Looking north from Missionaries of Charity courtyard. The place spooks me. But not half so much as did the thought of going to stay there with an order of priests.
  • Looking north from Missionaries of Charity courtyard. The place spooks me. But not half so much as did the thought of going to stay there with an order of priests.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs
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A couple of years ago I was coming home from a wedding reception in Tijuana, in winter, about 2:00 a.m. While I waited in line at the border in drizzle and showers, a boy around ten years old approached my car. One of the legion of Chiclets vendors, he held out a box with little packs of candied gum and opened his mouth and moved his tongue. No sound.

The fields and classrooms were bustling with children from about 8 years old to 12.

His face glistened with rainwater, feverish sweat, or tears. His eyes looked like chocolate milk, as if the brown had faded into the whites. He was rocking slowly back and forth. I took a packet of gum and dropped two quarters toward his box from a couple of inches above it, but at the wrong moment he rocked back and the quarters dropped to the ground.

It pictured the calling of the Missionaries of Charity. It represents Mary standing beside Christ crucified, reaching up to hand him a vessel of water.

His mouth opened, his tongue moved, he managed a step toward the next car, then paused and stood rocking as though gathering strength for the trip. I had to get out and pick up the quarters and place them in his box, which he then held up higher, thinking he still owed me a packet of chicle.

The youngest priest, three months ordained, invited me along on a bicycle ride into the shantytown.

I used to play baseball in Tijuana. Our shortstop lived with his mother, brothers, and sisters in a shelter made of four refrigerator crates and a plastic sheet. Because they were squatters, they didn’t get their choice of lots, had to settle for a ledge just below the rim of the Carton del Sol just south of Smugglers Gulch that runs across the border.

Mother Teresa, Tijuana, 1990. While Mother Teresa was in Tijuana, lots of new volunteers from the States came down.

One rainy night their home washed into the canyon. All but one of his brothers and sisters survived.

Since then Tijuana has built entire colonias of decent basic housing. Yet faster than the place is improved, the people keep coming, the slums grow, the poorest of the poor multiply.

Central bus terminal."The sisters were making the soup and bringing it in a truck, and pulling the truck behind the bus station and serving like that."

The place spooks me. But not half so much as did the thought of going to stay there with an order of priests. It’s not that I’m anti-Catholic or anti-Christ. But my paternal grandmother was a deranged, abusive Christian. Most of my life, I step into a church, it feels like I’ve been stuffed into a closet with a gang of molesters and pickpockets.

"If you want to be sure to find Jesus, you go to the person who is ugliest, most hideous to you."

The Missionary Fathers of Charity live about a half mile from the Terminal Central de Autobuses at the base of Otay Mesa, a mile or so from the river that splits Tijuana into an east and west side. The colonias that surround the seminary are called Marua and Arenal. Out behind the bus terminal is a large swampy pond, the laguna. Beside it stand a few hundred shelters made of scrapwood, chicken wire, corrugated plastic, and tin. The better ones use some bricks, concrete, occasionally stucco. Some have at least one or two glass windows. The lots are about 30 feet square. A few of the homes are old travel trailers. If the laguna were pristine and full of trout, this wouldn’t make a bad campground for about 500 people. But the laguna is stagnant and foul, and ten times that many live there.

A vivacious woman named Patrice who’s teaching crafts at the seminary’s summer camp tells me the colonia built up around the seminary. As soon as the fathers arrived in 1988, squatters began settling there to be close to the church and the missionaries.

The seminary occupies several acres. The buildings are square, flat roofed, made of bricks and concrete blocks. All painted white, surrounded by a white block wall. A Mexican fellow watches the drive-in gate. To the right is a kid-sized soccer field, to the left a large covered patio sided by an L-shaped building of classrooms, workrooms, guest quarters. Straight ahead is the main chapel, a hall about 50 feet square, with a high ceiling and concrete floor. The seating is benches, and in front two carpet mats where the seminarians and priests who aren’t officiating kneel, sit, or stand for their rites and adorations. Above the altar is a cross the Superior General found in Germany and delivered here because it pictured the calling of the Missionaries of Charity. It represents Mary standing beside Christ crucified, reaching up to hand him a vessel of water. Lettered on the wall beside it are the words TENGO SED. “I thirst." From John 19:38.

Behind the classrooms are gardens of vegetables and succulents. In the center of one garden is the statue of a guardian angel. Behind the chapel, west of the gardens, is a horseshoe-shaped building of dormitories, kitchen and dining hall, a library, and a smaller chapel surrounding a Spanish-style patio. There’s a back field with a volleyball net and row of eucalyptus along the fence, on the slope above the laguna and the slum called Rancho Riviera.

I used to teach at the University of San Diego, which overlooks the bay and harbor, where the gardens are green and manicured, the buildings full of hardwood and inlaid tile, where many of the classrooms have solid mahogany tables and padded chairs. Though the differences are blatant, there’s a similarity between USD and the MC seminary; they’re both clean, solid, tended lovingly. It’s as if the college were the home of a proud baron, the seminary occupied by his humble identical twin.

The morning I arrived, the fields and classrooms were bustling with children from about 8 years old to 12 and with young men, the seminarians, wearing matching blue-sleeved baseball undershirts. At the turn of the hour, the kids marched in ragged lines behind banners emblazoned with their group names: Hijos de Maria, Querubines de Jesus, Cruzados de Cristo.

With the help of a few local teenaged volunteers and Patrice, supervised by the Vicar General, the young men led the children in crafts, in soccer and basketball, and in Bible study, using songs and recitations. The youngest priest and a brother who uncannily resembles a friend of mine now long dead, were teaching the Ten Commandments. The brother sang a song about them, pounding his guitar exuberantly. When a boy socked another in the arm, the brother paused in his song to remind them that Jesus asked us to love one another and that "peleando no es amor."

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