Crossing the border into Tijuana is, predictably, jarring. Southern Californians who visit here mostly shrug off the car graveyards that litter hillsides, the begging kids, the stray pregnant dogs and the clusters of corrugated tin sheds that pass for neighborhoods. But this time, I am not a tourist. I am here with a group of people to make an atom-sized dent in the squalor by building a bathhouse for an orphanage.
This is activist travel of the most spartan kind, a long weekend under the auspices of Baja Christian Ministries, devoted to sprucing up a tiny block of Tijuana. The Los Angeles arm of this annual building party, which has been variously dubbed the Maverick Building Squad, Baja Builders, and Just Get It Up, was initiated by Richard Erickson and Wendy Malick a few years ago, and has expanded to include some of their neighbors in Topanga and assorted friends. Among those friends is Malibu Foundation founder Michael Klubock, who on Earth Day each year gathers busloads of school kids on Dockweiler State Beach to form the letters S.O.S. with their bodies. Also present are Donna Freiermuth and Brooke Hailey, two women with a plan to create an online matchmaking service for singles who want to make a difference (www.CaringSingles.com -- where your first date can be a community-service event).
Though Im not averse to the prospect, I didnt come to meet anyone, friend or lover, but neither did I come out of any great surge of altruism. In my darker moments, I worry that I am only here to see close-up how people survive abject poverty. I know for certain that I am glad to have found an escape from the awkward and loaded silence of Thanksgiving dinner with my immediate family.
I have also come to learn to build things. In practice, this means I learn to cut drywall. So much drywall, in fact, that by lunch on the first day, I have already passed through boredom into a Zen-like intimacy with drywall. I know how it breaks clean if you cut the paper right, how it crumbles if youre not careful, how to keep the brown-paper backing from curling up and how to sand it to a tight-fitting edge. (Just because we do not build to U.S. code does not mean we leave bulging nails and ill-fitting boards.) I know how to fit it over pipe and nail it to the stud. When the sun sets on the workday, I am coated with a fine white powder and coughing up dust.
At dinner, we gather at a long wooden table in a drafty, high-ceilinged room with people from other volunteer organizations -- most of them church groups, some associated with Baja Christian Ministries, which oversees the orphanage. One group forms a circle to sing James Taylor songs; others strum their guitars to hymns. When I compliment a man named Eric on his enormous tenor and ask him if he sings professionally, he gives me a pained and disappointed stare. I reserve my talents for the glory of Christ, he says sternly.
But for every Eric, there is someone like Sergio Gomez, the stout and jovial minister, director of the orphanage. Gomez has no time for pondering self-sacrifice; hes too busy getting prostitutes off the street by offering them houses. But its from him that I finally glimpse what I might get out of showing up for social causes. Its reassurance, I think, a reminder that the world at large -- and, by extension, my world -- can get better. Its not hope, exactly, which implies a longer wait and possible failure, but something closer to faith: the absolute and even arrogant certainty that good prevails.
Over dinner on the last night, Gomez tells us about a man who came one year from South Pasadena to build houses. During his stay, the man walked into a convenience store in a rough Tijuana neighborhood. As he got out his wallet, a man pulled a knife on him, demanding all his cash. And in that moment, Sergio says, the house-builders wife bolted upright in her South Pasadena bed and talked to God.
You know that guilt that people have that takes away their power, that stops them from asking God for what they want? Gomez asks. She didnt have any of that. She said, God! Send a protector to rescue my husband! So into the store walked a hulk who called himself Walter, who stood up to the robber and, in the Spanish of a Tijuana native, ordered him gone. Now, I have been all over Tijuana, Sergio says, and I have asked, Who here has ever named their son Walter? The answer was nobody. There is only one explanation for this man named Walter. He had to be an angel.
To my surprise, I have no doubt that he was.
CaringSingles will hold its first event Saturday, February 12 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.