Vision and Pain
For several years now, the women of the Baptist convention of Baja California, Mexico have had a vision. It is a vision born of their own suffering, and from the pain of so many around them.You know the wrenching in the gut that we feel when we make a connection, a real connection, with someone suffering injustice or hunger or poverty, when we are powerless to help; I believe this is the pain of God's love welling up within us, pushing us into action, not permitting us to look away.This has been their pain. It has compelled them to action.
The Reality of the Border
On the doorstep of the US, just south of California, lie the cities of Tijuana, Tecate and Mexicali.They are cities that have grown several times in size in the last generation, with people arriving from all over Mexico, and Central and South America for myriad reasons.
Businesses from around the world locate factories in the free trade zones here to take advantage of the inexpensive labor, favorable tax laws and anti-pollution requirements.Surprisingly, the Northern Baja region has the lowest rate of unemployment in Mexico.The region is also host to a growing sex trade and drug trafficking, both of whose customers come largely from the US.Hundreds of migrants arrive here everyday, attracted by the jobs these industries create.
In the same way, many people come here in passing, as they make their way through Tijuana into the US, legally and illegally, to the promise of a better future, working in fields, factories and kitchens. Those that don't make it across the border often stay in Northern Baja finding jobs in the factories, or worse…
Just as many people have come to this area with little more than a dream, too many have found a nightmare.People have come, uprooted from traditional social structures, families and communities, and have settled into the growing sections of the city which lack transportation, affordable housing, clean water, good schools, day care, etc.And here they continue the struggle to survive, alone.
The breakdown of the social fabric and the lack of community, along with economic hardship lead many into drug addiction and alcoholism and thus the region also leads Mexico in addiction rates.Compounding all of this is a culture of violence and violent crime that continues to rise.
The tension, poverty and violence which permeate life in the border cities comes back home, where it finds the victims of last resort, the women and children.Domestic violence is more prevalent here than in any other part of Mexico.There is a strong chauvinism (machismo) in the culture that has always relegated women to a lower status than men.Coupled with the absence of other social support structures, we have a society that tolerates, and even encourages, violence against women and where there are few places to turn for help.It is estimated that 80% of women in Tijuana will be physically and or sexually abused by a partner in their lifetime.Many of them face this abuse on an almost daily basis for much of their lives.
Response of the Church
In the face of such a crisis, the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, have remained largely silent.We need to face the fact that even though women are the majority in the Latino church, it is still a male dominated institution and in its public agenda it is either complicit or ignorant about this treatment of women.For instance, a woman in a violent relationship is usually counseled to submit to her husband out of reverence for Christ, even a husband that beats and rapes her; it is her duty to endure abuse.Rarely does one hear the rest of the passage in Ephesians 5, about men loving their wives as Christ loves the church.
But there is a group of women in the Baptist churches of Baja that know that God is calling their churches to have a greater witness to the victims of domestic violence.Some of them have suffered through this personally; others have seen close friends and sisters in Christ as they struggled to survive abusive relationships.Not all have survived.This is their pain; this is their vision.They knew that they had to help find an alternative for these women.
Joining in the Vision
Their dream is to open a shelter where women can come to escape the abuse, receive counseling and begin to put their lives back in order.Their dream is also infectious. The ‘Femenil', or women's department, of the Baptist convention of Northern Baja has embraced this project and has banded together to make it a reality. It was the Femenil that invited International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches to become involved, in asking for some missionaries to help them to pursue this dream.
What drew Adalia and I to join them in this ministry was their love, compassion and evident genuine calling for this ministry.They have never asked for something for themselves, but have invited us to be partners with them, enabling them to better serve others.We see in them the fervor to spread the gospel in ways in which most churches wouldn't dare, and to reach people that most usually overlook.
Women Working Together
The women who have kindled this dream come from different backgrounds and bring many resources.Two of them are former victims of abuse.They have both become nurses, one with a Masters in Public Health.There are also pastor's wives, housewives, and factory workers, etc.In the past year a doctor, a social worker and a CPA, among others, have joined them.
They also represent the spiritual fruit of seed planted many years ago by American Baptist Churches.This region was once a part of ABC Pacific Southwest, and the relationship continues with them through International Ministries.It is very refreshing for me to see those with whom we have been in partnership have such a strong commitment to reach out to and serve others.
We have now been working with this group of women for a year and a half.In that time, we have worked to solidify and equip this team and to begin to do ministry together.We have been attending workshops and seminars on domestic violence, counseling and non-violent conflict resolution.We have also been volunteering in the shelter that the government runs in Tijuana.(It is the only shelter in this city of more than two million inhabitants and only houses up to eight women and their children.)The team has also built a very solid relationship with the governmental agencies and NGO's working on this and related problems.
The project has been named "Deborah's House" after the prophet and judge of the Old Testament (Judges 4-5).Her strength is a symbol for the women who have put their lives into this ministry, who have dared to go forward even when men would not.
Although the long-term goal is to have a shelter available for women in extreme situations, there is a lot that we have been able to do with far fewer resources.The team has presented workshops for all of our churches on domestic violence, conflict resolution and communication skills, in addition to making educational resources available for all of our pastors. We are encouraging churches to speak out about domestic violence from their pulpits and Sunday school classes.The women have organized breakfasts in all of our churches as an opportunity to raise money and awareness, as well as keep the churches informed of all that is happening.
The Emmanuel Baptist Church in Tijuana has allowed the project to use its space in its building for the Deborah House offices, where we do counseling, host workshops, have our medical office and maintain a 24 hour hotline.Through these efforts we have begun to establish a relationship with dozens of women who have come to us looking for help.In addition to that which we can offer, we are also able to connect them to the other services which they might need, such as legal and psychiatric help, through the network we are participating in.
The Next Step
Now it is time to do much more. Many of our clients are in situations of desperation.They live with unimaginable violence on a daily basis.Furthermore, there exists the ever-present threat of something worse.Though we are counseling many couples, and trying to help them find joy in their marriages, we know that we need to offer a refuge for many women, where they can find rest and begin to put their lives back in order.
This year we will be building the shelter, on a lot within Emmanuel Baptist Church's property in Tijuana.It is a very secure location, but with easy access to the services that the residents will need.It will be a three-story structure, with dorm style bedrooms, housing as many as 15 women and their children at any given time.
If you would like to bring a work team, send a contribution, put us in touch with some potential donors, or need some more information, please respond to us by: