By Elizabeth Glass Turner
The Los Angeles Times ran a photo depicting a bloodied corpse lying prone on the ground, a victim of the infamous drug cartel violence in Juárez, Mexico. The caption described Tierra Nueva, the area where the shooting occurred, as “a graffiti-stained neighborhood of dirt streets and concrete shacks in south Ciudad Juárez.”
But that’s only part of the story.
Juárez, commonly known as one of the deadliest cities in the world, has mourned 4,900 of its citizens killed in just the last two years. Nestled at the crux of New Mexico, Texas, and the Mexican state of Chihuahua, its sister city across the U.S. border is El Paso, Texas. Two prominent drug cartels fight for control of Juárez, leaving thousands dead—often innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. According to The El Paso Times, the FBI fears that El Paso gangs may, “join the cartel power struggle”—bringing the war onto U.S. soil.
A frequently overlooked subplot in the violence, Juárez is what author Daniela Paniagua calls the “city of femicide of the western hemisphere.” She continues, “the people of Juárez set about constructing their own monument—a series of pink crosses memorializing ‘the Labyrinth of Silence,’ a desolate area where hundreds of women have been ‘disposed’ of over the last decade. Gazing across the Labyrinth, a ‘massive monument of Christ on the Cross’ stands erect, symbolizing faith and protection. Locals question if the victims have looked up toward that depiction of Christ’s suffering that towers above their brutally beaten bodies and pleaded for His mercy. This Mexican border-town, founded on prosperity and faith, is estranged from its original principles and has become known as the City of Lost Women.”
In addition to the stark number of dead men and women, the systematic intimidation of citizens and law enforcement officers alike includes burning houses in the Valley of Juárez, and—early this April—a Catholic church.
One source explains that the “drug war in Mexico has its roots in many of Mexico’s other problems—lack of economic development, Mexico’s authoritarian past, its celebration of machismo, and its weak civil society and compromised rule of law.”
Bridges & Rites of passage
Plenty of contributing factors complicate the gritty violence that plagues Juárez, but one factor that propels the violence exchanged among drug cartels continues to be machismo—the sense of one’s own exaggerated manhood. Machismo is often affirmed by gang acceptance through rites of passage that frequently include violent crime.
A year ago, CNN reported that, “the violence involves beheadings, running gunbattles, and discoveries of mass graves and huge arms caches. Police and public officials have been gunned down in broad daylight. The cartels’ enforcers boldly display recruitment banners in the streets.” The report further elaborated that, “the beheadings started at the same time the beheading videos started coming out of Iraq. It was simple machismo. The Sinaloa [cartel] guys started putting up videos on YouTube of them torturing….”
While gangs actively recruit young men in Juárez and other border towns, other high school students attempt to cross the bridge daily from Juárez to El Paso, where they study. Parents pray for their children’s safety and hope they will be spared a life of violence.
A couple of decades ago, one such boy was Jose Luis Portillo, one of ten children raised in Juárez. He earned enough money selling cigarettes on the streets to attend a United Methodist high school in El Paso, where he learned English and felt called to ministry. After he graduated from John Wesley Seminary in Monterrey, Mexico, Portillo worked at a church in Juárez. Volunteers helping to build the church saw people living in cardboard houses. When they asked how they could help, Portillo partnered with Volunteers in Mission to build concrete block houses for the families.
While the murder rate in Juárez escalated, Jose Luis Portillo established Proyecto Abrigo (“project shelter”) in the southern Juárez neighborhood of Tierra Nueva—the same “graffiti-stained” neighborhood where the Times photographed a casualty of the drug cartel violence. Since 1992, Portillo has been responsible for the construction of more than 1,000 small block houses for the poorest citizens.
The bridge Jose had taken to school every day, back and forth across the U.S./Mexico border, helped to steer him away from becoming another faceless cartel foot soldier.
From Juárez to The Woodlands
Eleven hours east, the Rev. Rob Renfroe had a conversation with a man at his church—a congregation Rob had served for about a year at the time. “He told me a story about a man who was in our church. The man was vice president of a bank in downtown Houston,” recalls Renfroe, the Pastor of Adult Discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, as well as President and Publisher of Good News. “He’d been in church for a number of years and had never really connected deeply spiritually, was driven to succeed, and used alcohol to help him cope with life. He ended up losing his job, his family, and then finally ended up living on the streets, and died disconnected from everyone who had ever cared about him because of his alcoholism.”
“Rob, we had this guy in our church and nothing ever really grabbed him spiritually and changed his life,” the man said to Renfroe. “And we’ve got other guys sitting in the pews, they come and do their Sunday morning duty, but the rest of their life is disconnected from their spirituality, and we need to do something.”
The result of this conversation was the initiation of the men’s ministry “Quest,” designed to engage men who were marginally involved in church—at best. This exploration of manhood and faith isn’t as simple as it might appear at first.
“Part of the challenge is to be able to talk to guys in a way that makes them feel comfortable as men,” Renfroe explains, “that doesn’t make them feel like they have to fit in to some stereotype of the good little Sunday school boy, but that lets them be real men and enjoy things that men enjoy in a way that honors God.”
Renfroe is the first to acknowledge that he might not be the typical “guy’s guy.” He says he doesn’t hunt or fish or fix anything around the house, but he has discovered that “if you challenge guys and treat them as if they are real people with heart hungers and deep needs and a desire to be better—if you let them be men, then God is able to do great things.”
In stark contrast to the bloody streets of Juárez, Quest addresses men’s need to be both godly and masculine through an eclectic array of hands-on ministries, meetings, and conferences. While Quest has convened twice a year for eight years—holding meetings for eight weeks in the fall and eight weeks in the spring—small groups allow men to continue to grow their practices.
Additionally, a ministry called “Destination Manhood” pairs volunteer mentors with at-risk youth. Although the original commitment for mentors was to spend an hour a week with a young man, activities have expanded to include camping, fishing, and trips to college sporting events so that young people can imagine themselves pursuing a college education. In a haunting reminder of the young men targeted by drug cartels, Renfroe explains, “one of the boys has even spent time in jail during the time that one of our men has mentored him, and really does need someone there with him. These are boys who would be lost if one of the guys in our church wasn’t taking a real, active role in his life.”
The men of Quest also participate in “Rehab for Humanity,” a service to the elderly and poor in which volunteers provide home repairs. After one Quest meeting in which 58 groups of men were given $100 to “invest in the Kingdom,” one group that had decided to provide home repairs instead felt called to partner with a community organization to build an entire new home for the recipient.
The best gift
But it’s the trips to Juárez that connect the men from The Woodlands UM Church to Jose Luis Portillo and Proyecto Abrigo. Mission trips are not new to The Woodlands. Under the leadership of Dr. John Hull, the church’s missions pastor, the congregation sends more than a dozen teams annually all over the world. But Renfroe and Hull felt that the trip to Juárez could have a huge impact on the men of the church. The first 100 men from The Woodlands UM Church went on the four-day excursion in 2007.
Renfroe describes Tierra Nueva as a place where “thousands of people live in little hovels outside the city in desert slums. They live out there and the government sells them a little piece of land for $4000. Interestingly, they pay per square foot, with no electricity, water, or sewage, the very same amount we pay here in The Woodlands per square foot. Yet The Woodlands is a high-end, planned community. Most of the people who come there are from southern Mexico. They come to Juárez for the ‘opportunity’ to work for a dollar an hour in the factories there on the border. That is a step up for them, so they save their money to make a down payment on this land. Then they build shelters—from cardboard, pallets, plywood.”
The men from Quest are aware of the urgency behind the work trips: they have heard about the dangers to the residents, not only of Juárez cartel violence, but also of the extreme desert temperatures. Because so many shelters are patched together with wood and other flammable material, open flame fires are not allowed to heat the homes during the frigid desert nights. Renfroe recounts learning that a baby froze to death one night because the family could not heat their dwelling. With the construction of a rudimentary concrete block house, however, residents are able to use propane to ward off the freezing temperatures.
The Proyecto Abrigo houses, built by teams like the one from The Woodlands, measure 12’ by 24’. When the 100 men arrive, they are organized into teams, which are aided by maestros, who show the team how to mix mortar and cement, and how to lay the blocks. Often, when able, the family assists the team with the construction of their new home. When the project is complete, the team and the family celebrate a house dedication.
More than 350 men from Quest have been a part of four trips to Juárez where the work teams have built 30 houses, in addition to working on a school.
“Many guys express their spirituality by doing with their hands, and often churches have a hard time of finding a way for men to serve God in a way that feels natural, that uses their masculinity. This trip has been very beneficial to our guys, in addition to meaning a lot to the people who live there. It helps fulfill that natural desire to provide and protect that’s kind of built into men. They’re really grateful for the opportunity.”
Whatever distance exists between Juárez and The Woodlands has evaporated for Bob Leilich. “This is the first time I’ve been on a mission trip like this,” he says. “I’ve been all over the world and I have seen poverty. There’s always been a disconnect to me to see poverty—there’s so much of it you tend to ignore it. Well, I found out on this trip that these are real people. They are happy people.”
One experience continues to haunt the volunteers. “There was a family who’d been living in a cave before they got their little shack. Their home had been flooded when a river flooded its banks,” reports Renfroe. “They got enough money together to buy this little piece of land. So we built this concrete block house for them. One of the great things is that they can now have a propane fire to stay warm at night. At the dedication, we gave them gifts, finished praying, and this old man is standing there. And his kids are having a house built next to him, and he held up his Bible, and said, ‘This—this is the best. Out of all God’s gifts, this is the best.’ That really spoke to us; it reminded us that for people who don’t have anything, what gets them through is the sense that God is with them, that God loves them.”
In the midst of the valuable outreach that Quest teams and others provide for Juárez residents caught in the crossfire, a new issue has emerged. Recently, the State Department renewed a travel warning to U.S. citizens bound for Mexico, especially for the northern states like Chihuahua. The recent murders of Americans working at a U.S. Consulate in Mexico have only fueled fears. An article by Mallory McCall in The United Methodist Reporter describes the growing problem faced by churches that have sent work teams in the past.
“In light of [the] violence, some churches are rethinking their south-of-the-border mission projects, and some have eliminated trips to the Juárez area altogether… Flower Mound United Methodist Church in Texas, for instance, has not taken its annual family mission trip to Juárez in two years. ‘It breaks my heart not to go back, but we just don’t think it’s safe,’ said Mike Farmer, a member who has been to Juárez 10 times and helped build 25 houses.”
The Woodlands United Methodist Church is still considering whether to continue sending the Quest work teams to Juárez. “The terrible thing with all this violence is not just that drug dealers are killing drug dealers, but that innocent people get killed. But what’s happened to the people who live in these little hovels is that groups like ours are not going down there,” says Renfroe. “Many, many churches cancelled last year. They’re not getting homes because of this kind of violence. It really shows you how violence spreads out and hurts and creates victims who aren’t in any way connected with the drug trade.”
Janet Hunt, director of community ministries at Suncreek UM Church in Allen, Texas, told The United Methodist Reporter that “it’s the joy and gratitude of the people that make the risks worth it. ‘They live around this fear and violence that they hear about every day on their news, but yet they’re just worshiping the Lord,’ she said. ‘It humbles you and makes you realize what’s important in life.’ She’s concerned that peoples’ needs will go unmet as volunteers back out. In 2009 Proyecto Abrigo set a goal to build 200 cinderblock homes; instead they built just 21.”
Juárez has proven to be a cataclysmic training ground both for the machismo of drug cartel soldiers and for the deepening appreciation of masculinity as a unique gift of God to the men of Quest. As for the families of Tierra Nueva? For the time being, they, along with the rest of Juárez, will have to continue trusting that God will be their shelter in the midst of the cartel chaos.
Elizabeth Glass-Turner is a freelance writer. Passionate about robust, sacramental faith and avid reader of murder mysteries, she resides in central Kentucky with her husband, newborn baby, and two dogs.
Quest, the men’s ministry at The Woodlands, is now in its eighth year. All of the Quest materials can be found at www.thewoodlandsumc.org/content/quest-message-archive.