetings with Northwest Baja District leaders has become a regular part of my job – but I remember my first encounter with them with such clarity. I can immediately picture the outfit I was wearing, the furniture in the room, and the Mexican sweet bread I selected from the pink box of pastries. Faces from that meeting, then strangers, are now old friends.
This meeting was a pivotal turning point in my work, which specifically focuses on México and the border region. That day taught me just how much I needed to learn about living and crossing borders in this fascinating and complex area of the world.
Over the seven years I have been involved with International Ministries, I have come to feel as comfortable in Baja as I do in San Diego. That transition actually started long before working at PLNU. It can be traced back to Easter week, my junior year at PLNU, when I volunteered as a student leader for the yearly México mission trip. Post-college, while I was working as a teacher in inner-city San Diego, I decided to volunteer as a translator and cook on the same Easter week México mission trip for several years. In 2004, I turned to my friend, the program director, and said, “I’d love your job.” She said, “Really?! Well, you should take it.”
As it turned out, I ended up moving into her role. These past seven years have opened up various amazing avenues for connecting believers in the U.S. and México – but the story of rebuilding the Easter week trip has been my highlight. It tells, better than any essay I could craft, what the “mission field” looks like to me.
I travel the reaches of The Northwest Baja District for my job. When I see churches there with the inscription “PLNU” or a church name and the year that team visited, I am immediately grateful for the geographic connection to those visitors. I am also grateful for their service and the obvious result of their labor before me in the form of a sanctuary, bathrooms, a sidewalk, a pew.
But every time I see those names etched in concrete, my stomach tightens a bit. I want to be careful here: I am not against U.S. groups doing work in México and my aim is not to diminish the good work of those who came before me. I do intend, though, to call attention to the prevalence of good work done without consultation with and acknowledgment of those hosting the team and continuing the work.
The names in concrete celebrate the visitors’ likely enjoyable week of work and laughter and new culture. But these names, because they were carved out before the cement hardened, mark the building like territory, property, or a reminder of who to thank. There is a subtle pride in these names that mirrors the spirit I often encounter among those who cross this border to help, build, give, serve. It’s clear who’s giving, who gets their name in concrete.
St. Francis’ prayer for peace lays out several paradoxical truths beautifully. One line in particular exemplifies the great lesson of my seven years of work and ministry with this district: it is in giving that we receive.
The issue here is not with the giving. Clearly not. What I hope to honor in telling this story is that the “mission field” is a place of reciprocal giving; that gifts lovingly and selflessly given – certainly in the form of the churches and sidewalks I referred to before – elicit an equally loving and selfless gift back of welcome and gratitude from the recipients. And, as I started to discover during that long meeting in the fall of 2006, the mutuality of giving and receiving can go far deeper than the already profound gift of material possession transferred from one to another.
From dominance to mutuality
I attended that 2006 Northwest Baja District Advisory Board meeting with several local pastors and leaders to debrief that spring's Easter trip to Tijuana and Tecate. I was prepared to share my emerging belief that the program could be more mutually designed and owned. I don’t know why I changed course, but I started instead with a question to the board of Mexican leaders: “What do you really think of the entire Easter week program?”
As to be expected, Mexican hospitality is gracious. They affirmed repeatedly, “Hermana Melissa, todo bien” (“It’s all good.”). However, once that question had been opened, it was clearly the conversation we needed to have. I asked again. And again – five or so more times. Finally, a pastor answered my question with a story.
He shared how the U.S. team assigned to his church that year voted to build a bathroom at the end of the sanctuary. They immediately incorporated it into their to-do list. He didn’t feel it was truly needed. It seemed like a waste of so many resources and time when there were more pressing needs.
This prompted another leader’s story: “A team a few years ago built us a building, too – except they built it on our neighbor’s land. We had to tear it down after they left.”
“It would be nice if the teams would use the building materials we can easily buy in Tijuana to maintain our new buildings.”
“Our teens just sit around the church and watch the Americanos do the work. Is it ok if they join?”
Lastly, “Could you stop doing construction on our church for a while? We’re making up projects for you to do.”
The stories continued for an hour. Through tears, I thanked them for their honesty. I promised them we’d stop forcing unneeded construction and affirmed that Mexican teens absolutely should join with the visiting teams in the work.
My head swirled with new conceptions of our program, to be sure, but also of the complexities of international relating, power dynamics in different economies, short-term mission work and the Church. I was struck by how easily something as desirable and benevolent as a México mission week could become a U.S.-dominant enterprise that diminishes the other in the name of service and acts before listening.
That meeting was the first step of years of retooling and conversations. The program name changed that year and welcomed young people from México and the U.S. to live together in a camp-style setting and work alongside Ensenada Nazarene church members in compassionate ministry at their church sites. The different format opened our eyes.
The new bi-national planning team decided that if we were going to have all these people from different countries intentionally living together, we should have them talk intentionally. So we developed a curriculum to guide them through uncomfortable, complex topics like racism and economic privilege. These conversations led the planning team to analyze the equity of our actual camp. We quickly realized that our model of relying exclusively on PLNU to provide student leadership contradicted our message. We immediately incorporated the students of Tecate Nazarene Seminary into our leadership structure – an obvious and necessary change.
Becoming better neighbors
The Spanish word retroalimentación has no sufficient equivalent in English theological discourse. The best I can do is pull apart alimentación (“nourishment” or “feeding”) and retro (similar to its English counterpart, meaning “back” or “in exchange”) and glue them back together, forming something like “mutual-feeding” or “co-nourishment.” I love the images this word conjures up. I can easily recall actual names, friendships, camp years, and conversations it represents.
Looking back over the eight camps PLNU and the Northwest Baja District have offered together in my time at PLNU, it’s easy to track the increase of the sense of co-nourishment among the U.S. and Mexican coordinators, teen participants and college-age leaders. We’ve learned to be more honest with each other, and how to be better neighbors. We’re tackling how to ensure that leadership is as shared as possible. Each camp is more bilingual and accessible to both cultures than the one before.
Yet, nationality is not the only dividing distinction among camp participants. I also witness a mutual-feeding among other disparate groups present at camp. Reciprocal learning takes place between adults and teens, wealthy and poor, brown and white, men and women, those in camp and those we meet in parks at our community fairs. We attempt to model the kingdom of God, where no one is an outsider. There is no “us versus them,” privileged group, secret codes. It feels like a bit of heaven right here on earth.
Theologian Amy Oden writes, “A radical openness accompanies life in God’s welcome – abundant life – that creates empty space, space to welcome strangers, space where new voices can join the conversation.” This is what I’ve experienced the mission field to be: A place of radical openness; a new way of being together; an intentional creation of space to empty ourselves of preconceived ideas, humbly allow others in, and in doing so, mirror the welcome that we ourselves have received from God.
-- Melissa Tucker is associate director of International Ministries at Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), where she is also studying for her Master's in Theology; she has also recently begun a Master's of Nonprofit Management and Leadership at University of San Diego (California). Her role with PLNU is to connect the campus as well as U.S. churches with churches and organizations in Baja, Mexico and at the border.