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Turn to Jesus (Article)

The Other 9/11
Discovering a City of Joy in the heart of Mexico.

city of joy
The City of Joy entrance.

By Erin Rockenhaus

Remember how September 11 changed the way we look at the world?  Suddenly our lives and our country were caught in a global struggle between two conflicting world views.  We were under attack, and we didn’t know why or what for.  In the following months and years, new discoveries about terrorist networks around the world only confirmed our initial suspicions.  We were no longer safe and secure, no longer completely sure of our future, and no longer free from enemies.

Some people had a different experience of 9/11.  At the same time the twin towers were falling, a corner stone was being laid in a new kind of city.  This was not a city of material prosperity.  It was not a city in the heart of the world’s commerce and trade.  It was not a city for those who are rising in life.

It was called Ciudad de la
city of joy next
The City of Joy AIDS hospice.
Alegría, the City of Joy.  On my recent mission trip to Mexico I discovered this hidden city lying on the outskirts of Cancun and went with the group to tour and volunteer there a few days. 

As the tour guide showed us around the city.  He stopped in front of the cornerstone—September 11, 2001—the irony that almost knocked me over. 

“Yes,” he said, “we actually missed the news of the Twin Towers falling because we were all in the inauguration ceremony that morning.”

The city started with the inspiration of one nun, gathering the collaborative effort of eight independent charitable associations, and the support of generous business leaders.  In 2000 at a meeting of people interested in helping the Cancun community, Sister Berth Lopez Chavez gave her vision for a “city” in which all the needy sectors of the population would find aide.  This vision became reality just over one year later.

The tremendous contrast between the two cities, one falling and the other rising, does not end there.  This city is not made of highrises but of neat white houses, “homes” as the citizens call them.  The homes are each operated by a separate association, yet they function in harmony by belonging to the same Fundación Ciudad de la Alegría.

• The Bread and Blanket Home is operated by Caritas Quintana Roo and distributes food, clothing, and household items to the Ciudad and the surrounding population.
• The Women’s Home is run by the Sister Servants of the Sacred Heart and gives integral support young unwed mothers and mothers who are victims of violence.
• The Home for the Elderly serves elderly who are most in need due to poverty and abandonment and gives them a place to live with dignity.  It is run by the Discalced Carmelite nuns.
• The Training Center reaches out
city of joy missionary
A missionary scrubs down a bathroom in the City of Joy complex.
to alcoholics and drug addicts using the programs from Anonymous Groups.
• The Home for Children gives childcare to struggling working families and shelters abandoned and unwanted children.
• The Mano Amiga School run by the Altius Foundation provides a quality education to children of low-income families and strives to educate the whole family.
• The Cafarnaum Hospice belongs to the Sisters of the Resurrection who care for children and adults with HIV/AIDs as well as others with terminal illnesses.
• There is a medical dispensary open to the surrounding populations with doctors volunteering their services for daily consultations.
• There is also a free legal service for the surrounding populations.

This city is still under construction to expand its services to reach out to more people. 

Our group spent several days volunteering in the home for the elderly.  It was unlike any nursing home I had been in before.  Some of the external elements were similar—nurses, nurses’ aides, patient rooms, a dining area, and a lot of elderly sitting around in easy chairs.  Yet, there was a unique family spirit in this place.  Every day a different group of volunteers arrived to visit the patients and serve their meals.  These volunteers shared joy and enthusiasm, calling each patient by name and even spoon feeding those who couldn’t feed themselves.  This place was a home, not an institution. 

In my hours there, I got to know Samuel, who told me his life story, including all the black spots, almost as if he wanted me to absolve him like a priest.  At least I could listen, which was more than enough.  The next day, I pushed Nathan around the courtyard in a wheelchair until he stopped me so he could take off his shoes and let the breeze come in through his socks.  I would have done the same thing if I were him.

People say that after the fall of the Twin Towers, New York City momentarily turned to God and neighbor, and everyone tried to do something to help.  The City of Joy is God turning to us and inviting us to build his permanent city, here and everywhere.  This is the other 9/11, the one that changed alienation into welcoming, violence into healing, and fear into hope.

Author’s note: This June and July, I spent a month on a humanitarian and evangelizing mission to the Mayan part of Mexico with the Mission Youth Corps International Volunteer Program.  The account written above is true, but names are changed to protect the privacy of the individuals. For information on the Cuidad de la Alegria in English see:



Related links

Altius Foundation
Catholic World Mission
Helping Hands Medical Missions
St Rafael Guizar y Valencia Missionary Center

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