By Dr. Steve Beers, Student Development
by Hannah Toldt
On our last day, I was awoken by the smell of another authentic Mexican breakfast being fried, warmed, stirred, and steamed. All of this activity was happening just ten steps away from the mattresses where my wife, two of our kids, and I had spent another night in borrowed sheets. Sunshine streaming through the fabric tacked over the window was a second hint that another day was beginning.
Our hostess and extraordinary cook again this morning was Maria. Her black hair and dark eyes complemented her bright smile. Her cooking skills had been sharpened by years of serving her husband, her children, and the church community that was hosting us for the week in the rural barrio's church - Ecclesia Batista. I was as close as anyone could come to a Mexican food heaven.
Smiling, I rolled over to roust the family.
This final morning's mission team effort was hurried as we laid the top row of cinder blocks that connected to the gabled end of the roof. The team had intentionally condensed the difficult work schedule to maximize this final morning's construction. This compression allowed Maria and her crew enough time to make the celebration lunch the crowning interaction between the team members and our new friends. We worked hard, looking forward to the fiesta and the start of the long journey home - fully anticipating our souls, muscles, and stomachs would be satisfied.
Past the banging hammers and scraping shovels, where the gaggle of cooks usually spent their morning, there was an unusual silence. I anxiously imagined the worst - the celebration meal would be scuttled. I let my mind tumble further as I envisioned our substitutionary meal in some Texas Taco Bell.
While we were finishing up our last tasks and picking up our tools, two dusty late model Dodge vans arrived filled with the familiar saintly faces that we had come to associate with our fabulous meals. Like Pavlov's dog, simultaneously our mouths began to water. Our steps quickened as we pulled enough saw horses and plywood sheets together to make a huge banquet table in our newly finished fellowship hall. Oh, you could tell they had something special in those vans! The ladies were so proud. Their smiles suggested a Mexican banquet crescendo.
Everyone was seated now, I towards the imaginary head of the plywood table, my wife and kids to my right, and the students and church families completed the circle. The pastor, in his well-worn suit jacket and uttering his best broken English, attempted to profusely thank us for our work and new found friendship. I followed, reciting poorly my two rehearsed sentences in Spanish to a crowd of smiling faces. I finished my speech with an additional two words about the meal "fantasico camida." All of the gritty pageantry was genuine and served to heighten our anticipation.
Finally, the ladies transported the platters heaping with individually foil-wrapped food items. This was going to be spectacular. The amount of time to prepare and individually wrap each delicacy clearly showed creativity and diligence. Imagine my swelling of emotion as I watched Maria's fingers move in slow motion unfolding the protective foil on the first item. I let my mind run wild as I imagined what was in the wrapper. Oh…. It must be a fat juicy burrito, or maybe a cheese covered enchilada, the kind one would have to scrape the wrapper to get all of the melted cheese. Or possibly hand packed tamales nestled together to ensure that they stayed toasty warm. Maybe, just maybe, each one was going to be a different delicacy. A Mexican cornucopia…Red, white, tan, and brown were the colors that slowly emerged.
Bewildered, we blinked, squinted, and blinked again. Could it be? Maria and the cooking crew were bulging with pride. I formally forced a smile as she unwrapped and placed the bright red boiled hotdogs in crushed buns smothered in warm mayonnaise and refried beans.
My wife looked at me…. the students looked at me…. my kids looked at me - everyone's eyes beseeching ……. Mayonnaise ……really ….. white… warm…. mayonnaise and refried beans on bright red boiled hotdogs?
Proficiently the dogs were distributed. Sparingly I began chewing the "mayo and bean" slathered dog, attempting to shepherd my team with each bite, showing them how to get it down and willfully keep it there.
My family and team members eventually followed my lead with honest attempts of millimeter sized nibbles from the end of their assigned meal. Any sized bite was washed down with a swig of warm coke. The team eventually began working on the meal like they had worked all week, grateful and graciously.
Thank you Lord, I whispered. My plate was finally empty. Yet, before I knew what was happening, it was whisked away heading towards the platter for second helpings. In what seemed like slow motion, I lunged for my plate pleasantly insisting that although the celebration meal was "more than I had imagined," I was already full.
I noticed my family's feeding pace was now at a stumble. My youngest son, barely 10, gagged and looked at his mom. Noticing that the youngest in our brood was beginning to falter, her protective instincts kicked in. She glanced at me with a look I will never forget - it was concise and to the point…….
"You got him into this, now get him out."
Mom had done her part, finishing most of her dog with just enough of the bun tactically left on her plate to ward off seconds. She was right. My youngest son needed help and this was a dad's responsibility. Under the cover of the continuing celebration, Jane quietly smuggled the mayo/bean hotdog package to me with the precision of a drug cartel. With obstinate determination, I completed a second mayo/bean dog along with my second warm Coke.
With a churning stomach I rocked back in my chair and caught my only daughter's glance. At 12 years of age, she looked up at me with "Daddy, please help me" eyes. This time I summoned the cartel myself. A third Coke served as an elixir to permit the addition of another dog into my digestive system. With empty plates in front of us we courteously and graciously declined another round. Loading up the vans we quickly headed north.
Later that evening, after we had crossed the border, the team was finally hungry for dinner. Inside the Odessa, Texas Taco Bell, we recounted the day with raucous laughter.