Difference Maker

Even rising drug violence won't stop him from helping Mexico's poor

Jerry Quick has been visiting Juárez, Mexico, for a decade, building houses and setting up job training programs.

By , / Correspondent

Early on a Monday morning in June, Jerry Quick steers a pickup truck to a job site in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just south of El Paso, Texas. The seven volunteers with him, all of them from Illinois, are here in this region of desert and mountains to build on a property for the poor.

They're joking and optimistic. They range from a former state police colonel to a high school student who first began traveling to Juárez last year.

If it were 2005, or even 2000, when Mr. Quick first arrived on a trip to build homes for the poor, eight American volunteers in Juárez would have been a welcome but customary sight.

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Quick has made more than 40 visits to this city in 10 years. But his commitment now holds a new importance: Juárez suffers a reputation as the deadliest city in the world, with some reports counting 5,000 people killed since 2008. Many foreign volunteer groups have reduced their travel to this home of 1.3 million people, frightened away by accounts of public massacres and nightly executions.

The instability has exacerbated youth crime and poverty in Juárez and has left thousands exposed to extortionists – including, some say, police and soldiers who collude with criminal organizations.

"It's clear that I have to do more here than build homes," Quick says. "These people need help now more than ever."

So Quick, from Springfield, Ill., travels to Juárez several times a year to develop the small ministry he incorporated in 2008, Amigos en Cristo. AEC offers spiritual and educational programs to residents while expanding its centerpiece, the Amistad Community Center, in the stark Anapra area on the city's western outskirts.

In a quiet voice, Quick concedes he's an odd match for his work. In Illinois, he works as a financial adviser. He jokes that he's clumsy with tools and that the energy of children can unsettle him. He knows only a few words of Spanish.

But by drawing on volunteers from Cherry Hills Baptist Church in Springfield and working with a staff of Juárez locals, Quick maintains a helpful presence motivated by his deep Christian beliefs.

"God has chosen to use me as I am," he says. "I've got friends who have hobbies to fill their spare time; I go to Mexico."

"In 10 years, Jerry has recruited over 230 different people who have made at least one trip to Juárez," says Gary Nelsen, chairman of the mission team at Cherry Hills. "He is so modest, but he is the one who has gotten people excited about going down there."

"We need people to come to Juárez. We are a city in crisis. AEC isn't afraid to come," says Daniel Borunda, a city official who assists AEC and works as a liaison between the Juárez mayor's office and volunteer and evangelical groups.

News of Mexico's bloodshed has driven down volunteerism. Mr. Borunda estimates that about 80 percent of foreign groups have stopped traveling to Juárez.

Quick's friend Tim Gamwell, who coordinates mission trips to Juárez, says that his group, Life Challenge International, used to assist an average of 35 groups each year, with one group sending as many as 300 volunteers over six weeks.

This year he expects only three groups.

In 2008, Quick formed a board and hired a Juárez pastor, Misael Loera, to keep a full-time presence in the city. They purchased a property in Anapra that became the Amistad Center.

For years, migrants from Mexico's south have come to Juárez looking for work. Many settle in outlying areas like Anapra, a gathering of low shacks and dirt roads roughened by the desert wind. Some survive on as little as $4 a day.

The ministry began an after-school program in April and instructs adults in Bible study, using computers, hairstyling, and sewing. Twenty teens graduated from AEC's high school equivalency program in June; the first graduate, then an unemployed 29-year-old, now works as a factory security guard.

While Quick's team was in Juárez in June, at least 60 people were killed there, six in a shooting in broad daylight at a drug-rehabilitation center.

The instability is conscripting a generation of young Mexicans to crime, some to their deaths. An aid organization in Mexico City reported that 900 young Mexicans have been killed in drug violence since 2006.

"If these kids [AEC's equivalency students] weren't in school, there's a chance they'd be out on the street, out with the gangs," Pastor Loera says.

It is possible to travel here and never witness violence. In 10 years, Quick says, he has never even heard a gunshot.

But still the violence can feel close. Another local pastor worries that the drug cartels may come by to extort him after federal police came to his church to question him.

Quick says he has no intention of abandoning Juárez. "I'm going to go wherever God leads me on this," he says. "Everyone who comes down here has been overwhelmed [by the experience]. Everyone says, 'I never realized how great it is just to give people my time.' "

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