2005 Mexico Mission Trip Diary

Hazelwood Christian Church in tiny Clayton, Indiana, makes an annual mission trip to the Vida Nueva mission, which is an orphanage, preschool, clinic, and church in Piedras Negras, Mexico. A border town in the hardscrabble terrain west-southwest of San Antonio, TX, Piedras Negras is home to about 100,000 people, most of whom make meager livings at best. The Vida Nueva mission is there to serve this population and share the message of Christ with them.


We left from Clayton on Friday, Sept. 23, at about 7 pm.  We were a small caravan – an aging school bus that held 21 of us, and a truck carrying the remaining three and towing a trailer containing our bags, food, supplies, tools, and materials. We drove straight through, sleeping on the bus.  I was fortunate – the seat across from me was empty so I could stretch out to sleep.  Making the trip this way keeps the cost affordable – this year, it was only $200 per person, which experienced mission-trippers tell me is dirt cheap.

In this photo you see Matt Miller at far right, reclining in the bus’s back seat.  He was able to stretch out back there, despite the transmission hump that split the seat, because as you can see seatmate George slept on the deck that covered the engine compartment. You can’t see it, but he was sleeping on an inflatable Spider Man pool raft. He said it was very comfortable, at least until Spidey sprung a leak.

The plywood in the rear seat would later be wedged between the bus seats to provide a flat sleeping surface for the vertically challenged among us, so they could stretch their legs out.

In front of George and Matt are Rachel and Lissa, both 20 and students at the University of Indianapolis. During the week they really distinguished themselves as hard workers with strong positive attitudes. They were really a model for us all. Lynn Golden is in front of Rachel.


We arrived at the mission at about 2 am on Sunday, Sept. 25. The mission provides a dormitory for mission-trippers, shown in this photo. Before you think that this part of Mexico is lined in exotic fauna, know that these palm trees were deliberately planted here and have a nasty habit of dying from lack of water. This part of Mexico gets about seven inches of rain a year, not enough for much to grow.

This dormitory has five rooms: four sleeping rooms, each with a bathroom, and a kitchen/common area. The women sleep in the rooms on one end, and the men in the rooms on the other. We came together for meals in the common area. Earlier Hazelwood mission trips contributed heavily to building this dormitory.

So in the wee hours of Sunday morning, we unloaded the trailer, put things vaguely in their right places, made our beds, and went to sleep.


This photo shows the Vida Nueva Iglesia de Christi (Church of Christ, or Christian Church) at Piedras Negras. It was built by mission-trippers; the crew from Hazelwood put a lot of labor into it, including putting on the roof. It’s not far to walk to the church, since it stands just outside the mission. Services are held on the upper level, and classes on the lower level.

One thing the trip’s leaders stressed was the importance of being flexible and patient. So after we all got up in time to make 9 am church services, we learned that the services were actually at 11 am. Still groggy from our bus trip, we quietly played cards and sipped cold drinks to pass the time.

Taking part in a Spanish-language worship service isn’t as strange as you might think. After all, the familiar elements of worship are all there – singing, prayers, taking communion, giving, and preaching. Frequently, their songs used tunes from well-known English hymns and spiritual songs, and we faked singing the Spanish words as best we could. Of course, when you don’t know the language the sermon goes right over your head. The preacher talked for well over an hour, which I’m told is common in Mexico. Most US congregations wouldn’t put up with that!


After services, we invited the congregation to an all-American lunch of hot dogs and chips. They really scarfed those dogs down, and a few of them gratefully took the leftovers home. We ate at the mission under a large gazebo built for such gatherings. It was awkward at times not being able to communicate with the people. Everyone wore wide smiles on their faces to show fellowship and appreciation, and everyone was gracious and patient as we worked out the inevitable misunderstandings (“Oops, I see now that you didn’t want ketchup”). But simple polite small talk was pretty much out. At one point I stood next to a woman carrying a tiny baby dressed in yellow. Without thinking, I asked, “Is it a boy or a girl?” and the woman just looked at me puzzled. I didn’t even know how to say I was sorry! It was very awkward. If I’m going to keep making trips like this, maybe I ought to learn Spanish.

It was such a hot day – 108 degrees. But there was so little humidity that the heat seemed bearable. We weren’t sweating buckets, like we expect during an Indiana summer – the heat felt really nice to me. Still, I drank ¾ gallon of water in the afternoon and was always thirsty.


After lunch, a couple of us carried the trash to the dumpster. The mission is home to four goats, and the dumpster is on the side of the fence where the goats live. I vaguely remembered the goats from last year, but was still very surprised when, as I shut the gate behind me, I heard a chorus of excited bleating that seemed to say, “People!! People!!” I turned and here came this thundering (small) herd of goats running straight toward us. Their body language just screamed, “Oh boy! Oh boy!” My partner had been butted by one of the goats last year, so she let out an “Eek!” and dropped the cardboard boxes she carried between them and her. The goats made straight for the boxes and started munching (left, top). Meanwhile, this little guy (left, bottom) was curious and stuck his nose out for my camera. I wanted to reach out and stroke his nose, but I figured this wasn’t as safe as the petting zoo in my hometown and kept my hands to myself.

Notice that there’s little grass or other growth on the ground. There’s a lot of dirt everywhere in this part of the country.



The mission fed us dinner – chicken with rice and vegetables. We had our first nightly devotion time and sang songs together. A woman on our trip, whose name I could pronounce for you but could not guess how to spell, was trained in classical guitar and so led the singing (at right in the photo). The singing felt so good that several of us sang some more later in the evening, well past the time we should have been in bed. Somebody was kind to take the picture at left so I’d have one with me in it. Sue Wilkes is at left. We’re in the common room in the dormitory.


Monday morning after biscuits and gravy we got to work. Several crews were formed for various jobs. One crew was sent out into the “suburbs” (that is, out into the desert) to build a parsonage for a church that had been built there, and to do some finishing work on the church building. Another crew remodeled a tiny bathroom at the mission’s preschool to add a shower. My crew was assigned carpentry duty to build the preschool a bookshelf, a cubby box, and five teacher’s desks. I was a little nervous at first about this assignment, having grown up in the shadow of a cabinetmaker and his high standards, but soon I realized we were just making stuff out of plywood and that I could handle that no problem. Here are some photos from our carpentry work.


Building the cubby. We used a dado blade to cut grooves in the horizontal shelves. Then we put glue in the grooves and slid the shelves in (with a little help from Mr. Hammer).


At left is Big John and at left is Brent, both from Hazelwood, hammering in more shelves.

This is the assembled cubby.


Crystal is painting the bookshelf, and Brent’s wife Dana is painting the cubby. Both are from Hazelwood. Brent said, “I’ll bet she’s painting it green. She paints everything green.” Hard to tell in this photo, but it is light green.

This is what the teacher’s desks look like from the front, before painting. The teachers like to be at the kids’ level, so these desks are only 23 inches tall.


This one is still wet with a coat of paint. Here you can see how it went together. The top is plywood with some pine board glued and nailed to it for a finished edge. The legs are two pieces of pine board glued together and milled for uniformity. The shelves are made from plywood as a separate assembly, screwed into the desk as the last step before painting.


Just after we applied the last coat of paint to the desks, the preschool director came to see them. Through an interpreter, she told us how pleased she was that we had finished them, and asked us if we could make ten more! She asked us if we were carpenters. I said, “We are now,” and she chuckled.

That’s the week’s worth of work for my crew. I felt really satisfied at the end of the week that we accomplished all of this. It helped a lot that the man who assigned work to all the crews at the mission was a cabinetmaker – he gave us plenty of design and technique pointers.  He also pitched in on Thursday so we could finish the job.

The temperature rose to 108 again on Monday.  I woke up with my stomach upset, and despite my body warning me against it ate that hot breakfast anyway. By mid-morning I had a nagging headache, and by lunch it had settled at the base of my skull.  Aspirin didn’t touch it.  I finally wet a rag, filled it with ice, and put it on that spot, to great relief – but then I felt extreme fatigue set in, with some dizziness.  The heat had clearly gotten to me, despite having consumed a half gallon of water in the morning.  So I went to bed and stayed there most of the afternoon.  Out at the church/parsonage site, several of the workers there succumbed to the heat as well, but all they had to rest on was the wooden pews inside the church. It stayed this hot the rest of the week. The heat was actually pleasant because you didn’t sweat very much. But that not sweating very much was actually a sign that you needed to keep drinking. The rule of thumb was, “If you don’t need to pee, you’re not drinking enough water.” It took more than a gallon a day for most of us to reach that threshold.


The bathroom crew had a difficult job. The bathroom was barely big enough for the sink and toilet it contained. They were to install a smaller sink, move the toilet, re-grade the floor for a new drain, and install the shower pipes. Fortunately, there seems to be no such thing as “code” in Mexico, so the crew broke the cinder-block wall where they wanted to run the pipe, placed the pipe in the crevice, and cemented it over. Working at top left are George, from Antioch Christian Church in Loogootee, and Margaret, from Hazelwood. At bottom left, Matt Miller from North Liberty happened to be supervising when Dawn (in the yellow shirt) and I came by.

This crew had a large industrial fan blowing on them to help keep them cool, because the heat really built up in that confined space. The 108-degree heat continued Tuesday and Wednesday. I can’t tell whether we’d gotten used to it, or whether we’d gotten smarter about staying cool, but none of us suffered from heat exhaustion the rest of the week. Sleeping became challenging at night, though. Our dorm rooms had little room air conditioners in them, but they had not been well maintained and were struggling to keep up with the heat. Monday and Tuesday nights I woke up a couple times overheated and sweating. It was cooler outside in the night than it was in the room, and the nightly lows were in the upper 80s. Time and a cold drink cooled me down to return to sleep until the next time I woke up overheated. Many of us suffered through the nights this way, so we weren’t very well rested during the week. On Wednesday, somebody from Hazelwood took all of the air conditioners apart and cleaned what he described as “muddy gook” out of them, and with wonder and relief we all experienced frigid cold air from them – and good sleep – that night.  Then on Thursday the temperature rose only to 96 degrees, which felt really comfortable.



This sleepy little girl kept us company all week in the garage. Notice how her bottom teeth stick out – she has a serious underbite! We all thought she was part Cocker spaniel, but couldn’t figure out what else she might be. She liked paint and more than once stuck her nose in it or walked through a paint tray.

Mexicans seem to have more relaxed relationships with their dogs than we do. They don’t appear to be affectionate toward them; at least, on both of my Mexico trips, I’ve never seen a Mexican reach down and pet a dog. Maybe it’s safest to say that they don’t treat their dogs like members of the family like we do. But dogs are everywhere. They run in yards and they sleep under cars on the street. I saw a large German shepherd mix sitting patiently on a city street corner, looking as if he were waiting for the traffic to pass so he could cross the street.

The mission is home to another dog, a medium-sized black dog with medium-length hair named Coyote, who jumped aboard the truck every day to go out to the church work site. Our Mexican hosts didn’t seem to pay attention to whether Coyote came along or not, and I suppose it was up to Coyote to watch for the truck to leave at the end of the day or he’d be left behind. Indeed, the little girl in the photo inadvertently spent her nights in the garage because she fell asleep in there while we worked in the late afternoon and did not wake up until after we’d left and somebody had locked the garage for the night. Nobody seemed the least bit concerned that she probably hadn’t been eating.


So every morning Coyote made the trip into the “country” to supervise efforts on the church and the parsonage, shown under construction in this photo. Here you see mortar being mixed so that block can be laid. Most buildings are made from cinder block in Mexico. They don’t build many wood frame structures because wood is expensive and of poor quality there. So to build a house you pour a cement slab and start mortaring cinder block directly to it. Infrastructure such as plumbing and wiring tend to run outside in plain view. You just punch a hole in the block where you need it to run inside.

This crew thought ahead: They blocked around where windows would go, as you can see. The house we worked on last year wasn’t so fortunate. They blocked the walls solid, and then knocked holes where the windows would go. It wasn’t very pretty. Either way, you install windows by building up cement around them. It seems to me that you’d be pretty much stuck with those windows forever, even after they had worn out.


This group is about to fill the baptistery inside the church building, which is at right in the photo. The black cistern in the truck bed is filled with water, and the people lining up here were about to form a bucket brigade.

Few people in Mexico own water heaters. Given that it’s warm much of the year in Mexico, most people place one of these cisterns on their roof, keep it filled with water, and let the sun warm it for showers and dishwashing. Pipes run from the cistern to the house’s water system.

Oh, and if you’re an old-vehicle buff like me, you’ll be interested to know that the truck is a rust-free US-spec 1973 Ford F-350.


Inside the church, a large crew was applying stucco to the cinder block walls. In the center of this photo is Sue Wilkes, recently of North Liberty, and the woman in the sleeveless shirt is Dana from Hazelwood. My US experience with stucco has usually involved some sort of texturing, but in Mexico I’ve always seen stucco applied to a smooth finish. Typically, stucco is painted once it’s dry.

Many roofs in Piedras Negras are flat. They get so little precipitation that there’s very little runoff to manage. Mission crews tend to put in pitched, trussed roofs, however, like those they have at home. The corrugated metal roof covering is not uncommon. There are no gutters, again because there’s so little runoff.

I was a little surprised by the bars on the windows and by a barbed-wire fence around the church property. I suppose that out in the country, there’s little protection against crime.


Forgive the dark corners in this photo; it’s a problem with my cheap camera. This is the terrain around the church –miles and miles of miles and miles. The greenery is mostly a cactus-like plant that travels the ground. There are a few houses around this church, dotted here and there, but it must be pretty lonely to live out here. It’s not uncommon for people to live on a patch of land here in a form of indentured servitude to the landowner. They work for the landowner and after an indefinite (and long) amount of time, the square of land on which they live becomes theirs.


We frequently came together as a group, mostly at mealtimes. Here some people have started trickling into the common room for lunch. Erika from Hazelwood was in charge of breakfast and lunch. We didn’t anticipate the week’s heat, so meals tended to be heavy and hot. Lunch this day was roast beef, for example. The food was good, but oh what I wouldn’t have done for a cold ham sandwich!


The mission fed us wonderful dinners during the week, but we gave them a break on Tuesday when we drove into town for dinner at Albina’s. Her home had been wiped out in a flood a couple years ago, and the Hazelwood crew helped rebuild it last year. I was on that trip, and applied plenty of stucco to the structure. So it was exciting to return and see what Albina had made of the place. She and some relatives who lived with her built a taco stand on the corner. It had become pretty popular – while we were there, several cars stopped and bought something. We had dinner there, which probably was a major cash infusion for Albina. It was great food – small (four-inch?) tortillas laid flat and covered with chicken and beef toppings. I had two plates!

After dinner, we sat in a big circle on a cement pad in Albina’s back yard to sing and have our evening devotion. Albina and her family, plus several people from the mission who traveled out there with us, certainly had to feel the same way we did at church on Sunday given the language difference. Albina told us, through an interpreter, that she felt blessed by God to have her new home, thanked the Hazelwood crew for their work, and told us that when we are in Piedras Negras, she expects us to come and visit.


I wish it wasn’t already so dark when we arrived so I could have gotten a better photo of Albina’s house. When I had last seen it, stucco work had just been finished and the windows had been cemented into place, but the roof wasn’t up yet. Here, Albina has painted the house a nice pale yellow, which the picture utterly fails to capture.

At lower right in the photo is where the Hazelwood crew hooked Albina into the city water system last year. It was a makeshift connection at the time (a “kludge,” as we’d say in the software industry), and I was surprised that it became permanent.


We finished our work Thursday morning. We spent Thursday afternoon at the town’s open market. Because Piedras Negras is a border town, the market caters heavily to tourists, and prefers dollars to pesos. They even give dollars in change. Other businesses in Piedras Negras, such as chain convenience stores, are happy to take your dollars, but they give you pesos in change. They generally exchange one dollar for ten pesos, regardless of current exchange rates.

The market sells touristy things such as T-shirts, colorful straw sombreros, candies, and blankets. They also sell giant bottles of vanilla for $2. People say the vanilla is wonderful, but a bottle I bought last year was unusable. It turns out that this market is something you need to do only once. I did it last year, and this year it was just the same old stuff.  I did buy a bag of candies that I thought my sons would enjoy, but when I got them home I learned that they were spicy candies, so spicy they were inedible.

I did make it across the street to Oxxo, a convenience store kind of like 7-Eleven or Village Pantry, to buy a couple 2-liter bottles of Manzana Lift for a friend who’d asked. Manzana Lift is apple soda, and it’s surprisingly good for being basically carbonated apple juice. The bubbles really seem to add something to make it quite refreshing. I bought a small bottle for Damion and Garrett to try – Damion loved it and Garrett, who doesn’t like carbonated drinks, conceded he liked it “a little bit.” Too bad we can’t get it in the States. I didn’t even see it in the truck stops in Texas, where you can get a surprising amount of Mexican snacks and such. Manzana Lift is made by The Coca-Cola Company, so maybe someday we’ll see it here.


Friday morning at 7 we packed the trailer with our bags and boarded our bus. By 8 am we were at the US border telling an agent that we had nothing to declare. They made us walk across the border carrying whatever we brought on the bus, while they inspected the bus. Before long, we were making the long drive home.

We accomplished a lot on this trip for the mission, so the mission could continue to reach out to others. I learned on this trip that there are two kinds of mission trips: The kind where you try to win souls to Christ, and the kind where you work so that others can win souls to Christ. We did the latter on this trip. People at the mission said that they love having the Hazelwood group because we work hard and accomplish a lot while we’re there. Still, though we went to serve the mission and its people, we came away feeling served and blessed.



Here’s the whole group. I’m in the back row, second from the right. Matt Miller is in the third row, third from the right. Lynn Golden (Sue Wilkes’s sister) is left of Matt. Sue Wilkes is in the second row, at left.