JUAREZ, Mexico (BP)–It took 18 years of missions work in Mexico and a minor traffic accident before Brenda Toner saw the harsh side of the neighboring country. When she did see it, it was through the iron bars of her jail cell.
“When those big, heavy metal doors to the jail closed behind me, I started to realize this was for real, and I couldn’t believe it,” Brenda, a housemother for Texas Baptist Children’s Home in Round Rock, Texas, recalled.
It was a typical, sweltering summer day in Juarez when Brenda, a 20-year TBCH veteran, was driving a van full of teenagers, including her daughter Barachel, to the Banito Orfantoria Juarez for missions work at the orphanage. As she entered the right lane, a minivan collided into her right panel.
Fearing injuries, the passenger in the other vehicle was carried to the hospital while Brenda was towed in the TBCH van to police headquarters. There, she began to realize the differences between two countries.
“As soon as we reached the police station, [the other driver] tried to get me to give him money,” Brenda recounted. “That’s the way they do it in Mexico, I guess.”
While the native driver continued to haggle with Brenda for up to $850, she continually refused. Police officials urged the drivers to settle the dispute among themselves. When no resolution resulted, Brenda was escorted into the police station.
“I thought for sure the other driver would get a ticket because he had no license and no insurance,” Brenda said. “I had all the proper paperwork but ended up being the one in trouble.”
Once inside, she began a never-ending paperwork process.
“From what I understand, they take you into custody as long as there may be a possibility of injury to the other party,” Brenda said.
A lawyer came and went for the Mexican insurance company which had issued extra coverage arranged by the children’s home, while Brenda waited on word about the passenger’s health. If the other party was out of the hospital by 4 p.m., Brenda was told she could be released.
The clocked ticked as Jerry Bradley, TBCH’s executive director, began faxing necessary papers from Round Rock to the police headquarters. Meanwhile, Ada Loera, director of the Juarez orphanage, worked on Brenda’s behalf, paying $150 for the release of the uninjured passenger. But because no Mexican official was present, however, police said the release was void.
When the 4 o’clock mark passed, Brenda was escorted to a Volkswagen Bug headed to jail.
“The whole time I kept thinking, ‘When we get there, the lawyer will have the appropriate papers,'” she said. “I just knew this was all a mistake.”
But when they arrived at the jail, there was no lawyer, just two Mexican guards ready to show Brenda to her cinder-block room with cement floors and no air conditioning.
“That’s when I knew no one was coming,” she said.
She was first told to remove all jewelry and then told to remove her shoelaces.
“I thought they said shoes,” she said. “When I started to take them off, the guards just laughed at me. That was the first time I felt truly helpless.”
Upon entering the cell, she saw her five cellmates — two men and three women who spoke no English. Then her eyes turned to the toilet.
“It hadn’t been flushed in what looked like weeks,” she said. “Then I noticed there were no seats or beds, just a hard cement floor crawling with roaches.”
A gallon water jug sat in the corner with one cup for community use. The liquid was brown with filth, then Brenda remembered what an inmate told her.
“I asked how long someone usually stays here; he said usually 72 hours,” she recounted. “My heart just sank. I didn’t think I could last that long.”
Brenda began to pray. She prayed for strength. She prayed for understanding. But mostly she prayed that she could refrain from eating, drinking or using the facilities.
“It might have seemed like a small thing to most people, but I knew I would be very sick if I had to do any of that,” she said.
When evening approached, the guards carried a large trash bag filled with burritos to the cellblock. They handed them through the bars to the inmates but Brenda declined.
Twelve hours passed and the TBCH housemother hadn’t consumed a thing or slept a wink. She barely sat. All the while, she would see inmates leave when their names were called, only to return a short time later.
“I was told by someone that it was because they needed more money,” Brenda recalled.
Finally, Brenda was called into a room where an official surrounded by case files asked for $7,500 pesos, or 70 U.S. dollars, for her release. Holding the hand of her daughter who had arrived at the jail, Brenda could only think of those inmates who were sent back.
“I was crying. My daughter was crying. And I just remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to go back there,'” Brenda said. “I wanted to do whatever it took to get out of there.”
She was soon released, although dehydrated, hungry and tired. The children’s home van, however, remained impounded where it still sits to this day.
Soon after the TBCH group returned to Round Rock, Jerry Bradley was forced to fly to Juarez to meet with the same insurance lawyer now accused of mishandling Brenda’s case.
Three days later, he was still negotiating with Mexican officials and insurance personnel, despite the Mexican insurance coverage purchased for such incidences.
“I think other agencies need to consider how they would handle things if this were to happen,” Bradley said. “We never think it’s going to happen to us. But we go to do positive things for the citizens, and one of our houseparents ends up in jail. It’s something that everyone should think about.”
After 18 years of ministry to Juarez, a fender-bender stands in the way of TBCH’s return. Bradley said he is unsure if the children’s home will allow another agency vehicle across the border, and if it does, it will be with great caution and even greater coverage.
As for Brenda, she is ready to return to the place that has been part of her life for so long.
“That orphanage has been one of our ministries for too long to stop now,” she said. “And when it all comes down to it, the [jail] experience has only made me question just how much I’m willing to suffer for the Lord. And I am willing.”
Lindsey is the Texas Baptist Children’s Home’s communications associate. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: WILL GO AGAIN.