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Turn to Jesus (Article)

A Week in the Life of a Teenage Missionary
An account of the City of Joy mission in Cancun, Mexico.

Missionaries and kids
Missionaries and local kids give the thumbs up and "V" for victory sign.

By Chris Buser

My name is Chris Buser, and this is a journal of my first mission.  The mission was led by Father Dominic Pham, LC, and involved serving the poor and underprivileged in and around Cancun, Mexico.  I hope you enjoy my story, since it took quite a while to finalize, but my main hope is that this story reaches other Catholic, and even Protestant, teens and convinces them to go on a mission as well.

Friday, 6/24/11

Both excited and nervous, I woke up at 8:00, which is early for my summer schedule, to catch my 11:00 flight from Jacksonville to Miami.  With three hours to get ready, eat, and drive to the nearby airport, we were somehow almost late, but I made it.  After I landed in Miami, I caught up with the rest of the people that were flying from there to Cancun, including Legionary priest Father Dominic and two of the priests-to-be, Brother Jaime and Brother Gabriel.  I grabbed a quick bite to eat and left on the plane.  When we got there, it took quite a while for everyone to meet up outside Customs, but we eventually made it to the bus with the rest of the people on the mission trip.  Then, we took a three or more hour bus ride from the Cancun airport to a palapa near the town we would be staying at for the next few days.  For those of you who don´t know what that is (which is probably most of you), a palapa is a thatched roof.  Just a thatched roof.  When we arrived, it was pitch black outside, and we heard something that sounded like Kevin, the snipe from Up.  Later, when someone went down with a flashlight, it was discovered that Kevin, as we called the mysterious creature that made the noise, was actually two peacocks.  We had a taco dinner and slept in our sleeping bags that we lay on the hard concrete floor, ready for the next day.

Saturday, 6/25/11

I don´t know who it was, but someone had a need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.  That in itself didn´t wake us up, but when he turned on the light, it woke up the roosters.  Then, the roosters woke up the dogs, who woke up the goats, who woke up the turkeys, who woke up the Kevins.  They didn´t go back to sleep. 
group inside church
The group of missionaries in the church whose concrete floor they laid.
Ever!  When the sun rose, the missionaries rose along with it.  After getting ready for the first day of mission, we had a little bit of fun.  Some of us found coconut trees, took the coconuts down, and chucked them at rocks to crack them.  Those coconuts were moist and delicious!  Others decided to mess with the goats that happened to be leashed to trees.  One of us, a co-worker named Adam, started making goat noises, but they didn´t respond, and someone else suggested, “Do it with a Mexican accent!”  The first made a slightly different goat noise, and they responded.

The bus ride to the remote town near Carillo Puerto wasn´t as long, and it was just as well, since we didn´t have a charter bus this time.  In fact, it was smaller, so it had to take two trips to get the whole group.  The bus we rode had about fifteen seats compared to the forty or more in the bus we took back, and the A/C hardly worked.  One of the families there gave us breakfast, and we got to work helping the hard-working residents lay the concrete floors of a church that they are in the process of building.  A good point to know was that of all the residents in the town, none of them spoke English.  We were fortunate that we were on a mission with Legionaries, because Spanish is a required language for Legionary priests.  After three or four hours of shoveling dirt and pouring it into the mixer, I gained quite a bit of respect for the Mexican American construction workers!  They truly are VERY hard workers.  We had lunch with the same family, who turned out to be generous enough to supply us with three meals a day for the rest of the time we were in their town.

We had some recreation time with the local kids, one of which was nine years old and a better soccer player than even the missionary who had been the captain of his soccer team!  Again, we were invited for a meal, but this time, they also invited us to watch the Mexico-USA soccer game on their 14-inch TV that they moved outside underneath the thatched roof that we had meals under.  All the missionaries, about 30, and the resident family gathered to watch as Mexico won by two points, to the Americans´ dismay.  Although
city of joy mission
The group at the ruins in Tulum. Chris is in the middle, wearing the Catholic t-shirt.
we had planned to stay under the palapa again, we were invited to stay in two small houses in different towns, which were both admittedly even worse for sleeping than the palapa, and the group split up to accommodate the sleeping conditions.  My group´s building was just a concrete floor, four concrete walls with a concrete walled off bathroom, and a concrete ceiling.  Needless to say, it wasn´t exactly comfortable.  However, as missionaries, we don´t turn down a generous offer, even if the generosity outweighed the conditions.  Somehow, though, we all managed to sleep soundly.

Sunday, 6/26/11

There was no physical labor this day, and many of us, including me, admittedly, were relieved to hear that.  Not that it wasn´t fun, but sometimes I prefer talking to shoveling dirt into a concrete mixer.  However, we were told that it wasn´t going to be easier.  Early in the day, it started raining, although not very hard.  After breakfast and throughout the day, the rain started to fall harder, but we continued with our plan and went around the village inviting people to mass and confession.  They seemed very receptive and accepted our gifts of rosary beads and rosary rings well, but many of them didn´t show up for mass.  Nonetheless, we were grateful for the ones that did show up.  After the visits, we had lunch and got ready for Mass, which was again said in Spanish in the chapel.  The rest of the day consisted of playing with the local kids, most of whom were amazing at soccer, in the continuing deluge.  I usually avoid playing in the rain at home, but for some reason, it just seemed like a lot of fun that day.  I guess my comfort zone had been expanded for me!  We had a lot of fun filling up empty bottles with rain water and throwing the water at each other.  Even though everyone was already soaking, it was still an accomplishment to hit someone with it.  That night, the two groups reunited and we all slept on the concrete floor of the church that we had helped lay.

Monday, 6/27/11

Today, we were scheduled to leave the town, but before we did, we had Mass in the incomplete but functional church that we had just slept in.  Breakfast was made for us for the last time by the hospitable family that all of us were sad to leave, and
city of joy mission mexico
The group praying and singing outside the City of Joy.
we left on a charter bus similar to the first one for the normally three hour bus ride to the City of Joy in Cancun.  On the way, I wondered if the children would miss us as much as we were going to miss them.  On the way there, we stopped for lunch near Tulum, the second capital of the Mayan civilization, and went on a tour through the city with the tour guide that we had with us on the bus.  The guide, who was of partially Mayan descent, disproved many myths about the Mayans, such as the 2012 apocalypse.  In fact, he told us, December 21st, 2012 is simply the end of the fifth Mayan era, the sixth beginning at noon that day.  We toured around the city, which was actually a giant observatory built on a cliff sloping to the beach, with many buildings marking places such as where the sun appears on a solstice and the full moon appears 21 days later.

After we left, we drove towards Coba, another Mayan city, but we stopped near there to visit an underground cave.  This cave contained a lot of natural, clean, freezing cold water which people had been swimming in for thousands of years.  There was a wooden spiral staircase leading down, with platforms jutting off (one at 30 ft, one at 15 ft) so that you can jump into the water.  I only jumped off of the 15 ft platform, thinking, If I somehow managed to hurt myself jumping off of this one, I don´t think I really wanna jump off the other one!  The staircase led down to a wooden dock, which allowed people to sit or stand near the crystal clear water.

After a few hours of swimming and jumping, we left and drove to the city.  On arrival, we were assigned rooms and roommates and had a wonderfully prepared dinner at the City of Joy.

Tuesday, 6/28/11

Many of us were excited and, like me, considered the hard part of the mission over.  However, Father Dominic, the Legionary priest in charge of our mission, took the liberty to remind us today that although our living conditions were better, the mission was going to be more emotionally challenging.  We met up with high school kids from Mano Amiga, the school in the City of Joy that only costs about $10 a week because it´s funded by donations, and went around visiting the people at the AIDS house and the home for the elderly.  For the AIDS patients, we cleaned the rooms, loosened their joints, and pretty much did anything that the people who work there would have to do to keep the patients healthy.  Then we said a Rosary in alternating languages with the patients.  After that, we visited the elderly home and cared for the residents there, feeding them lunch and walking them around the home.  We also visited the nursery, which mostly housed kids that were either found abandoned on the streets or unable to be
city of joy mission in mexico
Chris and a couple of the other Missionaries with some of the students of the Mano Amiga school in the City of Joy.
taken care of by their parents.  It also took care of the kids who were children of the staff members during the day.

We had lunch with the high school students and returned to the bus with them.  It was planned that as a group, Mano Amiga high school students and American missionaries would visit a town poorer than the previous town we had been in to invite them back to Catholicism.  Many of them were Catholic, but the frequent Protestant missionaries convinced most of them to convert. 

There were also about twenty Mano Amiga students that lived in this neighborhood.  These kids have to walk six miles to Mano Amiga, and many of them work after school to pay the $10 a week tuition.  One ninth grade girl who lives in this village works at a small stand selling a few items like soda and magazines for a few hours when she gets home.  We then played with the kids in front of the school, organizing a soccer match and teaching them how to play a game called Ninja, where you try to hit other people´s hands with yours and can only move on your turn and when dodging.  When neither of these conditions are met, you must stay still.

On return to the City, the high school students went back to their homes and we had dinner and went to bed in anticipation of the next day.

Wednesday, 6/29/11

After breakfast and Mass today, we met up with the Mano Amiga high school students again.  Today´s mission didn´t require as much manual labor, but it was nonetheless very inspiring.  We visited the rest of the classes that were taught at Mano Amiga, ranging from Preschool to the Mexican equivalent of 9th grade.  They were amazed that they were being visited by people from America and asked us many questions, most of which were in Spanish.  We visited with the kids for a few minutes a class, and kids’ emotions ranged from shyness to curiosity.  As we went into higher grades, the man who was with us, whom the students called “Profesor,” started making them ask us questions in English.  During their recess, we went out with them and again played soccer and Ninja.  Surprisingly, many of the little kids were amazing at Ninja, despite never hearing of it before.

Once we left the school, we went to the soccer field and split up into four mixed teams.  It was just my luck that I happened to be the only member of my team that didn´t speak Spanish!  Despite the two years of Spanish I had at SJS, I couldn´t hold a conversation with the students.  There were two other missionaries, but one of them was from Mexico and the other knew Spanish as his first language.  Despite the communication disadvantage, I ended up being a pretty good goalie for our team, and with the amazing offense we had, we finished as the top team.  When the Mano Amiga students left, Father Dominic told us that the Garcias, who funded the construction of the City of Joy and also owned a few five-star hotels on the Cancun coast, were generous enough to give us each an almost-all-access pass to the Reál, one of their hotels for the next day.  He also warned us that this may be the most challenging day, not because the work would be hard, but because the laid-back experience would give us opportunities to throw away any sacrificial lessons we had learned on the trip.  Our established day-ending ritual of dinner and rooming finished off our day of fun and we went to bed excited for the next day.

Thursday, 6/30/11

We woke up, had Mass, and ate breakfast like any other day, but once that was over, we got on our charter bus and were taken to the Reál, which was about thirty minutes away.  The first thing I did when we received our passes was what any Cancun tourist would do first: run out to the beach and get knocked over by the strong undertow.  Luckily, I sink a bit more than normal people do, so the undertow didn´t really take me anywhere, but it was still a force to be reckoned with, as we were warned about.  Most of us were messing around in the waves, jumping over them, diving under them, or, in my case, jumping straight backwards into them.  Surprisingly, my method was the best at keeping my face dry.  When I left, I headed straight for the two waterslides and rode each about three times.  One was closed on the top, longer, and more twisty than the other, but the other was still very fun.  I thought the first one was more fun, especially since I always came out of it discombobulated.  About thirty minutes before lunch, I found out that they had an X-Box room with five X-Boxes in there.  Since, unlike most teenagers, I´ve neither owned nor played one, that interested me, and I went to play one until lunch.  I tried to play Gears of War II and died within a few seconds, but I was a bit better at Super Street Fighter IV.

With the all-access passes, we could go into any of the restaurants in the hotel, and I chose one that had a buffet.  That restaurant had some of the best food I had had on that trip, but it probably felt that way because I had been having Mexican food all day every day.  It was nice to have some other kinds of food for a meal.

Most of the rest of the day for me consisted of just hanging out with my friends on whatever they were doing since I had already been to what I wanted to see.  Those friends were usually doing whatever I had done during the first part of the day, although I went to the Gym at one point to play Racquetball, or Squash as it was called in the Reál.  The game of Racquetball we were playing degenerated into smacking the ball as hard as we could and making the loudest noise possible.  If you´ve ever been inside a Racquetball room and played, you know what I mean.  Racquetball is a little like tennis, except you hit the rubber ball at a wall and it bounces back either to you or to the person you´re playing against, depending on how you hit it.  Because of how much the ball flies around, there are no openings in the room, which causes a LOT of echoing (it takes a few seconds for normal conversation to stop echoing), and the only window was made of plastic and unmovable.  I had dinner in the same restaurant, since I´m a man of routine, and we left on the bus to go back to the City. 

Everyone packed up almost everything, and we were going to go to bed when the cooks invited us to have a snack, which was more like a dessert.  Since it was one of the missionaries’ birthday the next day, they also brought out a vanilla cake covered on the top in white chocolate pieces and milk chocolate icing.  Most of our meals had at least some beans in them, so one of our members joked about the chocolate icing, “Hey, look!  They put beans on the cake!”  This day was certainly more in-line with the comforts of home, and although I still felt for the people I had served, it was nice to have a break for a minute.

Friday, 7/1/11

When everyone woke up, we packed up the rest of our things and brought our backpacks to the lobby of the building we were staying in.  We had breakfast in the City for one last time, and we left for the Cancun airport.  We were all sad to leave the mission and each other, but many of us, including myself, would choose to do this again.  Father Dominic paid for lunch for the people that had already used their money (like me) inside the airport, since the flight to Atlanta didn´t leave until 2:00.  During lunch, we sang Happy Birthday to Kurt, the missionary whose birthday it was, and by the end, the entire airport had joined in and applauded Kurt!  The group killed time until it was time to board, and we said good-bye to the missionaries that weren´t flying to Atlanta.

After the plane landed, I went through customs to claim my bag and put it on my next flight, and I said good-bye to everyone, because out of all the missionaries on that flight, I was the only one that didn´t live in Atlanta.  Since I hadn´t been to the Atlanta airport before, I rode the train the full way around and then to my concourse to kill time.  I called my parents to tell them how I was, and by the time all that was over, it was 7:00 and time for me to board my Jacksonville flight.  However, the flight had been delayed thirty minutes, so I just waited at the gate until it arrived and I boarded.

For anyone that hasn´t been to the Jacksonville airport, it´s constructed in a way where security separates the gates from everything else, so I walked straight through the security exit and met my family for the first time in over a week.  As I told them about my adventures, we walked over the baggage claim, I claimed my baggage, and we walked to the car.  During the ride home, I still had stories to tell, and when I returned home, I was so exhausted that I just had leftover dinner and went to sleep in the comfort of my own room.

Now that I´ve been home for a while, I miss all the people that I met, especially the children in the first village.  I also wonder how the Mano Amiga students are during their summer break and if the village people are able to bring more people to the church that we built.  I´m glad I was given the opportunity to serve these people, and I would definitely do this again.

Chris Buser, age 15, is from Jacksonville, Florida and has been a Conquest Club member for two years.



Related links

Helping Hands Medical Missions
St Rafael Guizar y Valencia Missionary Center

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