I have waited for two months to share Mari’s story with you. It is a longer post, but I hope you might take the time to read. Thanks to Emily for sharing her video at the end of this post.
I stood in the early morning quiet and looked at the city, all new and unfamiliar to my sleepy eyes. I took a deep breath and held it for a moment for no particular reason and wondered what God might have for me this week in Nogales, Mexico. I closed my eyes and listened. Dogs barked and growled in the distance, constant background vocalists in the melody of the day. Voices echoed from the thin walls of the homes below me, while occasional footsteps crunched along the gravel road. The warm summer wind blew softly, and the stench of the neighbor’s poorly functioning septic tank hit me in the face. I opened my eyes and made a face, pulling my t-shirt over my nose to slowly exhale, still unaware of the beauty that was waiting to find me this week.
Later that morning, our group leader, Brian, explained the work plan for the day. We would go to the Kids’ Café that morning, a local ministry that provided warm meals to the neighborhood children as well as playtime, Bible stories and prayer. Brian explained to us that a husband and wife named Miguel and Mari (“Mar-ee”) had run this ministry for years: Miguel, the enthusiastic chef, and Mari, the compassionate teacher. Tragically Miguel died just two months before our arrival, and Mari and her four children were struggling through their grief. Our job that morning at the Kid’s café would include playing with the children and helping to serve in any way needed. Brian then said something I thought about for the rest of the day:
“Sometimes making a difference often means just making a difference for one person.”
I sat listening and thought about how I spend so many days thinking about how I want to do some grandiose thing that will change the world. Even as I arrived in Mexico, I wondered if God would have me build a school or save the entire city because you know, sometimes I just make it all about me and my own glory. What if I opened my eyes and saw individuals instead?
We walked the hilly, dusty road to the Kid’s Café. The children mesmerized me as they ran around, gleefully laughing, so excited to see our group. The high school kids in our group immediately began connecting with these children, playing games, singing songs, chasing each other around the makeshift playground. I stood there and took it all in and then noticed a beautiful woman talking to several other adults.
I found I couldn’t stop looking at her, but I am not sure I can really explain why. She had this peace about her, and her beauty was that unique beauty that isn’t just on her face, but pours out from somewhere deep inside. I watched as she walked over to the meeting area and picked up her guitar. And then I realized…this was Mari.
She was not the weary woman, overwhelmed by grief and uncertainty, I had pictured.
She was so full of life that it felt a little overwhelming to be close to her. I watched as she led the children in singing and stories, each captivated by her words.
After Mari finished teaching, all I wanted to do was to talk to her, which was difficult considering I stopped taking Spanish in 6th grade. I walked up, shook her hand, and introduced myself. She smiled that beautiful smile and said some things to me in Spanish. I looked at her and said, “Gracias,” hoping that saying “Thank you” might somehow communicate something more than I could speak.
Later that afternoon, Brian approached me and explained that Mari would be coming to chapel at Cuirim House that night, and he wondered if I would be willing to stand and pray for her during the service. My face lit up and I told him I would be honored to pray for her. He had no idea about my encounter with her earlier, and I smiled to think that I would have the opportunity to pray for this special woman.
As Mari led us in worship that night, I closed my eyes and listened to her sincere, beautiful singing. I suddenly felt a little nervous to pray for her. I didn’t want to pray a rehearsed prayer or try to sound really spiritual. I just wanted to pray from my heart.
I prayed while Brian translated for me and hoped that God would encourage Mari in this difficult time of sorrow and loss.
I watched as she left Cuirim house with her children and ached for her, for her children, for their grief.
I wondered if there was anything I could do to help. I asked Brian, “Is there anything Mari needs right now? Anything specific?”
He said Mari always asks for prayers for her children as they are struggling so much with their loss of their dad. And then he told me about this:
In between those two pillars, Mari would love to have a gate in front of the children’s café so that she could safely park her car at night and have some protection for her family. There just hasn’t been enough money to finish the project.
Obvious monetary needs also present themselves in a loss like this. I spent the rest of the night thinking about this, wondering how I might make a difference for Mari.
The next morning, our group walked to the Kid’s Café to help with another neighborhood event. I noticed Mari unloading some groceries from the back of her car and walked over to see if I could help. She turned around and looked at me and immediately gave me a hug. I noticed a weariness in her face and asked how she was doing. I somehow understood she was tired from the night before and didn’t get a lot of sleep. I immediately wondered if in her grief she suffered from insomnia.
One of my daughter’s friends, Molly, walked over to join us. Thanks to Molly’s impressive Spanish skills, Mari and I were finally able to have a real conversation. I asked Molly why Mari didn’t sleep well, and watched as Mari’s expressive face explained to me the events of the night before.
Mari had been up most of the night with a man in the neighborhood who was a drug addict. She and some other people in the community spent hours talking to him, praying for him and helping him in his addiction.
I had convinced myself that Mari had tossed and turned all night because of her grief. I never imagined that she had been up all night helping a drug addict. I didn’t know Mari did this kind of work.
I asked about this. She nodded strongly and told Molly that she works at a rehab with women in the community. I asked if there are a lot of women who struggle with addiction. She closed her eyes and sadly said yes.
But then her eyes lit up again, and she waved her hands in the air, pointing around at the Kid’s Café. She looked at me and said that many of these moms bring their children here for a meal and when she sings with the children, these moms often weep. The hope Mari shares with the children is being heard by these moms too and opens the door for Mari to help them. I asked if the man with the drug problem was better. She paused and said, “A little.” No discouragement was in her voice, only hope. She trusted the process and knew that it would take time.
I stood and listened to her tell us of God’s faithfulness.
She wasn’t pretending.
This wasn’t an act.
This was authentic belief and trust from someone who had really encountered her Lord.
She wanted everyone to know the greatness of God’s love, and it was difficult to stand next to her without longing for the same thing.
Mari knows deep loss and suffering. She knows death and pain. She has seen both victory and defeat as addicts have won or lost their battles, but if I could draw a picture of hope, it would look like Mari.
Mari taught me that even in the midst of the poverty in Nogales, even in the midst of this neighborhood where people are mocked and scorned and abandoned, God is still working. He hasn’t forgotten. He isn’t distant and uninvolved. He still moves in people’s lives, and he cares about individuals. He is caring for individuals through beautiful people like Mari.
As I left the Kids’ Café that morning, I wondered how I could make a difference for an individual like Mari.
And then I remembered that I have a blog.
I don’t have thousands of people reading my blog every week, but there have been a couple posts that have had more traffic than I ever imagined. Social media is an amazing beast.
A new gate for the Kid’s café will cost about $1000. If only 200 people read this post and decide to donate $5 to Cuirim House, there will be more than enough to build that gate. Do you know what a difference we could make together today? I smile to think about it.
And if 400 people read this and decide to donate $5, we will not only have enough to build the gate, we will have enough to support Mari and her children for more than a month.
If you feel so led, would you mind sharing Mari’s story on Facebook or Twitter? You can click here to make a donation. If you want to learn more about the ministry of Cuirum House before making a donation, please click on this link. Please add “Mari” or “Maria” in the memo/notes area of the donation page.
In closing, I want to share a video that my daughter, Emily, made after our week in Nogales. It captures more than my words ever could. Thank you for taking the time to read this long post and thank you for saying a prayer for Mari. (you can see a glimpse of her around 4:08 in the video!)