Instead of building walls across the border, members of the First Congregational Church of Christ want to build a bridge of relationships with the people of Mexico.
For the past several years, the church has partnered with Trinity United Church of Christ of Wooster for week-longmissions trips to Tijuana.
“Immigration issues have become very real,” said the Rev. Joyce Schroer, 53, of FirstCongregrational Church.
The volunteers returned from their most recent trip in February with the memories of Mexico still fresh in their minds.
Trip leader Steve Schroer, 54, said more than 10,000 Mexican workers move north to Tijuana each month in search of jobs.
The population influx places a continually mounting strain on the city’s infrastructure.
As a result, shanty towns crop up outside the city, where homes are constructed of whatever materials are available. Many have only tarps for roofs.
Discarded tires and broken televisions are stacked into the dirt as makeshift staircases leading up to the front doors, Joyce Schroer described.
“The first year I went I cried a lot,” said Becky Coleman, 55, of Berlin Heights. She completed her fifth missions trip to Mexico this year.
The group works with the organization Esperanza, which is similar to Habitat for Humanity.
“Esperanza means hope,” Joyce Schroer explained.
She said seeing the children play soccer, the flowers blooming along the hillside, and the joy on the faces of the people they’ve helped make all of the work worthwhile.
“You can see that sign of hope,” she said. “That there’s some sense of future.”
Returning to the towns and job sites they’d worked on in previous years is a moving experience for all of the volunteers.
“It just gives you goosebumps to think, ‘I helped built that’,” Coleman said.
The volunteers spend long days shoveling dirt and gravel, passing buckets of materials and lifting heavy concrete block as they work to help people who often make only dollars per day and live in neighborhoods with no running water or sewer lines.
“These people are handsome and proud ... and hard-working,” said Bob Bement, 63, of Wakeman, who went on his second trip to Mexico this year.
Having visited the local shops and markets, group members said the cost of living there isn’t much lower than it is here.
“Groceries cost just as much down there,” Steve Schroer explained.
Though the labor-intensive work is rewarding, the church volunteers know they’re in an impoverished, crime-ridden area.
“It’s a whole different feeling,” Bement said.
“You have to be aware of where you’re at,” Joyce Schroer explained.
The church plans to send another group of volunteers to work with Esperanza.
“We start talking about it on the way home,” Steve Schroer said. “We’re ready to go back again.”