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Ensenada 2017

“You know, my grandfather told me that I would make friendships and memories that would last me a lifetime on this trip. At first I thought he was just trying to hype me up, you know?

But now I don’t think he was wrong.”

— Aaron Dent, on the way home from Ensenada

While we planned and prepared for the Ensenada house-build, I remember thinking, “I’m gonna get to surf, take artsy pictures, eat tacos, meet people from all around the world…blah, blah, blah…” and I did. But everything else that happened in this one week made all those first-world agendas seem extremely insignificant.


This family—this wonderful, beautiful family—changed me far, far more than I could ever hope to change them.


How do you help someone understand the lengths of the emotional and physical journeys you went on? That’s just the question I’m trying to answer. So, here goes.

Stop 1: Amarillo, Texas — the very first stop on a journey that, unbeknownst to us, would change us all forever. We had dinner at a true Texas BBQ roadhouse where our plates were just parchment paper, and stayed at a hotel where we’d sleep in beds—our last for the next three nights.

Stop 2: New Mexico, or David’s house. John Ray’s old colleague showed us hospitality by letting us crash at his house for a couple of hours after a long, trying drive to New Mexico. No one on the trip will ever let me live down my accidental creation at lunch that day: a peanut butter, turkey, mayonnaise and guacamole sandwich. Which, believe it or not, was actually pretty tasty.

Stop 3: Flagstaff, Arizona, and the Grand Canyon. We set up camp at a campground, and a couple of us had our first camping experience ever! Let me tell you: Camping with John Ray, Naomi Ray and Connor Murphy did not disappoint. I’d say this was the point when most of us realized just what we’d gotten ourselves into. When we set out to hike the Grand Canyon the next day, I still remember everyone’s faces when we got our first glance at one of God’s most incredible creations. It looked to me almost like a green screen, because how could something that huge actually exist, right? Another miraculous thing was making the climb back up after our hike into the canyon. It took two hours longer and fifty breaks more to make it.

Connor made a point that stuck with all of us: Being in a relationship with God and being a Christian is like hiking the canyon. Going down takes almost no effort and no time. Going back up takes twice the work, emotional and physical toll and twice the amount of time. But once you make it back to the top, you realize there are things you never knew you were capable of. To me, it struck so close to home and rang with truth. I don’t think anyone could’ve said it better.

So now I can say I hiked the Grand Canyon! Well, eight miles of it at least …

Stop 4: San Diego, California. Mark and Alison Owen were the realest and gave us some much-needed indoor shelter for the night at their church in San Diego. I remember starting to feel a lot closer to everyone who came on the trip with us after pizza, ghost stories, pool and a few last breakouts of singing our trip anthem, “All Star” by Smash Mouth.

Stop 5: Ensenada (by way of Baja California), A.K.A The place where we’d make friendships and memories that will last us a lifetime.

Friday at 8 a.m., we made our way to the build site through neighborhoods where kids were playing on old, rusty boat skeletons, jumping on dirty mattress and chasing down families of chicks. To us Americans—cultured in suburban neighborhoods and clean water—it was dangerous, depressing and something that needs to be remedied. But to those kids? The greatest playground in the world; probably the only one they’ll have to play on. Out the window, I saw nothing but matted dogs, cardboard shacks for houses and ditches used to contain trash until they became so full that the trash needed to be burned. It felt like something out of a movie. I was expecting that, at any moment, the walls from a set would come down after a director yelled “Cut!” But it all became real as soon as my feet departed from the bus steps to the sad road leading to the slab of concrete waiting to support a family of four.

I straightened the bandana that Linda Murphy had taught me how to tie over my head like a hat and adjusted my sunglasses. My seventeen-year-old brain was having a hard time comprehending what was going on, comprehending that places like this aren’t just on the news but are only a two-hour drive from San Diego. I saw the mother, Angelina, holding her hands over her mouth, happy sobbing with the widest smile on her face. I felt compelled to talk to her but our translator, Anabel, was still on the bus. I went over to Angelina anyway and smiled at her, extending my hand. She pulled me in for a hug instead. She was at least a foot shorter than me but she was holding on pretty tight. In that moment, there was no language barrier, no cultural barrier, just a group of twenty people coming together to build a house for this family that so desperately needed it. I remember thinking, And I’m going to help make that possible.

That day and the next were the longest two days of my life. On the first day of my first-ever build, even though it was windy it felt like the sun was our enemy, just sitting in the sky laughing while we worked. We painted the walls, put shingles on the roof, cut wood with an electric saw and, somewhere in the middle, stopped for lunch. I watched as the house went up little by little, and as the family dove right into the building and painting along with us. I saw how we bonded as a community, and began to understand that church or fellowship isn’t a place, it’s wherever the people are. I saw twenty people bond closer than ever over those two days. I felt a happiness and sense of togetherness in the air as everyone contributed their part to make the dream of a better life for the family a reality.

By the time 5:30 rolled around, our group was anxious to try out those West Coast waves we’d heard so much about. After a delicious dinner (that I had never felt so grateful to have) had passed, we walked together through the streets of Ensenada to the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. Needless to say when night fell upon that busy city, I was ready for some shut-eye. As much as I loved camping, a real bed never felt so right.

6:00 the next morning, my sister Clary’s alarm went off. Here we go again.

Before I left for Mexico from 2828, my mom had told me to prepare myself that when the house was finished, it would be an emotional time for everyone. I totally underestimated how emotional it would actually be.

It was a busier, more straining build on day two, but the events approaching were getting me all anxious and excited. I had my time to shine on the roof where Naomi likes to build because, she says, “It’s a certain amount of people, and everyone up there has to be competent.” To my surprise, when noon rolled around, the family we were building the house for started gathering with pots and pans and food. They were planning to cook a meal for twenty, a bountiful buffet of the most delicious fish tacos I’ve ever introduced my taste buds to. John mentioned later to us that that certain meal would’ve cost them a week’s salary.

Now, I saw the inside of their kitchen, which was basically their whole house. Four walls of cardboard held up by stacks of tires, nesting one bed and a stove. Looking around, this was actually one of the nicer houses in the area. Every single minute I spent on their property, the reality of their situation grew more and more evident to me, as well as the urge to build that house as soon as possible. By the time we hammered the last nail, painted the last scratch and straightened the last piece of silverware, I could feel the tears starting to well up in my eyes.

We gathered in a circle, and each person said a blessing as we passed around the house key. I began to feel the weight of this journey be lifted off all our shoulders. We locked the door for the first time and handed them the keys, heard the cries of joy and the laughter of relief come from inside and we all knew our job was done. I got to say a few words to Pablo and Angelina before I left and had Anabel translate for me; they were probably the hardest words I’ve ever had to say next to my first goodbye seven months ago. And that’s when it hit me: This family—this wonderful, beautiful family—changed me far, far more than I could ever hope to change them.

Finally, Sunday night at the YWAM base really put things into perspective for me and the rest of us students.

We saw a reenactment of the Passion of The Christ. And boy, was I unprepared.

To say it was brutal is a gross understatement. It was raw and hard to watch; there was a lot of screaming and a lot of fake blood. It didn’t help that Colton, Jordan and I were in the smack-dab front of the crowd when the torture scene was being played out. It was as if I was seeing and hearing about Jesus’s crucifixion for the very first time. Yes, you hear stories, you know He was beaten. But to hear the screams of agony and to witness the humiliation and the brutality is a whole other ball game. I heard stifled cries from the audience and I had to look away for most of it. The hardest part was hearing the three solemn hammer knocks on the cross, echoing throughout the completely silent room.

John’s message that night was eye-opening, paired with the play. He asked if any of us were willingly giving our worries, fears and troubles to God. Because He’s literally there right in front of us with His forgiveness and His arms open wide, just waiting to be received. I know for a fact I’ve been fighting it, pushing it away, and willingly focusing on other things just to avoid Him. Because I was afraid of what might happen if I were to let go.

So, as you can imagine, by the time worship came around, I was a mess. We all were. I remember not being able to stand up because I was so overcome with emotion. I finally understood that story, just what His sacrifice did. I sat there crying and singing, not a very pretty-sounding combination. It felt like all the events in my life were playing out in front of me, and then I felt someone wrap their arms around me refusing to let go. Jordan began to pray over me. She rocked with me and sang with me.

In the midst I just began to sob, “Okay.” In the sense that I was ready to quit fighting Him. To quit doubting Him. To begin to chase and run after Him and His word. And for the first time in awhile, everything felt bigger, lighter and easier. Just like everyone else in the room, I had received the message that I needed to hear in that moment.

A couple of nights ago at GSG, Andrew reminded me that it won’t be easy and that I’m going to have times where I’m doubtful and frustrated. But I feel prepared. I feel excited, like it’s the start of a new chapter, one where I’m willing to listen to what He has to say. I might not be feeling that in a couple of years, maybe even months. But right now, I’m willing to give it my all for the first time in a long time.

I want to say a genuine “thank you” for all those who helped make this trip possible. Because without it, I wouldn’t have grown closer to God and to my friends, and to better understand myself.

Everyone who went on the trip has their own version to this story, Ensenada 2017. Thank you for listening to mine.

Josie Lawson love people, music and a good latte. At any given moment, she's probably thinking about french fries.

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