TIJUANA, Mexico After a long flight from Nashville, the Newsboys stood at the ready. The natural stage light blazed down hot on their interim stage. They waited in the wings with their instruments in hand: bass player Phil Joel armed with a hammer; Jeff Frankenstein, the keyboarder, with a paint roller; lead singer Peter Furler with a router.
Within minutes of the opening prayer the music started. Pound, pound, pound. Wheeeeeze, Wheeeeeze, Wheeeeeeeze. Tink. Tink. Tink. Ker shunk. Ker shunk. Ker shunk.
And it was music to the ears of one impoverished Tijuana familya recital of hope generating a legacy far outlasting the experience of $35 concert tickets.
For their part, the Newsboys didn't seem to mind that their stage lighting was actually the blazing July sun and its companion high humidity. They also paid little attention to the cement foundation that served as their stage, except to monitor the anchoring bolts holding up the sides of a new home they were carefully crafting.
It was July 27just 48 hours before their scheduled appearance at Seattle's Creation Fest, 1,300 miles to the northand the Newsboys stood on the dusty soil of Terrazas del Valle, a colonia southeast of the Otay Mesa Border crossing in San Diego County. Its name means valley of terraces, which reflects the rambling hillsides carved with poverty. Home to thousands of families, whose shelters are makeshift cardboard, wood, metals, and occasional mortar. The fortunate ones have constructed sturdier shelter from discarded wooden garage doors once belonging to middle-class Americans who shunned the relics for shiny new mechanized aluminum models.
It was the simplicity of the terrain that years earlier first drew the band from Down Under to northern Baja for freewheeling antics on their motorbikes; recreation from a hectic touring schedule. It was the people, though, that lured them back.
"We loved the place," Joel, the bass player, said. "It really broke our hearts to see what's going on down here."
Then they met Bob Sanders.
As founder of the Chino Hills, Calif.-based Baja Christian Ministries, Sanders gave hands to their concern. Under Sander's passionate direction, the ministry builds small, but sturdy homes in various colonias. While there, they use the opportunity to share the gospel, some food, clothes and toys. In addition to the homes, BCM is building churchesphysically and spiritually.
Manpower for the builds comes from American churches, many of them in Southern California. In addition to manual labor, the sponsoring churches foot the cost for each house, about $5,000. The teams descend on pre-selected plots and construct a 320-square-foot homethe size of an average American patioin less than two days. Each house is brightly painted like candy necklaces. White trim, a visible reminder of the loving power displayed by Christ's followers finishes off the colorful interior.
The houses, complete with electricity, a simple loft, windows, screens, but no running water, only become homes when the ministry team dedicates the home through prayer and hands over keys to their grateful new owners.
The concept struck a chord with the Newsboys, who quickly embraced Sanders' work and adopted Baja Christian Ministries as their own.
"We always loved the people, the beautiful countryside," said Frankenstein, who practically painted the house single-handedly. "It's so close to home. It's just 20 minutes from one of the most affluent cities in the world. You can't help but want to get involved."
Lending their name
For the past two years, the group has lent its name and faces to a major fund-raising banquet at Spirit West Coast-Del Mar. They've also constructed numerous houses on their own.
"We didn't set out to have a charity to impress kids," Joel said, later in the evening while staving off hunger pangs with traditional street tacos. "We saw a need and we wanted to be a part of a team that's meeting needs out here."
That's why the two-decade-old band, one of the industry's best known and most successful, was drawn to a ministry that is relatively unknown outside of Southern California.
"We feel called to this," said Joel, who with several other of his band mates concentrated on the carpentry. "We don't feel called to everything else. We don't have a Messiah complex, we really don't. We are just trying to do the best we can.
"It's humbling that the God of the universe sends someone like me."
It's not easy work. The days are long, hot and dusty. The roads are first-class Third World with dirt moguls extreme enough to give Europe's best skiers a challenge just for the bronze. There is no indoor plumbing and many of the sites are tucked into the hillsides.
The mostly barren landscape features few trees and even fewer large enough for shade.
Many of the workers come with just enough experience to decipher the difference between a hammer and a paintbrush. Crews work in cramped quarters where the often-breezeless air is thick enough to absorb idle thoughts.
Still, they press on.
"There are only a few things that are worth doing in life," Joel said. "Jesus stated it very clearly, 'Love God with all your heart, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.' He set the agenda, not me."
Those more comfortable with evangelizing with their mouths, leave the construction to others while they share the gospel and toys with the neighbors. Sometimes the neighbors, especially excited young kids, labor alongside the American crews painting wood panels.
A fresh perspective
Paul Colman, the newest member of the band, said the experience helps to add perspective back to his life.
"It's humbling isn't it, it's humbling to think this is a real grassroots way to practice what Jesus said about loving others," he said. "I just loved getting in there and working.
"The whole music thing has been designed to put you on a pedestal. We've been doing it for so long, we don't buy into it anymore."
Neither were dozens of other people from North Coast Calvary, Water of Life and Mariner's churches, who were working on two other houses on the same steep street. A few stopped long enough to thank the band for their work or their music, and then it was back to the task at hand. Among them were Pam Lee and her pre-teen son, Nathan, the Round Rock, Texas residents who won a national essay contest through K-LOVE to work beside the Newsboys' house.
"Watching all the people in the bad homes made me think of how good I have everything living where I do," Nathan wrote in a thank you letter. "Yet, as one lady said, 'I lived in a cave but God gave me a mansion.' Her saying that was so touching to me, and gave me a whole new outlook on life."
A life transformed
Five hours after the Newsboys build began, the homeowner got a new outlook on life, too, as everyone in his family also prayed to receive Christ in their heart.
"From my side, my part, I am very thankful first with God, then with all of you for the help that you've offered me," Jesus, the homeowner, said via a translator. "I am very content, very thankful. May the Lord bless you and may you be blessed in the name of God."
Before the crew stopped for the evening, everyone gathered for a dedication prayer, led by Peter Furler, the band's lead singer.
"Lord we just ask that your hand would be over this house and Lord from this house will come great leaders, people that would change this country, people that would touch every tribe and every tongue, and every nation," the musician said.