Project Mexico: To Love is to Serve

by Rene Zitzloff

For the last three summers, along with two of my children, and people from our church, I have had the opportunity to travel to Mexico under the auspices of an Orthodox organization called Project Mexico, a group which takes volunteers into Mexico to build homes for impoverished Mexican families. Each group stays about a week and builds a small home, eleven by twenty-two feet, consisting of four walls, two windows and a cement floor.

A young Orthodox Christian named Greg Yova founded Project Mexico in 1988. Greg was born and raised in the Romanian Orthodox Church, but during a period of rebellion in his twenties he left Orthodoxy, soon turning to Protestantism to find his way. During this time Greg joined a Protestant group called “Amor,” which builds homes for poor Mexican families. Eventually Greg came back to the Orthodox Church. However, he felt that Orthodoxy in America was lacking in social outreach. With a vision of reaching out to the poor, and using what he learned from “Amor,” Greg founded Project Mexico.

Greg and his energetic wife Margaret administer Project Mexico out of a small office in San Diego, assisted by volunteers and interns. They do not receive funding from any one Archdiocese, but rely on donations from individuals, parishes, charitable groups and foundations. The project is not affiliated with any single jurisdiction, but has the blessing of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas.

Once in Mexico to build a house, we stay in tents at St. Innocent Orphanage, a ministry of Project Mexico. The orphanage is located 20 minutes from Tijuana, and takes in teen-age boys. This is badly needed as, due to a lack of facilities in the Tijuana area, Mexican orphan boys are usually only cared for until their teen-age years, then put out on the street, where they often become gang members or prostitutes. The need for orphanages for teen age girls is not so great; there are facilities that will care for them, or they can work as live-in maids, and usually marry quite young.

Boys that live at the orphanage go to school, are provided with vocational skills, and receive spiritual, social and cultural training. They may stay at the orphanage until they are 18. Then they receive the savings they have acquired by participating in the profit-making ventures attached to the orphanage. Visiting priests serve Liturgies at the orphanage chapel. The boys attend these and may become Orthodox if they choose. They are not forced to do this, and since many are Catholic, they are occasionally taken to a Catholic church to worship.

The first year I went, under the tutelage a young man from our parish who had volunteered several summers for Project Mexico, we built a home for Oscar and Anna and their three children. We got up at 7, prayed together, had 15 minutes of quiet time, then breakfast and clean up, loading the trucks, and going to the work site. We spent the day working on the house and came back around 4 or 5. After fighting over the showers (males or females first?), we had dinner. In the evening there was worship followed by discussion. Margaret or Greg usually led the discussions, educating us about the causes and effects of poverty, and what we could do at home to continue helping others. One of the greatest lessons we learned in Project Mexico is that to love means to serve. We are not there to proselytize the people, or to critique their culture or life-style. We are there to serve their needs.

One of the best things about all this is the contact with those for whom the homes are built. It’s common for the families to work with us as we build. Oscar, even though he worked nights at a small pottery factory, managed to work days on the house with us. He was skilled in carpentry, and if one of us had a problem, we asked Oscar for help — using the universal language of gestures! The day we put the first layer of stucco on their home, Oscar and his family left the work site for a short time. I was working on the roof when I saw them walking up the dusty hill, each with a scraggly potted plant in their arms. With touching pride, they planted these around the house. Before we left Mexico, Anna and Oscar invited us to their new home for a supper of delicious homemade tamales. When we arrived, we were surprised and impressed to see that they had already painted their house a pretty shade of pastel peach!

The next year we built a home for Rosario and her four children. Rosario was divorced from an abusive husband. While taking day courses in secretarial skills, at nights she worked as a hospital receptionist and on weekends cleaned houses. While doing all this, neighbors took care of her children.

Children are an integral part of our ministry in Mexico. Wherever we build a house, the children in the neighborhood flock to see what is going on. Margaret encourages us to take time to play with them. Usually a Project Mexico intern comes to the work site and brings storybooks and crafts for the children. We also bring games, jump ropes, “bubbles” and small treats to share with them.

On our first day at the work site, Margaret advised us not to hand out presents indiscriminately but to make friends with the children first. This helped keep the children from learning to beg. We also enjoyed getting to know boys at the orphanage, playing games with them, and worshiping with them.

This last year we built a home for Irma and Manuel and their five children. When Margaret first visited them in their small shack, she noticed a piece of tarp hung over the baby’s bed. She asked Irma what it was for, and was told it was there to keep the rain off the baby. This is a common problem for the poor of Mexico. The average family lives on $30 a week.

The countryside is dotted with shacks made of scraps of wood, cardboard, and tin. The floors are usually dirt. In the winter months when it rains, roofs leak and floors turn to mud. It is common for children to contract pneumonia and some die. Although the homes we build are small, the roofs are watertight, and the floor is cement, which won’t turn to mud, and helps keep the rats out.

Outside Irma’s shack she had planted a small garden of a few vegetables, and some bright red geraniums. I was amazed at her perseverance in spite of the odds against her. Each day as we worked on her house, she washed dishes in a bucket of cold water, rocked her baby to sleep outside in a tiny hammock, and faithfully swept the dust off a ragged piece of carpet by the tent they stayed in until their house was done.

Each time I have been to Mexico my eyes and heart have been opened in new ways, and I have come to love a new family. Rosario and her children particularly moved me. Perhaps this was because she spoke English, and we were able to get to know each other. As we hugged good-by my last day there, we both had tears in our eyes. We exchanged addresses, and planned to write. “Rosario, please let me know if you need anything, anything at all,” I said, wondering if there was anything she did not need. She looked at me, smiled through her tears, and said, “I think I just needed love.”

Rene Zitzloff is the Church School Director at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis. This summer instead of going to Mexico she visited Holland. The drawing is by her daughter Amanda. To contact Project Mexico, write: Box 713033, Santee, CA 92072-3033 USA; tel: 619-448-1368; e-mail info@projectmexico.org. Their web site is: www.projectmexico.org.