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‘They’re crying out’: Locals reach out to poverty-stricken areas in Mexico, Guatemala

A sign lets Casas Por Cristo team members and others know that a family did live here before their new home was built, in Juarez, Mexico, in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Renee Berg)


Renee Berg remembers the scene clearly. It was a dilapidated shack in Juarez, Mexico, with sunlight streaming through the loosely nailed boards and a simple but profound message scrawled on the makeshift door: “Yes, we are here.”

“It just struck us,” Berg said. “How often do we ignore poverty, yet they’re crying out?”

It was in 2009, at the sight of Berg’s second build with Casas Por Cristo, a nonprofit, Christian organization that sends teams to poverty-stricken areas in Mexico and Guatemala to build homes.

Berg, a member of Mitchell Wesleyan Church and a Mitchell resident, said she is part of a growing contingent of local people hearing that cry. Mitchell Wesleyan’s first team, spearheaded by then-youth pastor Phill Tague, went to Mexico in 2003. Berg first went in 2008; both have been back multiple times.

According to Rachel Weller, a team coordinator for Casas Por Cristo — which is Spanish for “homes for Christ” — it’s not unusual for people to want to make return trips.

“People fall in love with the culture and the people and absolutely want to come back,” Weller said.

In the years since, Berg said Mitchell Wesleyan has grown from cobbling together maybe one team a year to multiple teams every year. Tague has led his own teams from the church he now pastors in Sioux Falls, The Ransom, and Berg said there is growing interest from people in the Huron and Brookings areas.

Weller said that type of grassroots growth is common for the program.

“A team will come down and the people who came down the year before want to come, and they’ve told their family and friends about it, and they want to come,” Weller said. “From what I’ve seen, especially with people who come on their first mission trip, your eyes are opened in a very different way than you’ve ever been able to see the world and see poverty before.”

Casas Por Cristo started sending teams to Mexico in 1993. People must apply through a local committee to receive a home; the main criterion is poverty level. About two years ago, the program expanded to Guatemala. Deciding where to expand came down to partnerships, according David Robertson, executive director of Casas Por Cristo.

“It was really important for us to have a strong ministry partner for us to partner with,” he said.

It’s a common thread across the Casas Por Cristo program, according to Robertson. Each of the program’s three locations — Juarez and Acuna in Mexico and San Raimundo, Guatemala — has a pastor’s committee, made up of local pastors. Those pastors are the liaison between teams and the community, and are the only way those in need can get applications for a Casas Por Cristo home.

“A lot of mission trips you go in and you have a lot of effect for that week, but then you leave,” Robertson said. “Our primary goal is that people would know the loving grace of Jesus Christ. The way we’re able to accomplish that is through the very tangible gift of a home.”

“When a team comes in and gives a free gift, that allows them to go back to an open door. That’s been a very powerful thing for us. Otherwise, we would just be another social outreach, and that’s just not at the heart of we are.”

Robertson attributed people’s eagerness to return to a couple of factors, one being the sense of completion people feel when they build a house for a family. Berg agreed.

“I think it’s the tangible thing at the end of the week,” she said. “You have this house and you see how thankful people are.”

Another component, Robertson said, is that teams stay in local churches and get to interact with locals from the community — most importantly, perhaps, the family for whom they are building a home.

“They have that experience of seeing how content and how happy the little kids can be when their toys are made up of broken bits of this and that,” he said. “To know that this family doesn’t even have enough to have their own decent home — it really puts things in perspective in your own life. They’re happy that they’ve got a cement floor and a roof over their head that’s not leaking.”

At the site of the “We are here” home in Mexico, Berg said the family who received the home was more than just grateful. The father cried.

“I thought, ‘What on Earth could God provide to me that I would respond like that?’ ” Berg said. “Nothing. I have so much.”

That gratitude extends beyond emotion. Berg said she’s seen people who received a home return to help others.

Berg’s whole family, including husband Tom and children Leah and Collin, went on a Casas Por Cristo trip together four years ago. Leah, an 18-year-old May graduate of Mitchell Christian High School, led her own team to Juarez in March.

“It wasn’t too bad,” she said with a smile. “You just kind of throw them in there and then they learn.”

Leah and Renee followed up with their first-ever trip to Guatemala this summer, which Renee said was different from visiting Mexico. It introduced them to members of the Mayan culture, and Leah said she made an impression as the first blonde some of the children had ever seen.

“The babies all cried at me,” she said.

Physically, Renee said she had to eat her Wheaties, so to speak.

“It was the hardest I’ve ever worked physically in my life,” she said, noting that the rugged terrain and frequent rains made digging — to put down a foundation — difficult.

But all that hard work is worth it, she said.

In Guatemala, Renee said building a home for a family means those children no longer have to work instead of going to school. Getting an education, she said, can be their ticket to breaking the poverty cycle. And Renee agrees with the heart of Casas Por Cristo’s ministry, which is to evangelize.

“If you take care of someone’s basic needs, then it opens the door to share Jesus with them, instead of just shoving it down their throat,” she said.

And, of all the things she loves about the organization, Renee said watching young people go on their first mission trip is one of her favorite parts.

“I love watching the teenagers fall in love with serving,” she said.

Some, like her daughter, Leah, even decide they want to do it long-term. Leah is a freshman at Oklahoma Wesleyan University, where she is studying marketing and global studies with plans to start a nonprofit and tie it to missions work.

In the meantime, though, the Bergs said they plan to continue building homes for Christ, and Renee is excited at the growing interest she’s seeing in the area.

If interested in joining a Casas Por Cristo team, contact Berg at (605) 933-1415.