Together in the Crucible

I took my California colleagues to visit World Vision’s Tijuana project last week. It’s always great to visit the people and the program. Last year I made 6 trips, and I returned home each time thinking that day was the best visit ever. But this time my heart stirred with less comfortable feelings.

I came away sobered, maybe sad, having seen and heard from many people there about the impact of the economic downturn, especially on the poor, but on everyone else as well. Perhaps most vivid was driving down Revolucion Avenue, the main touristfare in Tijuana, devoid of tourists; shop fronts flung open wide, shopkeepers keeping vigil outside, yet without shoppers inside. Drive-by voyeurism of an abandoned populace. And it drove home the point that this economic slump is hardly confined to America.

These downtown store owners are not our microloan borrowers; yet they are still entrepreneurs trying to make a living for their families. The enterprising, the proactive, the hard-working, feeling the pressure of the economic screws turning, mixed in with the border’s gangster-on-gangster violence which scares away the few remaining tourists who might otherwise still come with precious dollars in their pockets.

Tijuana is a brackish place, where my friend and colleague Mauricio must pay his rent in dollars but receives his salary in pesos. Now the peso has declined from 11-to-$1 down to 15-to-$1 and his math becomes increasingly difficult.

People still go to work; they’re not giving up. Others are getting second and third jobs or starting small income-generating activities on the side. The volunteers somehow are still amazingly active, planning new activities. They are wonderfully faithful and inspiring, although Mauricio tells me that some volunteers are having to cut back in order to concentrate on making ends meet at home.

The unknowns are trying for everyone we met. Occasionally women even choked up talking about the economic impacts on their families, clearly concerned for the future as well as the present. “Finances are so difficult right now, as we must buy in dollars but sell in pesos. My husband is a butcher and his business is really struggling.”

Yet some beautiful kindnesses are emerging as well, as is often mercifully the case when people see themselves as being together in the crucible. We met a group of 5 women who have formed a sewing cooperative business. “We give each other credit here, so people can still get what they need.” “We share food with each other and make it into a meal all our families can eat.”

A pathos for me, compared to other visits, was that Rosaria, the leader of this sewing business, seemed pensive if not apprehensive. Maybe I’m reading too much into her countenance, but it struck me as an acknowledgement that the necessary ingredients to make their business succeed were no longer as simple as a good idea, a little financing and hard work. Other forces lurked in the shadows, forces she could not control nor predict. She wasn’t backing down, but she wouldn’t be naively self-confident either. Hers was not the bright-eyed, can-do spirit we all love to see and that I’ve become so accustomed to encountering among poor entrepreneurs in Tijuana and around the world.

Janet and I recently watched the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and I easily think of little Frodo Baggins, setting his sights on mighty and ominous Mordor, no Pollyanna nor pretense. The risks are enormous but the call is clear, and he doesn’t back down. The story is so compelling of course because this is the best kind of commitment, the kind we hope we ourselves might make if called to do so in a darkening hour.

In this environment, I’m reminded again that this is not the season for expecting the highest highs and the biggest gains. Rather, there is a call to faithfulness despite the risks and the shadows, to keep on keeping on, to putting one foot in front of the other and getting through this time… together. Like our friends in Tijuana are doing each day.

And a call to solidarity. Janet and I plan to visit Mauricio and his wife Vanessa in their home soon, to see the parts of Tijuana I never get to see, to just be together. And I think I’ll spend some dollars there.

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