The girl in the Red Shoes
I remember watching that childlike figure in the red converse shoes fix her eyes on Mexico for the first time from the back seat window of the team caravan named gris lightning. From day one she found a commonality with the local Mexican children chasing after soccer balls, and making the dirt fly up under her pounding red shoes like a herd of buffalo. I laughed when I saw her hobble around base camp the next morning after an intense game of soccer. Each day a light layer of dust would cover her pale, freckled skin, and each night she relished the sensation of wiping the dust from her skin before crawling exhausted and fatigued into her sleeping bag. Day after day new memories were scattered in her mind like the growing dispersion of freckles over her skin—memories of the youth at the orphanage and wisdom learned from chapel. It seems I know her as well as I know my own person. That girl is I. There is neither a single word nor a million words to accurately describe my experience in Mexico. Where do I begin? How can I begin when I feel like it is not I who write but someone totally different from the girl who went in with eager eyes and noble intentions to the woman who left with a bursting brain and humbled spirit. This is the account of la chica en los zapatos rojos.
I wake from a bouncy sleep our gris lightning caravan moving at a rapid pace over roller coaster, California highways which lead to Mexico. We pass field after field of crop land. Some parcels are laden with ripe fruit and vegetables and others are brown and bare since its season to produce food has passed. I think of the campesinos, Spanish workers, often from Mexico, who seek better lives in the United States, but the labor is hard and the sun relentless. I pass forward my passport to our leader Lexi. Our team laughs over the ridiculous passport photos, and I note that mine looks like a mug shot. “They wouldn’t let me smile!” I exclaim. This is yet another reason why I would make terrible military personnel. I would not be able to live life or have a picture taken without smiling, and when I cannot smile, I look like a criminal in governemnt identification.
The travel time passes quickly, and soon we cross over the border. I leave my home country for the first time, and I see Mexico. In an instant the land changes. The green plant life disappears, and rusty dirt replaces it. Low roofs stretch out in great expanses over the flat land, but more shocking than the change of scenery is the beggary seen on the roadways. I was told by a friend before my departure that children will be begging. “It hurts to say no.” How little I know and how painful to watch: Men selling whatever they can to make a living for a family; children told by their mothers to beg; and dogs…they are everywhere.
Our van, among many others from Azusa Pacific University, arrives at the camp ground. Each team, who will serve Mexicali in prisons, hospitals, orphanages and more, sets up their tents, and we decide based on size who sleeps in which tent. We then wait like all the others for dinner and chapel to begin. I have several hours to pass, and I hate waiting. I feel ready and impatient for the morning light. I am eager to speak Spanish, and I see several local children playing soccer under the canopy of the dining area.
Snatching up my camera I run over to capture those little ones playing carefree all the while jabbering Spanish to one of our students. “¿Puedo jugar tambien?” I ask. They open their circle, and I jump in passing the ball back and forth. Anita from our team come over, and she speaks her natural language with ease. I continue to capture with my camera their lively spirits and precious smiles that are revealed from playing with something as simple as a soccer ball. “Such joy in so small an object,” I think.
Darkness comes and we must eat, but the children do not want to leave…alone. Taking the youngest of the children’s hand in my own and Anita taking the other we begin to walk them down the dirt road, the other two, between the ages of eight and ten, leading the way. Anita speaks softly with them, and it is difficult for me to understand what they say because of their dialect. We see them home and turn back to base camp. I have many questions for myself and eager expectations for the week. I feel at home doing what I have dreamed of doing for so many years. To love these people is a dream come true.
I do not think I can ever forget my first evening under the stars, in my camp chair, listening to our guest, Pastor Josh, encourage us with the words of the Bible. My belief about mission work changed forever.
“If you think you have come here to Mexico to change lives, get that out of your head,” he said. In one sentence my intentions for my work in Mexico were obliterated. “This work here is greater than you and what you have to offer.” Again I felt convicted. If I am not here to save, why am I here, Lord? As Pastor Josh continued in the book of Samuel, I now know why I found myself under a Mexican sky. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (Sam 3: 10). I am here to serve, and it is a tremendous honor to love these people in the name of Christ. I do not love in the name of my abilities but in the power of my weaknesses. For when I am weak, then I am strong. “God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong” (1 Cor1: 27). I am humbled. “God, break down my pride and by your side then I can be strong to serve,” I pray.
There is this false idea that Americans come down to Mexico, and that they stoop below their honor to bring something to a people which no one else can offer. Americans like to think that they rule the world and that we determine the fate of humanity. I think about my roots and who I am, and how I can love these adolescents in the orphanage tomorrow, and I know it is impossible on my own. I can never understand their pain because I have never faced the trials that they have. I can never bring healing by sharing my fairy tale, home life story with them. I can never love as deeply as Christ loves, but I know we have one thing in common that I can share with them, and it is not a beautiful thing. As my teammate shared with me so wisely, “it is not through our perfections that we connect with others but through our imperfections.”
Our imperfection is that I and the orphans at Una Salida are separated from our true Father in heaven. “To this hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and roughly treated, and are homeless” (1 Cor 4:11). One day we will be restored to our Father in heaven, but until that day we suffer gladly for the hope that is within us.
I turn to my tent and prepare for morning with a peace I have never felt before. I am weak, but for one of the first times in my life I feel truly strong as the Father wraps me in his graceful strength. I am not here to perform, speak Spanish, or to change lives. I am here to serve and love and offer all I have to others as the hands and feet of Christ. For what I have is not my own. How little I know the cost of service. With a baby wipe I wipe my hands and face, and untied my red shoes from my feet. I set them outside my tent, slip my barefeet into my bag, and allow the darkness to swallow me whole until the morning rays will bring me back to life and allow me to meet the youth at Una Salida.