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Texas Group's Mission Is to Lend a Hand

Volunteering across the border in Mexico at Emmanuel Children's Home opens up a new world for a suburban church.

October 03, 2004|Bobby Ross Jr. | Associated Press Writer

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — As the sun beats down on the yellow plaster building with the trash dump out back, the skinny American kid with freckles raises his shovel again.

Taylor Eckert, 11, is part of a crew digging mounds of dirt 500 miles from his suburban Dallas home. While friends are at camp or the mall, he's sweating in Juarez, a world of poverty and hurt.

"We need a dump truck and a bulldozer," he jokes as he tosses another shovelful into an old pickup.

When the truck is full, Taylor and the grown-ups working with him at "The Hole" ride up a steep hill and shovel out the messy contents. It's a labor of love -- part of a project to build a retaining wall at an orphanage.

But why have these folks from a land of plenty come to the Emmanuel Children's Home?

Taylor himself lost his father to melanoma; that's part of what motivates him to help orphans. He has a big brother, Lee, a 20-year-old Marine serving in Iraq. Service, too, is part of what brings Taylor here.

But mainly, it's more mysterious for Taylor and the others toiling in the midday sun.

They're from a church in Carrollton, Texas, that started visiting Juarez eight years ago. Besides physical labor, their time is filled with games, songs and proselytizing. For all, but especially newcomers, the visit brings complex emotions, questions nibbling at the edges of faith, and tears warring with laughter.

"It's all about the relationships," says Taylor's pastor, Mike O'Rand, who visits the orphanage two or three times a year with his wife, Celia, and their children, Ashley, 19; Corey, 18, and Jennifer, 15.

When the O'Rand family first came, Velia Dominguez, 17, and Fabiola Pichardo, 18, were in grade school. Now, O'Rand says, "These two are so much like daughters to me."

*

It's 12 days before the Juarez trip, and Taylor has hustled into the planning meeting straight from karate practice. He's still wearing his white martial-arts robe as he bows his head to nibble a wafer and sip grape juice from a gold communion tray.

Sojourn Church, Taylor's congregation, believes in modern-day miracles, a personal Holy Spirit and the laying on of hands to share God's power.

Taylor asks for God's blessings on the journey, then adds, "Lord, I pray that you would bless the children. Help them know that they have a spiritual father even though they may not have an earthly father."

The sixth-grader lives with his mother, Eleanor, and sister, Racheal, 9, in a modest brick house in Lewisville, Texas, north of Dallas.

"We're on Social Security and the budget's really, really tight," says Eleanor Eckert, 43, whose husband, Raymond, died in 1995. "But God's really good, and we're never lacking."

Taylor's brother was the first to go to Juarez; he went twice with the church youth group. Taylor heard the stories. How Lee worked with the homeless. How he helped make coffins for families too poor to afford them. How he cut crosses out of tin cans to share with grieving families.

When Taylor first asked to go to Juarez, his mother thought that he just wanted to follow in his big brother's footsteps. And yet, on a trip questionnaire Taylor filled out, he said, "I think God wants me to help the poor in Mexico."

*

After a 90-minute flight, the mission team arrives at El Paso International Airport, just across the Rio Grande from Juarez. The team loads its luggage into three vehicles, then squeezes in.

As the van heads to the border, Taylor bounces around in back with his friend Dustin Swann, also 11, and Dustin's 7-year-old sister, Rebekah. The Swann family, including parents Richard and Janet, is making the Juarez trip for the first time.

At the border, a guard glances into the van, then waves the group into Mexico. Excited, Taylor pumps his arms in the air, as if his beloved Washington Redskins had just won the Super Bowl. But the surrounding scene is desperate: Beggars wash by the vans' windows as the team enters a different world.

Minutes later, the van pulls through a gate into a parking lot and playground. Taylor races down a rickety wooden walkway to the room where he and 17 other men and boys will sleep. Taylor claims a top bunk. Without taking a breath, he grabs his football and he and Dustin hurry outside, looking for friends. They'll be out past dark, playing.

It will take his mom a bit longer to adjust. Upon arrival, Janet Swann dodges holes in the walkway and ducks under lines of clothes. She gasps at the communal showers and beds stacked inches apart.

Minutes after arriving, Janet buries her head in her hands. "Is there a cold drink somewhere?" she asks. Her husband rushes to fill a cup with treated water.

*

Emmanuel Children's Home, which serves about 100 children, occupies one of the highest points in Juarez.

"A light at the top of the hill," says director Jonatan Lopez, 29. His father, Salvation Army preacher Josue Lopez, co-founded the home in the 1960s.

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