My Casa Building trip started with a simple conversation with a friend. “You should go to Casa Building. It’s a great experience,” he said. Although I spoke with him years ago, I did not find an opportunity to go until March of 2016. When we first arrived to Tijuana, Cha Tri Dinh opened up with a small talk explaining the purpose of the trip. More than building a home, more than creating shelter, this mission was about building community within Tijuana as well as across its borders. It sounded like such an abstract talk until we started working. Little by little, I saw multiple families with all their children come out to help mix cement. Children were handing out water bottles while many mixed and gathered rocks and soil. Through the sweat and sun, everyone was smiling and laughing. As the weekend continued, the children became more comfortable with me and would repeatedly try to communicate with me in Spanish. Each time I would reply with an awkward laugh, only to hear them try again later. These awkward, yet touching moments still remain with me now. I wondered how children who physically have so little could be so happy, positive, and open to the world around them. They live so simply, yet seem happier than many I know back home. I realized that the children are just a reflection of their parents, and the rest of the community. They were raised to care for and love those surrounding them. Instead of striving for individual success, the El Florido community empowered individuals to succeed together.
I left Tijuana much lighter, and more peaceful than I entered. The community in Tijuana has such open eyes and a large heart. They dreamed, and hoped for a better future for everyone surrounding them. I realize now that there is always a bigger goal: to serve the community. There is no degree, amount of money, or amount of time you have to spend before you can work towards that goal. It is an attainable goal at all points in your life, and today is just the first step!
- Christine Pham
What was initially intended to be a weekend of "giving back" to those in need later transformed into an experience that I will never forget. My adventure with Casa Building was truly rewarding and I am glad that I was able to serve a family with others that received this similar calling. What I was able to do and share with the El Florido community was reciprocated manifold and I was reinforced of what love should represent. As I detached myself from my everyday life of hustle and bustle over the course of a weekend, I was reminded that love and gratitude are expressed and displayed in many ways. I was able to feel this love through my interactions with the children and through the camaraderie gained working hand in hand with the community. After making an individual decision to travel down to Mexico for a weekend of work and play, I return with a family, both within the El Florido community, and those that I shared this ministry with.
- Jonathon Sunio
Crossing across the border from the United States into Mexico marked an obvious transition. The change in landscape was the first thing I noticed. The land appeared barren due to the lack of fertile soil, forming a hostile environment that prevented the growth of any lush, green trees or blooming plants. Most of the land spaces were reserved for manufacturing plants, small homemade businesses, and abstract housing carved out from whatever left-over materials the residents found useable. Looking at their living conditions, I felt a sense of remorse. I am not quite sure if this was because I was forced to face the reality of their poverty, or if it was because there was something lacking inside of me. This trip was planned, but also came unexpectedly. This is my second time traveling to Tijuana for the Casa Building project. It was planned because I knew I wanted to come back after my first trip, but it also came unexpectedly because I didn’t expect to return so soon. Going on this trip again reminded me how much I enjoyed living outside my normal routine and apart from my comfort zone. Radically, it reminds me of how I really should live. The people I encountered here live a much simpler and happier life. Their life values are placed in the heart of a family circle and the richness of a community life. This promotes a strong foundation for unity with every gathering. Everything was soulful... maybe because people are living on the brink, yet are filled with so much hope. I see hope in the eyes of the deportee trying to find their way back home to their family, I see hope in the smiles of the children when they roam free playfully on the street, I see hope in the helping hands joining together to build houses. God is truly amidst when there are two or more gathered in His name. We are builders of hope for each other in praise of God who is the Giver of all graces. We can plant the seed but God is the one that can make it grow even on barren soil.
- Thuy Phuong Trinh
Reflecting back on the Casa Building weekend gives me great hope for the future of the El Florido community. Interacting with the community members there makes me more aware of God's unconditional love and generosity, which extends to us visitors and their own children. My hope is that the children learn from the love and generosity that they received and will continue to foster that love for a better life in community.
- Vinh Tran
When I decided to go Casa Building, I thought I would be a worker in helping to build a new house. Although that was a component of the trip, I found out later that the main goal is to build community and relationships with those whom I would otherwise turn a blind eye towards. The most memorable experience I had this weekend was helping three children on an art project to create an ornament using six pieces of paper, scissors, tape, and a staple. Although we didn't share a common language, we understood each other enough to work together and share our success with a universal high five. This is a wonderful reminder that humanity is connected even across language barriers and all it takes is some interaction to grow my heart. This experience fills me with gratitude, compassion, and awareness. It is amazing to grow so much from a single weekend. Thanks Christus Ministries for providing me with this wonderful opportunity. I hope to work with you more in the future.
- Peter Nguyen
Mother Teresa says that "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." Wait, we belong to each other? Isn't that a bit of an overstatement? Let's take a look at the story of Cain and Abel to see what kind of insight we might find.
"Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast … Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
To answer Cain's question, yes. You are your brother's keeper. God calls us to look out for the brothers and sisters who He put on this Earth with us. If they go astray, we are called to guide them back on the right path. If they are in need, we are called to stand in kinship with them and help if we are able to.
In today's mainstream culture, it is easy to forget that "we belong to each other." There exist so many labels and groups that aim to divide us. Let us not forget that we are all human, we are all hungry, and we are all deserving of God's boundless love. When we choose to reach out across borders, economic backgrounds, and cultural differences to build a bridge of kinship, we are choosing to live out God's calling for us in our lives. This is what Casa Building is about. This is what the community of El Florido in Tijuana reminds us. Let us not forget that we belong to each other.
- Kevin Nguyen
“Open your heart to see God's love,” many priest and nuns often told me.
“How do you open your heart?” I asked.
“By helping the poor and people around you,” they replied.
This simple conversation is what led me to tag along with a group of strangers to help build a house for the poor in Tijuana, Mexico.
When the trip first began, I was caught by surprise at the large amount of young, highly educated people surrounding me. Instead of spending the weekend having fun, eating, drinking, or traveling for leisure, they chose to sit in a packed van traveling down bumpy roads to mix concrete for a front yard and sidewalk. Aside from that, I was also blessed to see them sweat playing soccer, enjoy making snowflakes from paper with the local kids, share very simple meals with the local residents, and share a simple meal with the migrants and deportees at Casa Del Migrante.
Something that remains with me from this trip was the scene of Trisha helping the locals clean up the mixing trays. She was kneeling on the soaking, wet, street and washing the trays. She was the last person from our group to continue working until the end. Did I do a lot of work? No. I was just so out of shape. I felt so embarrassed catching my breath several times while watching the other females from our group like Christine, Vickie, Joan, Trina, Diana and Xinh still smiling while mixing concrete. Secondly, I felt the same watching some of our members playing soccer with local kids. I like soccer, but I was completely worn out after the work in the morning. I could only stand on the sideline cheering on Kevin, Joan, Jonathan, Xinh, Trisha, Luke and Jonathan (our driver). Joan seemed to play non-stop in the first half. Xinh went out of her way to volunteer to clean the garden for a kid so he could join the group on the soccer field. Wow!! Luke seemed like he was playing soccer for the first time, but was able to score a couple of times. Yay!!! All in all, I think our group did an awesome job playing soccer with the local kids.
Then the musical came. We were gathering in the community center to listen to the music students play guitar as a way to thank us for coming and helping them build their community. I don't know how long they have been playing for, but they played beautifully together. It was so beautiful that I could not take it for myself as I did not feel my contribution today deserved this. Instead, I was praying to God to accept the songs they were playing as an offering to thank Him for what He had done for the community.
We then traveled to Casa Del Migrante to share dinner with the migrants and deportees. Here we learned more about the people who tried to cross the border to the U.S. and those who got deported from the U.S. We got to sit with them at the dinner table face to face. Some of us were able to talk to them, and others couldn't for some of them did not speak English. Diana, however, was able to use her broken Spanish to speak with a deportee. I was impressed by that. My 2 Spanish classes back in college didn't help me to go beyond asking another deportee his name and his origin.
Back at the community center, we made snowflakes out of paper with the local kids. We had a great time connecting with the kids through this activity.
Bed time rolled around and I thanked God for a day full of fun activities. I thanked Him for giving me strength to finish the day without being a burden to everyone.
As the sun came up, it was time for Sunday mass. It was time to praise the Lord for His goodness. It was a bit cold for some of us, but I felt God was smiling down upon us. I think that is all that matters.
Time to say goodbye. Thank you to father Tri and Jonathan for coordinating this meaningful event. Thank you to Vickie, Richard and Miguel for translating. Without you all, things would have been a lot more difficult for us. Thank you to Joan for celebrating her birthday on this trip. Without you, we would not have tasted the flavorful ice cream. Thank you to Xinh for annoying us with your non-stop talking. This trip would have had a lot more weird moments of silence without you. I hope you will meet your adopted mom and Miguel soon. Lastly, thank you to everyone who made this trip not only meaningful, but full of fun.
- Thinh Le