Sketch: A lonely peak in the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, Texas, across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where Casas por Cristo ministers to the poor and destitute —
Casas por Cristo (Houses for Jesus) is a unique missionary organization that meets practical needs while spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Their charter is to build homes for impoverished people who are actively involved in their local church. They do so in full cooperation with the local pastor. In this way, the ministry of Casas por Cristo is very personal and practical.
Casas primarily operates in two severely-overcrowded cities in northern Mexico: Acuna and Ciudad Juarez. Shanty towns sprawl all around these cities as hopeful migrants move there to find work in the U.S. In most cases, they are disappointed to learn they must wait. As a result, the population growth of these cities has outpaced the infrastructure, and basic necessities like shelter, water, and electricity are hard to come by. In many of these shanty villages, people live in houses made of cardboard, wooden pallets, strips of corrugated aluminum, plastic tarps, or whatever material can be found. Water is supplied in large containers which are refilled three or four times a week by a water truck. The land is hot, arid, and desolate.
In the midst of this dark and hopeless scene are local pastors who are doing their best to meet the spiritual and physical needs of the people. That’s where Casas steps in. Families work with their local pastor to identify their need and are placed on a list. The pastor partners with Casas to organize home-building projects. The staff at Cases coordinates the volunteer recruitment, the purchase of materials, and the hundreds of details associated with transporting volunteer workers back and forth across the U.S.-Mexican border. Casas’ ministry is very cost-effective and efficient–they cut expenses by using volunteer labor who not only bring the muscle but also contribute financially to purchase the material.
A Casas home takes about four days to build, mostly with volunteer, inexperienced labor led by a Casas staff member. Typical Casas homes have three rooms, complete with concrete floor, electric ceiling fans, lights, windows, and locking doors–a virtual mansion compared to the previous living arrangement. The volunteer teams are fully engaged in the process, mixing and pouring the concrete floors, assembling and raising the wood frame, covering the walls with chicken wire mesh and stucco, and building and shingling the roof. Sometimes crazy things happen–like severe flooding, or discovery of huge rocks where the foundation needs to go–and the teams have to scramble to get done on time. It’s hot, there’s sand everywhere, and even an occasional tarantula. But there are also the families, lingering, watching their homes come together. Usually the father or some of the family members chips in to help. And then there are the kids–taking it all in, having fun with the volunteers. Despite the hard work and hot conditions, seeing the family makes it all totally worth it.
In its heyday, churches and ministry groups from all over the U.S. came all year round, building homes with Casas. Recent drug violence has curtailed Casas’ ability to operate in Acuna and Ciudad Juarez, so they have expanded elsewhere. However, things have improved. In fact, a high school group from New Covenant Bible Church returns today from the first trip to Mexico in several years.
I’ve been on two trips to Ciudad Juarez. I created this sketch in March 2009, after completing my second tour. This is a peak along the Franklin Mountains, just outside of Park Hills Church in El Paso, TX. Park Hills is one of the local churches that partners with Casas to house volunteer crews at their facility before and after crossing the border. My kids and their friends scaled this mountain, still energetic after a week of back-breaking labor. I stayed behind to sketch!
I want to give a shout-out to Mark Forstrom, youth pastor of New Covenant Bible Church, and a dear friend of mine. For over 20 years I suppose, Mark has had the vision and wherewithal to take multiple groups of high school kids and other volunteers down to Ciudad Juarez and Acuna. The drive from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to El Paso, Texas, is very long and tiresome, especially when hauling 60+ people, most of whom are teens. The work is hard. The teenage drama can sometimes be unbearable. But there are so many memories, so many great stories, I’m sure Mark wouldn’t trade any of those trips for the world. I praise God for guys like Mark.