Monday, August 27, 2012

Week 1: Lesson in Faith

I’m officially back in the Blogosphere, and this time I plan to stay for a while. Allow me a quick introduction: My name’s Mateo and I just arrived to Mexico on a 2012-2013 Fulbright – García Robles scholarship. After an amazing week of orientation in Mexico City, I’m currently on a bus heading north to the capital city of Aguascalientes, where I’ll spend the duration of my grant as an English Teaching Assistant. Goals for this year include eating lots of tacos, playing lots of soccer, and getting lots of Mexicans pumped about learning English.

My flight from Oakland landed early in the morning last Monday, and I took the red Metrobus to our hotel in the historic center of Mexico City. It was a bit of a trip to be back in the DF (“Distrito Federal”) for the first time in six years, but my arrival didn’t have quite the psychological impact I expected. After all, this was the start of a new adventure, the turning of a fresh page, the first day of the rest of my life… all that jazz. Ironically, I had flown nearly five hours to land in a place that reminded me explicitly of home. From the bus I saw several painted advertisements for Lupillo Rivera’s upcoming concert (I saw him two weeks ago at the Ventura County Fair). On a corner near the hotel I ate some late-night street tacos (just like I did in Santa Rosa the night before I left for Mexico). The bellboy who showed me to my hotel room was from Tumbiscatillo, Michoacán (the same town as my friend Jesse, with whom I went to Lake Mendocino a few weeks ago).

One stark difference from home, however, came up heavily during the last day of our orientation. All of us Fulbright grantees attended a seminar on violence and safety hosted by a representative of the US Embassy in Mexico. State by state, he outlined everything we should try to avoid during the next nine months: kidnappings, identity theft, assaults, compromised ATM machines, certain buses and taxis, tap water… The list was very long. Despite his closing reassurances (“That said, Mexico’s great and I’m sure you’ll all be fine!”), we all walked away a little overwhelmed. How are we supposed to stay away from tampered ATMs when the criminals are so good that even technicians can’t see the rigging? When cartels create their own highway checkpoints to rob travelers, will taking a more expensive bus keep us safe or put us more at risk? How can we tell when the bottled water sold on street corners is just tap water bottled at a fraudulent plant? ß That actually happens!

The answer to those questions came unexpectedly, but I’ll get to that in a moment. When orientation finished on Friday, all of us English Teaching Assistants were left to fend for ourselves in Mexico City over the weekend before our host institution representatives picked us up Monday morning. Most stayed in a hostel in the city center, but a lucky few of us benefitted from having a family member who lives in the city. I stayed over the weekend with Tía Bella, one of my best friend’s aunts whom I’ve adopted as my own (in reality, I’m the one who has been adopted by Martín’s entire incredible family). Always an angel, she fattened me up over the weekend with delicious dishes, brought me on a canoe ride in Xochimilco, and refreshed my memory of the gorgeous Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. The best part of our weekend together, though, was attending a sunrise service yesterday morning. 

I’ve been going to church my whole life, but I can honestly say that I’ve never been more directly influenced by a message than Sunday’s. After prayer requests and a bunch of uplifting worship songs (two of which were originally written by SonicFlood and Salvador, bands that I’ve seen perform live at my home church in Santa Rosa), the pastor stepped up to deliver his message. He started with one of my absolute favorite verses, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), then went on to tell a story from his first week as pastor of the church. The congregation had kindly offered him and his wife a place to live; unfortunately, it was behind Plaza Garibaldi in a rough neighborhood, on a street frightfully nicknamed La Calle de Los Muertos. The first time they walked outside their new house, two tough-looking guys stopped them and hassled them for money. His wife immediately began to cry; her nerves had gotten to her. The pastor kept calm and told the meaner one that he didn’t have any money. He offered, however, to pray for the would-be thief, beginning by saying that God loved him. At that, tears started running down the tough guy’s face. “Nobody has ever told me that before, that God loves me. Nobody.” The pastor assured him that God does indeed love him, and soon he and his wife were on their way. Suddenly someone grabbed him by the back of the neck. “Uh oh,” thought the pastor. “I think we’re getting robbed anyway.” He turned around as the second tough guy released the grip on his collar and stated, “You’re not going anywhere until you pray for me too.”

There was nothing special about the pastor that first time on the Street of the Dead. He wasn’t intimidating, the men weren’t beginning thieves, he and his wife didn’t simply get lucky. His put the situation in the Heavenly Father’s hands and walked by faith, in the knowledge that God is always in control. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). At that moment in the service, I had an epiphany. Why live in fear when God is by my side? We spend so much effort worrying about how to keep ourselves safe, ignoring the fact that all the precautions in the world pale in comparison to the security we find in Him. So often we as Christians run away from the very places that most need our light. How can a region plagued by fear and violence overcome the Devil’s grasp when many Christians are doing their utmost to keep a “safe” distance? Jesus walked among the broken- among the prostitutes and drunkards and beggars- yet I often find myself crossing the street to distance myself from these same people.

The pit I felt in my stomach after listening to the US Embassy representative rattle off all the dangers of my new home disappeared completely after Sunday morning’s message. That doesn’t mean that I’m throwing caution to the wind and looking for an apartment on the Street of the Dead, but it does mean that I’ll be doing my best to live in the knowledge that God can protect me better than I can protect myself. In the coming weeks and months, may we each learn to walk in the glorious peace that He alone can provide, and may we approach each situation not with fear but as an opportunity to share His light.

I am so blessed for the opportunity to spend this year in Mexico, and I can’t wait to see what awaits me. In the meantime, let’s get some tacos!