From June 26- July 2, 2015 my wife, son and I took what we hope to be the first of many pilgrimages to serve at Project Mexico/St. Innocent Orphanage. “Under Rosarito Skies” is my humble attempt to journal my experience, which I can only describe as transformative. I ask forgiveness ahead of time for the portions that focus on my own issues and struggles, which will be covered quite a bit in these essays. The point is not to be about me, but hopefully by telling my story to bring attention to how stepping outside of oneself can open up healing. Christ taught to go to those who were poor, that He would be found there. I wanted to explore the paradox of how we are often healed when we reach out to serve others. I also want to bring attention to a truly wonderful ministry, Project Mexico/St. Innocent Orphanage, and to encourage support of it and places like it, and to stir hearts towards missions and service of others within and outside their community.
Part Three: Busted Knee
Two days before leaving for Mexico, with the words of my father confessor in my mind and a focus towards the way out of the Fog, I decided to go for one last run. I run somewhat regularly, depending on the season. This was going to be a short one, about 5 miles, while my son got in one last round at the skate park. We wanted to enjoy these activities before a week away. Running up a usual hill I’ve been up dozens of times, something went wrong in my knee. Burning, then intense pain, then, well, no more running. My son and I had walked a mile to the park, so we had to walk back. Walking became more difficult as we got closer to home. I didn’t panic. I’m not as young as I used to be, so aches and pains and occasional setbacks in running are something I’m used to. It usually gets better with rest. I got a little worried as the night went on, and sleep was difficult, and then the next morning when getting around required a great deal of effort. Then came the first whispers: “How are you going to manage in Mexico?” “Should you even go?” quickly became “You’re not going to be able to work there” “You won’t get to play soccer with the kids like you wanted to” “You’re going to be dead weight on the team, probably just in the way” and then on to “Why God? Why now? I was ready to put my mind to the work given me. I was ready to go and work and participate, and now… this too?” “Why?!”
I did not have time to go to the doctor before we boarded the plane. So I risked it. The pain was pretty bad, the mobility diminished, but I was going. The other thing that was diminished was my focus. Partly because the pain was such that it could not be ignored, and affected everything, but partly because I felt punched in the gut spiritually, or maybe better, like spiritually one of my legs had been taken out. I had prepared myself to go, all in, to embrace the work, to build a house, to give my all. And now – sidelines and the unknowns – “Will this get better in Mexico?” “Worse?” “What am I even going to be able to do?” The talk, the internal conversations were back with a vengeance. And quickly it once again spiraled into that realm of losing sight of the moment, the day, the person in front of me. I was walking back into the Fog, but this time it was fueled by a disappointment I was feeling. Once again, though, it was increasingly self-focused, self-centered, and further from the reality actually in front of me.
It was, I believe, on our second work day, Monday, during morning prayers that I got my second wake up call. Fr. Timothy Yates, one of the priests serving with our team, gave a brief talk after the service, before we went to breakfast and loaded the trucks. He talked about the importance of doing the work given for that day, and not focusing at all about what anyone else’s task was, or what anyone else was thinking about the task we had. He spoke about the place spiritually we go when we start to compare, or feel compared, or wish we had the ability to do a different task. We miss the work in front of us at that moment. It was a retelling of the word I got from my father confessor, and again it was the word I needed.
I spent most of the week on the work site playing with kids. The two daughters of the woman (Sophia) whose house we were building, Kimberly (8), and Katherine “Kati” (7), along with cousins and other neighborhood kids who stopped by to play tic tac toe in the dirt, various games of catch, coloring, and even building a ramp out of scrap wood for a toy skateboard. I haven’t built a ramp for a toy vehicle in a long time. What I began to experience, as my thoughts of what ifs and whys went away was pure joy. Joy to just be there – to be present with nothing else to think about. I got to help on a few other small, light jobs, but I also got to make lunch and help support those, including my 13 year old son, who were doing the hard work of building a house, the task given them that day. I got to watch the aunt, whose house and lot she generously let us use for building materials, cook a meal of hospitality for our group, all while listening to Ritchie Valens and Elvis Presley. I was where I was supposed to be. I could have remained frustrated that the week didn’t look like what I expected, I could have been angry about my busted knee, but that would have been my own self-created hell. As long as I remained turned inward on my own situation, I would be miserable. If I turned to the other – my brothers and sisters on the work team – the kids in the neighborhood who required so little of me and responded with such joy and generosity – then I would be saved.
There is a saying within Orthodox tradition: We are saved together, we go to hell alone. C.S. Lewis explored this in his masterpiece The Great Divorce. Those in ‘hell’ had isolated themselves, focused on their own shortcomings, their own idea of how life should be, their own possessions, their own vices. They increasingly turned less to the other, out of fear of risk, fear of loss of comfort, fear of letting go of their own “stuff” (materially, emotionally, spiritually). They did not live a life of debauchery in ‘hell’ but rather one of increased isolation, the torment was a torment within their own mind they had created, and which was constantly with them. Those who got on the train to visit the “other land” (‘heaven’ in the story) experienced a place that got increasingly more real, even painfully so, as they became more and more flexible to what they experienced, less tied to their own ideas of how things should be. It was risky to keep going, because it meant giving up control, trusting, and being present in the moment, not stuck in the past or the future.
In my journey to Mexico, I got a glimpse of reality in the midst of a fog of noise, debates, and self-focus. And I mean reality, because it looked like very very real things – like tic tac toe in the dirt with Kim and Kati, like a team working to build a concrete foundation, like a Rosarito sunset by the ocean. What saved me was true beauty. What saved me was leaving a bunch of baggage, including my worry and frustration about my busted knee, to the mercy and love of God, and getting a glimpse into the mystery that maybe even that, the busted knee, was for my salvation, to remind me to be less stuck on my own ways, and more present for the Grace of God.
So… in my next few posts I want to talk more about Mexico. A good place to start is with how immensely and unexpectedly beautiful Mexico is. I also want to tell you more about the kids, and a little about the crazy dogs on the site, including a chihuahua that, as the story I was told goes, died and got brought back to life!
To be continued….
P.S. Turns out the busted knee is a ‘significant’ meniscus tear according to the MRI . ‘Significant’ bummer. Awaiting next steps, possibly including surgery. Prayers appreciated!