by Sam Loesch
When we finally sat down together as a team, we circled round in the Richardson’s apartment. Shortly after, they found out that they would need to evacuate their building because the neighboring church building was in danger of crashing down and sending rubble tumbling through their bedroom windows. But that day during our meeting, we didn’t know. So mattresses covered the windows and we carried on as usual. For some of us, it was the first time we were voicing our story. Most of us cried, most expressed the fear of feeling like we were going to die (or in any moment, could relive everything all over again with another earthquake), but we all thanked God for sparing us and praised Him for how He carefully orchestrated our days and directed our steps to avoid greater disaster.
Our story started earlier in the month on September 7th, when an 8.6 magnitude earthquake struck Mexico devastating large parts of the country and claiming many lives. Its center was far from the city, but it was clearly felt especially in our neighborhood which is known to be an earthquake zone. Mexico City was built over a lake, so the soupy foundation that our buildings were built over caused us to bump and sway in our apartments like a fleet of small fishing boats resting over choppy water. This earthquake was a wake up call for us. It had us up in the middle night, running out of our buildings without shoes or cell phones. But what were the chances that it would happen again? In the many years that our team has been in Mexico, we hadn’t even experienced something of that magnitude.
But on September 19, 2017, the anniversary of the devastating earthquake of 1985, it happened again. It started with what felt like three unmistakable punches coming up from the ground. After that, a violent sway began, bending trees and buildings like pieces of grass in the wind. Windows broke, furniture fell, people screamed and begged God for mercy. For many, there was no evacuating this time so they clung onto doorframes and waited for the nightmare to stop. Those that were able to flee to the street ran in panic as they tried to reunite with their loved ones.
One of our teammates related the experience to his time in Afghanistan. The idea of witnessing or being near a mortar going off would be cool, and certainly a good story to tell later. But one day, a mortar did go off near him. His legs turned to jelly, his heart quickened to fear, and he realized how foolish it was to wish for something like that. When the earthquake struck, he relived that same fear as he huddled with his neighbors in the hallway – there was nothing cool or exciting about this experience.
Many people witnessed buildings pancake in front of them. Many rushed in and tirelessly began to move rubble and pull out people who were trapped. This went on for days. Mexicans gathered night and day and in a show of solidarity, cheered and even sang together as they worked. Military, police, rescue teams, and dogs from all over the world arrived and helped bring order the chaos. Signs of life lingered over the first week and everyone pressed on in hope of bringing them out alive. No one slept. No one knew what day it was. No one had eaten a normal meal (and everyone was surviving off of coffee and reluctantly eating another ham and cheese sandwich that volunteers passed around).
Today, a new reality sets in. The death toll has risen to 360 people, but workers are still present at the disaster sites. The excitement has dissipated. Their efforts are on moving rubble as quickly as possible and extracting bodies. A smell of death hangs over the street. Block after block has been evacuated and the streets are eerily quiet, only bearing the presence of uniformed guards blocking traffic. More than just collapsed buildings have been lost. Innumerable buildings were immediately condemned when the earthquake hit and no one was ever allowed back inside. Those people lost everything. Other buildings were condemned shortly after when architects and engineers reviewed the damages. Others still were deemed unsafe because of a neighboring building threatening to topple.
As real life beckons Mexicans into old rhythms, they adjust to a new normal. The city is scarred by the tragedy of the earthquake. In the case of 1985, those scars still remain and have very much formed what our neighborhood looks like decades later. It required those painful decades for the area to recover and it didn’t happen without a deep depression hanging over our city. We are starting to see the same pattern. For the first time, life has slowed down for a few short moments – enough to begin to process the tragedy. Horrific memories play back and those terrifying moments are relived over and over. Fear and anxiety are overwhelming and panic overcomes. We’re in a new phase of the crisis. Our friends are in the hospital from recurring panic attacks while others suffer silently. Some struggle to recount their story, some can’t move past it.
How do you care for a city that is broken in every possible way? Especially when the hurt reaches so far and the needs are so vast? How does the hope of knowing Jesus apply? We are wrestling with this as a team and as a church. This tragedy will forever shape how we look at our neighborhood and how we care for our neighbors and pursue ministry. We have gathered together to serve our city and know that this is only the beginning. The tea shop owned by one of the church plant’s pastors and his wife, has served as a prayer center and offers a free cup of tea in exchange for the chance to hear the story of any passer-by. Every morning and evening, we met together for a time of prayer and worship even before electricity or water serviced the shop again. We’re thanking God for His mercy on our city, but begging Him for mercy in the coming days as well. We’re asking for wisdom to know how to move forward, where to go, who to speak to, and how to respond in a way that gives hope and brings life. We’re moving forward with the idea to mobilize the local church and offer a free moving service to those that continue to be evacuated from their homes. Our desire is to intentionally use this opportunity to build relationship with people and communicate gospel hope.
We will stay in our neighborhood. We will keep asking God to use us as a beacon of hope. Pray for Mexico, pray for the church, pray for our team.