Changing Chimalhuacán

If activism and church-based development could transform one Mexico City slum, could it transform others?

Originally published by Latin America Mission, Juntos Magazine, November 2012.

Written and photographed by Andy Olsen

CHIMALHUACÁN, MEXICO – The Río de la Compañía flows up the east side of Mexico City, a river of black that digests the runoff of humanity and carries it away to who knows where. It’s one of many such waterways that stretch throughout the sprawling city, weaving between miles of houses and dipping under narrow streets where, at rush hour, drivers sit and hold their breath.

About halfway along the river’s northward route, at the foot of a trash dump, a smaller river runs into it. The oil-colored tributary comes in from the east, cutting up and back around, stretching out toward the mountains to drain waste from barrios that fade into the yellow haze of the horizon. The two rivers all but encircle the city of Chimalhuacán. Most of the half a million people in Chimalhuacán are too poor for nicer parts of Mexico City. So they settled on the bulb of land surrounded by a smelly moat.

Jean-Luc Krieg, however, came to Chimalhuacán for different reasons. He sees it as ground zero for changing the world.

Once occupying the bottom rung of Mexico City’s urban ladder, Chimalhuacán has seen a slowly improving quality of life, thanks in part to political favortism and in part to Comunidad Mosaico’s community organizing efforts, which led to the eventual paving of this street.

Krieg and his wife moved to Chimalhuacán six years ago as missionaries. His ministry, Comunidad Mosaico, began with three staff and a rented piece of dirt, a project site for the California-based missions agency Servant Partners. Today, it has grown into its own nonprofit with a Mexican board of directors. It has more than 12 workers from seven countries, running out of a four-story, rust-red tower that rises above a sea of concrete homes the color of dishwater.

Mosaico, or “mosaic,” focuses on community transformation, specifically among urban slums. Their approach looks like that of many Christian development organizations: combining church planting with community development, integrating business-as-mission projects to help fund their big dreams.

But on a clear day, from the patio of his house atop the casa roja, Krieg gazes well beyond the borders of Chimalhuacán. His vision has always been larger than the city itself. Most ministries are born from the question, what can we do about the needs here? Krieg started his experiment in urban renewal by asking, how can we transform urban slums – all of them?

“That question forces you from the very beginning to think beyond yourself,” Krieg said. “I think it’s the only solution to address this issue of urban poverty. We won’t make a dent if we don’t think this way.”

Krieg’s idea of making a dent is to cultivate programs in Chimalhuacán that make a real, measurable difference in the community, and boil them down into models that others can use around the world to also make a difference. When Krieg talks about solutions, he’s thinking about the kind that can be packaged and adapted to work in India, or Brazil, or Egypt. Business jargon peppers his speech, words like “scaleable” and “reproducible.”

“That’s one of the pieces you often run into problems with in missions circles. There’s not such a value for that,” Krieg said. “Everything’s more organic, which for me is sort of an oxymoron because organisms have a structure – without structure, an organism can’t grow.”

Krieg’s outlook on ministry was shaped by years of studying nonprofits while working with Geneva Global, a philanthropy consulting firm. Which perhaps explains his insistence that every new project Mosaico undertakes first be dissected in a 60- to 100-page document mapping out strategies and five-year plans.

But if in print he comes across as a suit, Krieg in reality is a cheerleader for incarnational ministry. He is an intensely passionate man who lived in a New Friars-esque intentional community in Zurich’s red-light district and greets people in emails as “bro.”

What makes Comunidad Mosaico different, in fact, is something more electric than strategic plans and much more risky. Beneath all the talk lies a belief that transforming urban slums means empowering slum people, and not just in ways that sound nice in a glossy brochure. Kreig believes an empowered man can see for himself when he’s being wronged, and an empowered woman can breath deeply enough to speak up for herself.

That belief runs through Mosaico like a pulse, and it’s driven Krieg and his staff from early on to encourage the people of Chimalhuacán to organize themselves and, peacefully, demand that their community stop being treated like a slum and start being treated like a community. Because inside the black moat of Chimalhuacán, as with most poor places, there also live corrupt men and women who see the field of cinder-block homes as a fertile place to reap power and money.

“Jesus said I want to bring you life in abundance,” Krieg said. “Life in abundance means to a certain extent that there’s conditions that exist around you that don’t hinder you, that you don’t live in a place of systemic oppression.”

The challenge for Mosaico is that what Jesus said is not always very popular.

GEORGINA MONTES’ SON, Daniel, came home with a smile on his face. In the noise of their shack of corrugated asbestos walls, she asked the 16-year-old what he was so happy about. He’d just come back from a youth retreat with the güeros, the white people, and he’d been baptized by the Christians.

Georgina had a hair trigger, and she was angry. They started to fight, her little statues of the virgen listening throughout the house. “You’re wrong,” she said. “My parents taught me that you do things this way, and you’re doing them another way.”

She threatened to throw Daniel out of the house if he didn’t shape up. She wanted to go to church with him, to learn more about what the foreigners were telling her son.

To transform a community, it must first be disturbed. And people don’t like being disturbed.

FRIENDLY TURF Neighbors in Chimalhuacán keep a close eye on foreigners there. LAM partner ministry Comunidad Mosaico is earning the trust of locals in the Mexico City slum, some of whom open their homes and clear out back alleys for Mosaico’s outreach activites.

Krieg admits, no one anticipated how hard it would be to work in Chimalhuacán. It is never easy to bring about change in distressed communities, anywhere in the world. But in Chimalhuacán, politics have made it even tougher.

The city is a stronghold of a national political group known as Antorcha Campesina. Officially, Antorcha is simply an independent movement to fight for the rights of peasants and low-income Mexicans. But recently, Mexican and U.S. media have branded the group as a thuggish arm of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, a major political party.

Mexican newspapers tell of Antorcha strongmen intimidating bicycle taxis and vandalizing businesses suspected of opposing PRI leadership. On some Mexican streets, activists know, say the wrong things and you might get hurt.

But Krieg is not interested in politics. He wants to improve his community. Mosaico’s role is to encourage community members to be creative about what they want to accomplish, and then to support them as they try to make it happen. “It’s not our project,” Krieg said. “It’s our project together.”

So when a local committee decided they were fed up with the swelling packs of stray dogs that had overtaken their streets, Mosaico helped them bring in the dog catchers. When a group set their sights on cleaning up a trash-filled and dangerous lot in the middle of their neighborhood, Mosaico helped with a massive renewal project that was so successful the city eventually turned the lot into a sports park.

Civic engagement weaves its way in to just about every branch of Mosaico’s ministry. At community kids clubs, children in wobbly desks might learn in one sitting about Jesus, hygiene, and how their town is governed. Mosaico’s youth ministry – called Agentes de Cambio Juvenil, or Youth as Agents of Change – brings teens together in the streets for devotions, sports and community arts projects.

At Mosaico, holistic ministry – or integral mission, as they call it – is incomplete without activism. In a morning devotional for a visiting U.S. work team, Krieg compared Christ’s temptation in the desert to make bread from stones to the temptation for Mexican politicians to buy votes, saying both were about trying to control people.

“We believe that integral mission has to do with a deep change in how you think of society,” said Oscar Reyes, Mosaico’s activism guru whom they call Director of Strategic Relations. “In a poor community like Chimalhuacán, if you keep thinking that you’re a victim, that you’re poor and dumb, that you’ll never have access to a better life – well, you never will.”

But empowered citizens sometimes make governments look bad. Mosaico’s successes began to draw the attention of Antorcha and the politicians it supports. The story goes, depending on whom you ask, that Antorcha leaders were getting nervous about the good things happening in the community that they weren’t receiving credit for. They asked Mosaico, nicely at first, to become a political ally, to walk in their political marches and maybe even put up a little Antorcha sign with the next project.

Krieg and Reyes refused. They would lose their independence. Besides that, Mexican law prohibits nonprofits like Mosaico from getting into politics.

Antorcha’s requests slowly turned into threats. Eventually, they began sending men with megaphones to break up Mosaico’s community meetings. They parked a shiny new pickup truck with tinted windows outside one meeting. People said that inside were men with cameras.

The climax came in the middle of a push to pave one of the main streets in the neighborhood. Led in large part by the youth, community members began pressing the city to do something about the dirt road that liquified with every rain, trapping buses and clogging traffic. The city relented and began the paving after Mosaico helped them procure federal funds to cover the cost.

But halfway through, the paving abruptly stopped. Men fanned out across the area, knocking on doors and demanding money to finish the project. The community was outraged at what they felt was extortion. With Mosaico’s help, they dug up records documenting that the Mexican government had already given the city more than enough money for the paving. People began asking, “Where did the money go?”

It was too much for even the mayor of Chimalhuacán. One day, his anger slipped out in a public meeting. “I’m going to send immigration after these foreigners.”

WHEN GEORGINA MONTES WALKED with her son into the little house church a few blocks from her place, she learned one thing about the foreigners: their church was more fun than the one she grew up with.

They sang and danced, which in Catholic church would have been crazy. And there was something powerful, something heavy, she could not put her finger on.

“When I was there, I’d feel something like my heart was getting bigger,” Montes said. “When we prayed, I would feel hot, or I would want to cry, or I would want to yell. I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’”

Montes kept going back to the church, and she prayed to Jesus. After a year, she was baptized. A while later, a group of Americans came from Mosaico, replacing her asbestos walls with concrete and building a couple of extra rooms onto the house.

“It was a beautiful time, we shared a lot together,” said Montes, whose husband was in Virginia working construction at the time. “We saw that we were not as alone as we thought we were.”

PIONEERING DEVELOPMENT Swiss missionary Jean-Luc Krieg reads to children during a community kids club outreach. Krieg sees potential in Chimalhuacán, both as a community that can be transformed and as a place to develop ideas for transforming communities around the world.

For Mosaico, one way to transform the community is by creating community. Key to that is the ministry’s church-planting arm, which starts house churches they call Comunidades de Shalom, or “shalom communities.” They are small, just 15 or 20 worshipers each. They’ve planted two churches so far, with five other home groups.

“There is a lot of distrust, people who have been neighbors for years would never talk to each other,” said Phillip Ndoro, a missionary from Zimbabwe who heads up church planting for Mosaico. “We’ve seen the house churches breaking down the walls in the community. People around the house churches are more united.”

Though gospel-focused, Mosaico’s churches look very un-churchy. LAM missionary Rebecca Trego said at one meeting in the house church she attends, a woman bore her soul about her struggles and, that night, they did not make it to the Bible lesson they had planned. Instead, everyone prayed scripture over the woman.

“There was a space for us to keep coming back to the things that were painful for her. It was so powerful,” Trego said. “It’s the way church should be.”

Like everything else Mosaico does, the churches are expected to leave fingerprints in the community outside their household walls. So on special days, one church takes its children outside to play with kids from the rougher parts of town or with special-needs children from a nearby school. Another group of church women has started their own ministry to the elderly, where they give Bible studies but also dance lessons.

Reyes dreams the churches will see they don’t need an NGO’s help to transform their community. He hopes they would become examples for other churches in Mexico, where integral mission is not as widely developed – let alone practiced – as in other Latin American countries.

“Integral mission is not just with the church members, but it’s outside the church,” said Reyes. “I encourage church leaders to have contact with school directors, with city politicians and with mayors – not with a subservient attitude, but with an attitude of cooperation, as people who are an important part of the transformation.”

Reyes repeated this latter point, because in places like Chimalhuacán, politicians can buy a pastor’s allegiance with promises of new chairs for his church, or a new floor. As Krieg sees it, the church must have a prophetic voice that cannot be co-opted.

“When I look at Mexico, for me, the only real salvation for Mexico is if the church and civil society take responsibility,” Krieg said.

THE MAYOR OF CHIMALHUACÁN did not deport any of the Mosaico staff – he probably could not have even if he tried. Things calmed down. Eventually, the city finished paving the muddy street, which has more traffic on it than ever.

Six years into Kreig’s experiment in transforming communities, his little corner of Chimalhuacán is noticeably nicer than it was when he moved there. There are better roads, more schools, prettier places to buy groceries. Many of those improvements have more to do with Mexico’s massive economy than with Mosaico’s grassroots efforts, and many arrived on the winds of political change that emboldened powerful local leaders to flex their muscle.

But there is a young man named Jesús, who had almost no social capital and got a job and a foot in the door at HSBC Bank, with Mosaico’s help. There was a malnourished girl who almost died, but now she’s healthy as lettuce. There are people with notebooks and charts who say that nutrition in the community is improving, in part because of wellness groups Mosaico has launched among Chimalhuacán’s women.

INCARNATIONAL LIFE Missionary Rebecca Trego coordinates a children’s program at a local public school in Chimalhuacán, one of many that Mosaico organizes. Students learn about the Bible and life skills, but they also learn lessons about civic engagement, like how their city government works.

The activism is still unpopular with those who want all the power themselves. But Krieg will not back down. “That has to be part of addressing the systems and structures,” he said. “Otherwise we won’t see transformation.”

While the activism has produced tangible results – like a paved road and fewer stray dogs – there are other effects that are harder to spot. Like when Reyes was appointed as a member of the local election committee, and suddenly the committee members began turning down bribes.

“I see (activism) having a huge impact in a way that is hard to measure,” Trego said. “I think it’s a huge witness to what the Kingdom of God is.”

Krieg, though, is still after results that can be documented and quantified. To that end, he is quick to point out, they have a long road to travel.

“We haven’t proven our thesis yet,” he said. “We’re still in the process of developing our thesis.”

Still, Mosaico is already expanding their work into another community nearby Chimalhuacán, and people around the world are starting to notice what’s happening inside the black moat. Through Mosaico’s building flows a steady stream of visitors, from short-term missionaries to ministry leaders partnering with Mosaico.

Albert Chen, a 26-year-old Californian, first came to Mosaico through InterVarsity while a student at University of Massachusetts Boston. He has spent three summers in Chimalhuacán now, serving stints running an entrepreneur training program and teaching hip-hop dancing.

To Chen, Mosaico seemed like more than just an upstart project built on good intentions and heart-tugging pitch lines. It had substance and a tangible plan for tackling urban property worldwide. It seemed unusually “professional.”

“They’re not just a bunch of 20-somethings out here living their dreams. They have invested in the community, and the people notice,” Chen said. He dreams of marrying his girlfriend, buying a little piece of land in Chimalhuacán, and moving there as a missionary to work with Mosaico.

Montes is investing in the community now, too. She’s part of her church’s outreach to the elderly, the one where they talk about their feelings, the Bible, and dance some, too. Once a month, she hosts a group of seniors at her house. She also walks around town helping seniors register for government elder-assistance programs.

Montes is trying to persuade her husband, Fernando, to come to church. He returned from the States to Chimalhuacán, now working odd hours as a security guard. He’s not interested in her religion just yet. But he likes what it’s done to his once hot-tempered wife.

“I’ve noticed, you’ve changed,” he told her one day. “Not physically, but there is something very different about you. And it’s better.”