A mission group arrived on Friday. This group was different! They looked just like other groups who visited Las Memorias, mostly white people, with big eyes overwhelmed and afraid. They stand all huddled together as they take stock of the residents gathered in the room. This is just like the other groups - coming here to see us, hold a service and then feed us. They leave feeling good about themselves for having crossed the border and walked onto the property we call home.
Not this group! At 12:30 pm they said hello to the residents and shared the game-plan for their visit with them. A manicure station will be set up there…. a game station up there and another over there… an art station on the right side… massage or facial in the back of the room. That is when the buzz began. The buzz… you know that buzz that arises in a room when something exciting is about to happen. It was palpable in the room. Everyone stood up and chairs started moving to each station as tables were set in place.
For the next two hours; nails were done, art was created, games were played, and massages were given…This was a different kind of visit indeed.
As your Global Ministries representative here at Albergue Las Memorias I have seen groups come and go offering heartfelt singing, messages, and prayers filled with repent…or…well, you know, fear based faith. As the UCC from Irvine, and the UU from Orange, came together for this very different type of mission experience I was so thrilled to see visitors actually talking with the residents. They held hands as manicures were given. Healing touches of facials and messages. Laughter and chatter filled the room; eye contact and gratitude were evidence of deep connection. Yes, Yes, Yes, giving and receiving from one another, relationships budded in this space.
Albergue (shelter) Las Memorias (the memories) is a unique ministry with a specific mission, serving the poor with HIV/AIDS who are also living with drug and alcohol addictions. HIV is contracted most easily through sexual contact; however, sharing of needles is how many of our residents became infected. The ones who were infected by sexual contact were in large part sex workers…addiction can also be a part of the lives of the sex workers. Young girls forced into prostitution found escape in drugs.
Street people, sick people, addicts…Put just over 100 of them in a shelter with no nurses, doctors, cooks, or cleaning staff; that is Las Memorias. As people come to the shelter they are placed in ASLADOS, a special care room where they are screened for TB(1), fed, cleaned up, and cared for by other residents. Many share stories of how sick they were when they came in, and the impact of being cared for by other residents. Some share the moments when they were cared for by a person who is gay, and how respect and gratitude began to grow. When visitors see this room it is often heart-breaking. When one realizes the person they had so much fun with just a few moments ago also started in this room…. Gratitude and praise for the transformation process grows. Not every resident who comes to Las Memorias undergoes this life giving transformation, without a doubt, some die in the first few hours or days of arriving. Here is the good news - they do not die alone. They are cared for with great compassion by others who have been where they have been. Often there are two or three gathered around the bed for the final moments, that sacred final exhale as spirit escapes the broken abused body to join the spirits of the saints and the embrace of eternal love.
Serving here is rich with tiny moments of transformation, and real life where children act up. Parents come to terms with the fact, their parenting has some defects. Flashes of anger flair from time to time. Frustration and sadness wash over as the effects of lives ruled by drugs begin to change. Reality…
This group that came, they saw beyond shortcomings and addictions. They saw us and loved us. They shared a moment with us. They promised a return visit.
I still wish I knew more Spanish words and how to use them properly to show tense and voice. It is getting better, but pray for me to increase my communication skills. As your servant here I walk humbly alongside this community, and together we see the goodness of God every day in our caring for each other.
Jerri L. Handy serves as a Long-term Volunteer with Las Memorias, Nogales, Mexico. Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Churches Wider Mission, and your special gifts.
(1) If test for TB is positive, they are moved up to the TB unit (Another sacred space of transition.) for a 3 to 6-month stay. They move back down to special care when they test negative for TB and can begin to mingle with other clients