WESLACO, TX – Esmeralda Martinez couldn’t wait to decorate her room and share a picture of it on Snapchat. Her smiling face fills most of the frame, but over her left shoulder her high school diploma is visible on the headboard of her bed.
While sharing pictures of redecorating is normal behavior for an 18-year-old, it was a special moment for Esmeralda – Esmer to her friends – because before July 2017 she had shared a room with her twin 13-year-old brothers, Jimmy and Jason, and youngest brother, 11-year-old Brian.
“I did put everything in [the new room] already,” Esmer said. “It’s nice to have my own space.”
Esmer, her brothers and her parents, Fernando and Oralia, used to live in a 30 x 12 house, a mere 360 square feet. The average room is 144 square feet, or 12 x 12.
Their new home, which has three bedrooms (one for the parents, one for girls and one for boys), a kitchen, bathroom and a living room, is almost 1,100 square feet.
The journey to their new home began in 2015 when Fernando saw a group building a house nearby. He wondered who the people were and why they were building a home in the impoverished area.
Shortly afterward, Fernando suffered a flat tire. A man stopped to help him and as the two began to talk Fernando shared about the struggles his family was having living in a shanty he had constructed after they lost their previous home in a fire.
The man told him about a church group that was building a home for him. Fernando remembered the story a year later when he saw a truck pulling a covered trailer with building materials down the street.
Fernando followed the truck to a neighborhood where a group was building a home.
Next to the worksite, he saw the man who had helped him with his flat tire the year before.
Fernando was introduced to Sandy Fellers, leader of the First United Methodist Church Edna Mission Team. With help translating from Esmer, he asked to apply for help.
This is how God leads FUMC Edna’s mission team. Stories interconnect like spider webs, each strand leading to the next mission while also connecting the families and the mission team.
“God has brought us full circle,” Fellers said. “God has exposed us to different areas of Texas, different types of people, people in very different types of situations. I’ve seen a change in us and a change in the people we work with. We’ve run the gamut of seeing what it’s like to be so impoverished.”
FUMC Edna has been making trips to Weslaco to repair and build homes for five years, with a plan to serve in one area for five years in order to build deeper relationships and increase the impact of their witness for Christ.
Paul Davis is one of the senior members of the mission team. He helped repair a gas line on the first trip.
He has been on every trip since. Despite his age, Davis plans to continue to go on the mission trip.
“It’s just like if you get up one Sunday and say, ‘I don’t feel good; I think I’m going to miss (church).’ How easy is it to miss next week?” he said.
Although the days are physically demanding, Davis finds ways to participate. One of his most valuable contributions is mentoring the youth and young adult volunteers.
“The maturity of the kids involved every year is special,” Davis said. “Four or five years ago, there was a lot of horseplay by the youth. Now, it’s a mindset of ‘We’ve got a job to do.’”
Joseph Galvan started going on the mission trip at age 13. He is now 22.
Galvan has transformed from a youth participant to an adult leader. His vision of the purpose of the trip also has been transformed over the years.
"We don't really go down there to build a house,” Galvan said. “We go down there because God calls us to love people and share the Word.”
The team has encountered many different life circumstances than they enjoy in their farming-and-oil-driven town 30 minutes from Victoria, TX.
“During our third year, we served a family that had never had running water,” Fellers said. “We hooked up the water the day before we finished, and I urged the family to take a shower. When I showed up the next day, I asked them if they showered and they said, ‘Yes, we all showered.’
“They meant the entire neighborhood. Everyone on the street came over to shower that night.”
Stories like this are common.
In 2016, the family served had never owned an oven. The mission team provides basic home furniture and appliances; including beds, a couch, a kitchen table, a refrigerator and a stove.
“The mom was a great cook,” Fellers said. “I asked her if she’d ever used an oven before and she said, ‘No, but I’ve heard of them. I’ve always wanted to bake a cake. I can’t wait to use it to bake a cake.’”
The mission trip began as a one-time youth project but has evolved into a multi-generational effort.
Each home is paid for through donations raised by FUMC Edna’s mission team. The homes cost around $20,000.
In five years, Fellers estimated the team had raised nearly $100,000 for the five home builds, a task which gets more difficult every year.
One of the aspects which is most surprising for the families is that the home is free.
The mission team decides in April or May which family they can help, and then Fellers tells the family they need to remove the home their living in and provide a qualeechi pad for the team to build on when they return in mid-June.
“I can’t imagine the faith it must take to tear down or move your house and trust us to come back and build a house,” Fellers said. “They must see something in us. They still believe God is with us. What else could make them trust that we’re not swindlers or jokesters?”
For those who join the FUMC Edna mission trip, the experience shows them a model of the grace all receive from God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The experience connects the families and the mission team.
Although Fernando suffered an injury in a car accident that has hindered his pursuit of full-time employment, he and his family worked on the home build. They even brought members of their church to help.
At the end of each day, the entire group gathered for prayer.
The kids also worked to teach Spanish to the English-speaking mission team.
“They tried really hard to talk in Spanish and I think that was really good,” Esmer said. “We had fun trying to teach them.”
The whole group also shared meals together. One of the items on the menu was cooked cactus, which Fernando grows in his backyard and sells for an income when he can’t get work doing landscaping.
“You have to cultivate a taste for cactus,” Davis said.
The impact of the mission goes beyond the two-week’s work. It ripples through relationships built and lives connected.
Leaving is an emotional experience every year.
“When the mission team was leaving, we saw how they were really touched by (us),” Oralia said. “They touched our hearts, too. We miss them a lot already.”
Even though the mission trip is finished, Fellers believes the bond created connects the team to the family forever.
“When we left, everyone was crying; everyone was emotional,” Fellers said. “(Oralia) doesn’t speak much English, but she just kept whispering, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ I just tried in my broken Spanish to tell her, ‘You will be part of our church family forever.’”
Esmer has remained connected with some of the mission team through Facebook, including showing off her newly decorated bedroom.
“When we finally got everything done, I was really touched by everything,” Esmer said. “That made me want to try to help other people, also.”
This article was written by Rev. Adam R. Knapp, pastor of FUMC Edna