MEXICO CITY – American Bob Decker leads mission groups through the ramshackle neighborhoods of Ciudad Acuna, where poorly paid factory workers drawn from impoverished pockets of Mexico originally built tiny cardboard dwellings.
The groups deliver sacks of food and household basics to the residents and learn about the neighborhoods, but mostly they listen and learn. And Decker’s San Antonio-based organization, Paper Houses Across the Border, provides assistance when needed – often in the form of paying for medical care for those with a need.
But Decker said the mission participants gain more from the trips than the Mexicans they visit, and they often leave with their Catholic faith renewed.
“People call and ask … how do you say that rosary thing again?” said Decker, a retired police officer. “We’re getting a lot of fallen-away Catholics who become excited about their faith.”
Fewer Catholics are reporting such experiences these days as mission trips to Mexico have been scaled back and canceled due to perceptions of insecurity – especially near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Organizations such as Paper Houses receive fewer requests and take fewer participants, even though Decker said many parts of Mexico continue being safe for travel and free of the organized crime violence that has claimed nearly 40,000 lives over the past four-and-a-half years.
But many parishes in Texas and other parts of the United States have suspended cross-border ministries and partnerships with counterparts in Mexico, Decker said. In some cases he added, the money and volunteer efforts previously directed toward Mexico are now going farther south to Guatemala, where the murder rate is three times higher than in Mexico.
Some dioceses have suspended mission programs to Mexico altogether and forbid prelates to cross the border.
The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston stopped authorizing missions programs to Mexico in April 2009. Spokeswoman Jenny Faber said the archdiocese followed State Department and U.S. Embassy advisories when making the decision.
Concern grew greater with the January shooting death of an evangelical missionary who was driving in the state of Tamaulipas, just south of the Texas border.
Rick Jones, director of the San Antonio-based Mi Casa Foundation, which runs orphanages and homes for the elderly in Mexico, said such stories have impacted his organization.
“I can’t make up excuses when there’s that kind of risk,” Jones said, even though he acknowledges that many parts of Mexico are safe enough places to live and work.
Jones said he used to interview up to 20 candidates for every opening at Mi Casa shelters, but interest diminished to the point that he will not send any volunteers to Mexico this year. He also decided against driving into Mexico.
“If I’m not willing to make to make the trip myself, how can expect others to do the same?” he said.
Mi Casa plans to hire Mexican staff to replace the volunteers. The plan ensures that needs will be met, but Jones said it’s hardly ideal: It takes away the opportunity for Catholics to gain the experience of serving others and learning about Mexico.
Mexican Catholics report similar problems with performing mission work in some parts of the country – especially in rural areas and the North.
Campuses of La Salle University, for example, canceled long-running social service programs during Holy Week in rural parts of the oft-violent state of Durango due to security concerns.
Brother Julian Martinez Sanchez has Mexican volunteers work with the children residing in the Casa Hogar de los Pequenos San Jose, an orphanage in Saltillo, approximately 175 miles southwest of the U.S. border at Laredo, Texas. He also confesses having difficulty finding interested volunteers.
“It’s increasingly difficult to convince the parents,” said Brother Julian, director of the orphanage.
Decker reported fielding similar concerns about safety, but said Ciudad Acuna, which borders Del Rio, Texas, is calm, and violence has been minimal.
He expressed more concern, however, about how Catholics forged relationships with Mexican priests and parishes, but suddenly cut ties over fears of insecurity.
And Decker said evangelicals have made inroads by addressing spiritual and material needs of border cities populated by factory workers, whose economic well-being suffered during the world economic downturn.
“When there’s an emergency, they’re in there like you wouldn’t believe,” Decker said, recalling Hurricane Alex in 2010, when Catholics did little to help badly damaged parishes in Mexican border towns, but evangelicals flooded the region with supplies and support.
Decker, whose organization has many Catholic members, but is not affiliated with any parish or diocese, expressed the most disappointment with the bishops of the border region, whose decisions to suspend missions, he said, have left priests in Mexico feeling resentful – especially over the way programs and relationships were suddenly abandoned.
“I believe that the bishops received some very bad advice,” Decker said.
“All of these (mission) groups without exception … (said), ‘We have got an established group of friends in Mexico, we deal with these people, we have a church we are twinning with, we are there with the people, they know us, we know them, it’s friendship,” he explained.
“Along comes this news about the cartels and these friendships immediately ended,” he added.