Wednesday, January 31, 2007

New wine, old wineskins

On Monday, I and three other SOOPers nailed siding on one of the Habitat for Humanity houses going up here in Carlsbad. On Tuesday, three of us (men) went with Amzie Yoder into the country near Loving and tore up an old wheelchair ramp and replaced it with something sturdier. The man in the wheelchair is dying and is a client of Vista-Care, a hospice organization. (Hospices provide services to the terminally ill and their families; SOOPers work for them quite a bit.) Today, we worked on the home of a couple, one of whom has MS and the other some condition that doesn't allow him to work. Both of the latter two homes were extremely derelict and we found ourselves nailing new lumber onto old. At yesterday's home, the floor of the veranda was so rotten the occupants were in danger of falling through. Amzie is very good at visualizing what repairs volunteers can do given the material available and the condition of the premises. I call it "meatball carpentry," a takeoff on Hawkeye's "meatball surgery" on M*A*S*H. I find it hard to resist tearing away whole portions of these homes and starting over. I don't like putting new wood over old. New wine in old wineskins?

Carlsbad people tend to tell us that this is not an attractive city, and they're right. Generally, the roadsides are depositories for beer bottles and cans, and the fences and mesquite bushes along the roads are replete with rags and papers waving in the breeze. Where we live, outside the city, you'll find a lot of abandoned RVs and vehicles littering the countryside, and the brittle brown undergrowth of the desert is not cut, probably because to do so would expose the area to the wind and increase the blowing dust, already a problem on dry, windy days.

But all around us there are great wonders to visit. Last Sunday after church and potluck, Rudy and Ruth Friesen and Agnes and I drove out to Sitting Bull Falls, where a spring feeds a curtain of water that glistens in the sun as it plunges a few hundred feet into the canyon below. The trip was wonderful, especially when we approached the rugged foothills and wound through the canyons until we reached the falls. I've already talked about visiting the Carlsbad Caverns, and nearby, we spent some time at Rattlesnake Springs and the Washington Ranch. A legend here has it that the original owner of Washington Ranch would hire Mexican workers, would pay them on payday but have other hands follow them as they left, kill them and retrieve their pay. The legend says that the numerous caves in the area served as the final resting places for these unfortunate people. This ranch is now owned by CARC (Carlsbad Association for Retarded Citizens) and Agnes suggested that we come back next year and volunteer exclusively at the ranch. It's a magnificent place.

So much to do, so little time. Truth is, there's never enough time to do what needs doing. Another truth is that people get hungry, need clothing and shelter, need love and communion every day, so providing some assistance in bringing these things to them is part of an ongoing challenge for Christians. This fact reminds us that it is probably more useful to help a person augment his/her income in order to escape poverty than it is to bring the same person a charity meal day after day. We need to witness more to governments, not only in chastisement for their neglect, but also in the form of ideas for improving the INCOME of those who are now dependent on charity. Meanwhile, Randy and Donna's house is a mess, a mass of renovations started and never finished, and no amount of lobbying government will finish that job. And so we reach for our hammers at the same time as we dream up alternatives. At least, that's what it looks like through my window today.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Poultry, etc.

Another week has passed and we're spending a leisurely weekend under sunny skies (for the moment). We woke up Tuesday to about 8 inches of snow, and although it didn't hang around long, it was enough to make us wonder why we had driven all this distance for the privilege of sweeping snow off the car and scraping windows. Spring is coming, however. The locals assure us it's just around the corner.

The governor of New Mexico is Democrat Bill Richardson who just announced his intention to make a run for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 presidential election. The NM legislature is in session; the most controversial bill involves the banning of the cock fight, a hoary tradition here apparently. Lousianna also allows cock fighting and people here claim that it's simply gone underground in Texas and other states in the South. Men will be boys, I guess, and the cock fight is certainly no worse than Mexico's bull fights. There appears to be some need in some people that is satisfied by the sight of a bloody fight to the death. I was told that drug deals, gambling and other vices circulate around cock fighting, and that wouldn't be surprising.

We took a drive out to a place called Rattlesnake Springs the other day, tagging along with Rudy and Ruth Friesen and Rha Friesen. It's a place where clear water gushes from the earth - likely a sloping aquifer connected to the nearby Guadalupe Mountains - to form an oasis in the desert. Nearby, we encountered wild turkeys, the first time I've seen them even though they are apparently common in southern Alberta. What's more, we saw a flock with an albino member feeding near the road. A white turkey. We had chicken for supper last night with the Friesens, and so it appears poultry has been the theme of this week. Neighbours nearby have roosters (cock fighting roosters, I wonder?) that crow in the morning. . . and at noon and in the evening.

Volunteer work brings us into constant contact with people whose options are few and whose reasons to be hopeful are limited by poverty. What is a bit surprising is that because we are working in institutional settings, the opportunity to engage in conversation is limited. The people we serve have been attendees at these places for years - in most cases - and have seen so many different volunteers come and go that we are neither a familiar face nor a welcome diversion; we are more like furniture. A lady walks into the serving area of the Community Kitchen and I say "Good morning. How are you?" She smiles - just a little - and says, "just fine. No salad, please," and she moves on to pick up her drinks, sits down to eat at a long table with twenty or so others. Maybe she'll say, "Thanks, guys. That was good," as she leaves. Luckily, we've decided to spend more time here than most SOOPers so that has a chance of changing as we get to know some of the people in the programs by name. I hope so.

Tomorrow, I lead the singing in the Carlsbad Mennonite Church. I've decided to repeat something I did in Eigenheim some months ago, i.e. to focus on the life and hymns of one hymn writer, Robert Wadsworth Lowry in this case. He wrote one of my favourite hymns How can I keep from singing as well as some old standbys like Shall we gather at the river, a song he himself didn't like much. I'm a bit nervous about this; I'm not a song leader. The congregation, however, is so open and friendly I'm sure I won't be judged that harshly.

Monday, January 22, 2007

To Cuauhtemoc and back

Thursday: Thirteen of us in a fifteen-passenger rental van left for the Menno colonies at Cuauhtemoc. Three hours later we were through El Paso, through Ciudad Juarez and were getting our permission slips to pass beyond the 30 km. zone in which you are allowed to visit without any more than a cursory border check. We all got our personal slips, but when it came to the van, a woman who obviously had a bone to pick with either Mennonites, Americans, Canadians or all three decided to get picky. Rudy, aka Rudolph, Friesen, had rented the van using his shortened name; his passport showed the latter name, and there was nothing we could do to convince her that Rudy and Rudolph were the same person. She turned us back and, to shorten a long story, we arrived back in Carlsbad late at night and not-a-little frustrated and tired.

Next morning, we decided that true character wouldn't allow us to be beaten by a bureaucrat; we re-rented the van (this time I did it; "George Epp" has few obvious variations) and we headed out again. This time, we hit snow and slush in the Guadalupe Mountains and I drove nervously through that stretch. Then we were slowed by fog between Juarez and Chihuahua, but we arrived at Colony Manitoba and the Mennonite "La Heurta Inn" at 11:15 p.m. The same woman at the border had to approve our passage and this time she came up with a cock and bull story about our van being too heavy, but finally she said that since she hadn't seen the registration the other day, she would let us through, but that we were never to try to cross into Mexico with a vehicle over 7,000 lbs. again.

Cuauhtemoc was an eye-opener for me. North of the city of 125,000 runs a four lane highway called "suicide way", i.e. the most dangerous bit of road in Mexico. This takes you into Mennonite territory. The highway is lined with businesses, factories and large, expensive houses, some of which are purported to be the fruits of a drug trade which is still active in the colonies. Off to either side, roads lead to villages off the beaten track; they bear official numbers like "Campo 36" and have German names, like "Blumenau." Blumenau has about 20 homes and is the site of the only "General Conference" church in the colonies. Its members are mostly people who have left the Old Colony, Swift Current (Kleingemneinde) or the Rhinelander groups.

John and Ruth Janzen, MCC workers at Cuauhtemoc, took us on an educational tour of the Manitoba Colony on Saturday. We visited a cheeze factory and discovered that Mennonite cheeze is a very popular commodity in Mexico. We toured a Mennonite apple processing plant where about 30 Spanish workers sort, box, store and ship tons of Golden Delicious apples every day. We spent time in a rehabilitation centre for alcohol and drug abuse and sat in a classroom where a senior student from the Steinreich Bibelschule (Km. 36) was helping 33 men through an assignment from the book of John. We sang along with these men from Evangelische Lieder. They sang lustily, to our surprise, considering how they got there. The centre is virtually a jail. Doors are kept locked and guarded and the exercise/crafts/recreation area has a 10 foot concrete wall around it. The last man to arrive here was picked up in a bar after a father alerted the Mennonite police, was brought in in handcuffs and is now serving a mandatory three-month "sentence" in rehabilitation. The "re-evangelization" of these men appears to be the main therapy; the rate of recidivism - John said - is far higher than they had hoped at over 50%.

We had a great supper at a home for the aged/ home for the mentally challenged facility in the heart of the Manitoba colony. Here we were able to talk to residents at leisure and discovered that the facilities echoed the Mennonite Nursing Home complex in Rosthern up to the Pineview level. After the elderly reach a point where the untrained staff cannot care for them well, they are sent home or to hospital. A nursing home like those in Canada does not exist in the colonies.

On Sunday morning, we dicided to attend the earliest church service available, and ended up in an Old Colony church at Km. 11. Those of you who have been in Canadian or US Old Colony churches will already know that they are spartan, and strict rules apply: 1) The men enter one door and women another; the minister has his own entrance, 2) women sit on the left and men on the right, 3) there are no bulletins; the program consists of a 5-10 minute hymn led by 6 Vorsaenger who sit behind a low barrier at the front, the minister (Ohm) opens his notebook at a large white pulpit in the middle of the side wall and reads from it for an hour or more, in this case stopping to cry and blow his nose periodically, several times - on some cue I didn't pick up - everyone whirls around and kneels, their heads on the benches, for about 30 seconds, the minister finally sits down, a "hymn" is chanted, people walk out, go straight to their cars without speaking and leave.

Our presence was not acknowledged and no one said a word to any of us. We hear from John and Ruth that that's normal.

The gist of the message - delivered in alternate High and Low German - was apparently that members were in danger of hell fire if God was as sensitive as they were to the liberties in dress and behaviour in the congregation. I found it hard to follow him since he spoke in a low voice without amplification of any kind and I found his pronunciation somewhat strange. Not surprisingly, the concern generally is with remaining pure in a wicked world, and the constant reminder that all around us, we and others are making compromises with the world - sinning grievously, in other words - and there will be a reckoning coming. Forgiveness doesn't appear to be a theme here.

It's quite a picture to see, though. Sitting in the back of the church with about 150 men and boys (children aren't allowed in church until they finish school at age 13 or so), their off-white Sunday stetsons hanging from nails above them, the hard wooden seats and low backs of the pews biting into your thighs and back as the minister drones on and on. Across the aisle, the women all in black with their Krushelmetze look like a convention of subservient reverend mothers in full habit.

It's apparently not correct behaviour for a worshipper to speak anywhere on the church yard except in his car. I found this disconcerting, but in keeping with the fact that the entire worship appears to have been deliberately and completely depersonalized. I found myself wondering what would have happened if the minister had accidentally looked up and made eye contact with someone in the congregation. It was one of the saddest, least worshipful events I have ever attended. The leaving of the congregation (all except a few who stayed for a wedding to follow; the couple had sat through all this in chairs in front of the pulpit) was compared by someone in the group to having a giant vacuum cleaner sucking everyone out the doors. I could understand the need to escape. But, as I said to someone, these worshippers are in this church one hour a week; there may have been a great deal significant that goes on in their daily lives or even in this service that we have no hope of understanding in one short visit.

We left for Carlsbad right after the service, taking a more easterly route that took us through the area of Oasis, Mexico, where a number of new colonies are being established in what looks like a barren desert. We hadn't the time to stop there, unfortunately.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Learning patience from the caverns

Saturday is a day off for SOOPers, of course, and yesterday we took Bruno and Rha Friesen with us, determined to walk the 800 foot descent into the bowels of the earth at the Carlsbad Caverns. What an experience! Last time we were here, we took the elevator down and up. The walk takes about an hour and taxes muscles one doesn't use much, as well as being a strain on knees and hips, but we did it in fine style. Agnes and I took the King's Palace Tour thereafter, which is another 80' descent and rise, but the magnificence of this natural wonder made it worthwhile.

And heres the "learning patience" part. We went through a tunnel that was blasted about seventy years ago in order to provide person access to yet another room in this labyrinth. Water drips slowly from the roof of this man-made tunnel, and tiny stalagtites of calcium carbonate about the size of my little fingernail have formed there. Elsewhere in the cavern, these stalagtites soar to 70 to 80 feet and are massive. I thought of some of my friends who are of the conviction that the earth is 6000 + years old and wondered what they would make of this. It's obvious that dripping water would not have formed these stalagtites and stalagmites without millions of years of time to get the job done, based on the slowness at which new ones are forming. Time is of a different essence down there.

Carlsbad Mennonite - as I've mentioned before - loves potluck and games. This morning's service at 9:30 featured a men's chorus of 8 or so (SOOPers Rudy and Bruno Friesen and me included) sang 606 from the blue hymnal (Ich Weiss einen Strom) in English and German. At 11:00, adult Sunday School discussed the same lesson that Eigenheim discussed (unless they were stormed out). From John 5, it was a very difficult lesson in that it's deeply theological on the subject of Christ's sonship. Bruno said as we drove to church that he was glad not to be teaching that, a sentiment I could echo easily. Our teacher, Dick Rhodes, shared with us after his struggle to prepare for the lesson adequately. After Bible Class - as they call it here - we sat down to potluck, a tremendous variety of good foods and salads. My favourites were the stuffed mushrooms! We also got to know a new SOOP couple from Chilliwack - Henry and Evelyn Rempel whose nephew and niece are currently managing the motel in Rosthern.

A group had lunch together after church. The purpose of their gathering was to decide what actions to take regarding the "surge" of troops Bush has proposed for Iraq and the growing conviction here that it's a stepping stone into military action against Iran. People are pretty spooked at that possiblilty. Carlsbad Mennonite seems to be as much a peace church as any we've ever attended, and it was heartening to see how seriously they take their discipleship. One member asked the congregation for prayer and advice about a calling he felt to fly to Washington to attend a peace vigil there, and I think he got plenty of help and will likely go. The discussion around such topics is invigorating.

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King day and a national holiday. We hear that the thrift store will be open, however, so we'll go there and sort, tag and hang out clothes for another half day. On Wednesday, "the men" will spend the day building on a Habitat for Humanity house.

Our greetings to all our friends and family who read this, and to all our brothers and sisters at Eigenheim Mennonite especially.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Cotton Peanuts

On Wednesday past, Jaso Stolzfus took us SOOPers to Seminole, Texas for some field education. We drove for an hour and a half before arriving at the Oasis Gin, and, no, this is not a brewery. Cotton is grown in large quantities in the region and this gin processes the raw cotton for 11 corporate farms. Most of it is shipped to China, made into shirts and trousers and sent back to North America for the retail clothing market. To imagine the quantity that can be ginned in this plant, think of a conveyor belt three feet wide, heaped with raw cotton, travelling by at about 15 kph for 24 hours a day. That sure ain't hay!

We stopped in Seminole and had lunch at a Mennonite restaurant. Some 35 years ago, many Mennonites from Mexico relocated to Seminole and established farms and businesses. They are of at least 7 - 8 theological persuasions including Kleingemeinde, Sommerfelder, etc. I had a wonderful Mennonite Quesidilla with refried beans and corn, salsa and sour cream. I asked for Vreneki and Schinkefleisch met Schmauntfat in Low German, and the waitress answered that that was only available on Fridays - in English. The cook wore a black head covering and a long dress, and chain-smoked cigarettes. The food was excellent.

In the afternoon we visited the Golden Peanut plant East of Seminole. Again, this was a massive operation that sorts, shells, and ships tonnes and tonnes of peanuts. they are the sole suppliers for Hersheys Payday bar as well as their Reese's peanut butter bar. Again to imagine the quantity processed here, imagine a 2 foot wide conveyer belt going by at the speed of a walk. They have the largest walk-in refrigerator I've ever seen, probably 200 feet by 100 feet in size.

Well, I'm sure I'm boring you nearly to death with this. When we get home we'll show pictures of all this and finish the job.

We've been getting news and pictures of snow storms back in Saskatchewan, and find it hard to believe. Wednesday, I golfed in s short-sleeved shirt and found it almost too hot at 22C or so. It's very dry here, and looking for your ball in among the mesquite and cactus - and the occasional rattlesnake, black widow spider or tarantula - is a new experience. Dusty at times, but oh, so balmy.

Agnes and I served in the Community Kitchen today and gathered pecans in a lady's backyard. We're continuing to get ready for our excursion into Chihuahua, Mexico next Thursday. We're really looking forward to that.

Take care everyone. If you want to comment at any time, go to the "comments" link at the bottom of this post. You will have to register in order to comment since anonymous comments are not permitted; I think you'll understand why.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Pecans and more

Yesterday, we SOOPers and the members of the Carlsbad Mennonite Church sat around tables in their fellowship hall and shelled and cleaned pecans. It's pronounced Puh-cahns here, not pea-cans as it is in the East, apparently. We worked at that for a few hours and then had a soup and relish (pickles, cheeze, crackers, etc.) supper.
We spent the morning yesterday at a thrift shop unbagging, sorting, pricing and displaying used clothing. Those of you who have worked with old clothes at the Clothes Basket, for instance, will know what that was like. There are a lot of poor people in Carlsbad, and the place is busy, even on a Monday morning.
Tomorrow, Jason Stolzfus is going to guide us through a visit to Seminole, Texas, a place where Mennonites from Mexico have settled and have quite industriously built up what was a disappearing community. Our plan is to visit a cotton gin and a peanut processing plant, both in operation and to eat in a Mennonite restaurant in the area. When we get home, we'll be participating in a pot luck meal at the church, a biweekly event for the SOOPers and the church. As you may already have guessed, this is a very sociable community.
On Thursday afternoon, Ernie Good is taking Bruno, Rudy and me golfing. I am assuming that borrowed clubs, a desert climate and the newness of everything here will work some kind of a miracle on my game, which has never been better than mediocre.
Plans continue for the weekend trip to the Mexican Mennonite colonies, and we're looking forward to that.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Work, work work

Here's what we did yeaterday: Agnes spent about six hours in Elena Yoder's office reorganizing her professional library. Elena is a spiritual counsellor at the VistaCare Hospice, a place that provides services to the terminally ill and their families. I worked in a community kitchen preparing a meal (actually, I made up 90 cups of cottage cheeze and fruit), serving it to about 90 homeless and disadvantaged, swept and mopped the dining room. I helped take down Christmas tree decorations for VistaCare from a tree out on the Pecos riverbank and in the late afternoon, Rudy and Bruno Friesen and I met with people from Habitat for Humanity to plan for Wednesdays when I and they will be working on a house in progress, siding it, putting on soffits and some inside work. Agnes and I will also be working at a nursing home in the activities area and I will be visiting a retired former pastor who lives there on a weekly basis. We will also work some days in a place similar to Valley Action Abilities in Rosthern and a food bank.
We had a great time last night when we first had a group supper at the place where the Friesens are staying and then went to a church member's place to see the movie, An Inconvenient Truth, in which Al Gore makes the case for action on global warming. The conversation after - about the failures of the Bush administration, the state of the ecology of NM and so on - was exhilarating. We've met so many great people here already. It's been a treat.
The weather yesterday: Sunny and 73 degrees F (22C). Light breeze. Eat your hearts out, snow shovellers.
New Mexico is the poorest sister in the confederation of the United States . . . except for Alabama. There are important issues here not totally dissimilar from those in Saskatchewan. The population is stable - or somewhat declining - at one million; in order to generate economic activity, they have welcomed the project to bury nuclear waste in Eddy County and after huge demonstrations, the military base at Clovis was kept from closing. NM faces a constant water shortage. Our hosts last night have lived in Montana, Wyoming and now NM, and we compared notes on out repective "homelands." We concluded that the great plains are a region far more than the American midwest or the Canadian prairie provinces are. That whole region east of the rockies is facing economic challenges that are similar and we could certainly learn from one another.
I'm bound to my one-hour time on the computer here at the Carlsbad Library and I'm almost out. My cell phone seems to be working here if you need to call us on an urgent matter, and we are on line pretty much every day. Our mailing address is G. Epp, 4324 Taos, Carlsbad, NM, 88220.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Carlsbad at last

Friends: We have now been Carlsbad, NM residents for almost 24 hours. We'll send pictures when we find out how that can be done. We live in a suburb of Carlsbad in the back yard of a Carlsbad Mennonite Church member, in a 24' travel trailer owned by the family. Yesterday, we met some of the people active in the SOOP program here and had supper at the home of church members, the Yoders. Great people.
Tomorrow, we'll travel around to look at all the sites where our volunteer help is wanted. There are at least a dozen choices and we'll let you know how that turns out. Amzie Yoder proposed to us that the two Friesen couples and we take a trip into Mexico to the Cuahotemac Mennonite Colony so we're beginning to plan that for the weekend of the 21st of Jan. Apparently it's a 10 hour drive and we'd probably stay there for 2-3 days, getting to know the place. We are also planning to visit the Mennonite settlement in Texas (the name escapes me just now)sometime on a similar basis.
There's a lot to explore here. We've already found out that we're an hour from the UFO capital of the entire world at Roswell, NM, and that we're just 20 miles from a pilot project where the US government is storing military nuclear waste in a salt layer deep underground. That was a pleasant surprise. We're told it's 100% safe, but then, getting rid of Saddam was once 100% necessary. We also hope that someone will come to visit us while we're here, thereby providing us with an excuse to explore the caverns again.
Will we do any work while we're here? Of course! I'm leaning toward working with Habitat for Humanity and Agnes has a couple of things in mind. We'll let you know how that pans out. We're advised not to sign up for more than half days, and not for every day of the week. I intend to fill much of the rest of the time with writing on a number 0f projects that rest half-finished on CDs in my brief case.
Carlsbad Mennonite Church is a small congregation of about 30, and the elder, Ernie Good, told us that its future was a bit shaky in the same way and for the same reasons that rural Saskatchewan churches are apprehensive about their futures. The leadership is aging and youth is missing. We will be having dinner and games with church people in a few days, and on Monday we'll help the congregation sort and shell pecans as a fund raiser, learn how to make pecan pie and hopefully eat a great deal of it. Carlsbad is the pecan capital of the entire world, I guess.
Have a great day. I'm running out of time for completing this entry here in the public library in Carlsbad, where we have internet access for an hour at a time whenever it's open. No emails or comments on this weblog will go unnoticed or unanswered, so let us hear from you.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Almost "Home"

They finally let us out of Pueblo, NM yesterday and now we've got an hour or so of clear sailing into Carlsbad after driving packed snow and ice most of yesterday, average speed for a few hours around 40 kph. We're expecting +60 today for our grand entrance into Carlsbad. A great day for doing copious laundry, finding some groceries and settling into a space purported to be a little smaller than our office at home (8 X 24). We're obviously now in football (bowl) country. Even the newspaper funnies are about "bowl season." Every night there's another bowl game on. How many universities does the US have - with first class football teams, that is? Central NM is a vast uninhabited plain and we thought about people who talk about traveling through Saskatchewan as if it were a dash through nowhere. They need to drive from Santa Fe to Roswell sometime. We'll be dependent on the library net for awhile I expect, but we'll try to keep you all updated. Feel free to reply to anything you read.