Statistically, the only places more dangerous than Ciudad Juarez, Mexico are actual declared war zones.
In Juarez, two drug lords are fighting over territory, and the Mexican government is fighting both of them. This border city of about 1.3 million people struggles to hold together a police department in an environment where officers are often afraid, corrupt or both. Local business leaders have called for United Nations troops to intervene in the chaos.
In 2009, more than 2,600 people - seven a day - were killed.But despite the risk, Jerry Quick goes there about once a month to help build homes, operate free clinics and work at after-school programs.
He's been making frequent trips since February 2000, when he went with a group from his church, Cherry Hills Baptist Church.Quick downplays the courage and even heroism it takes to merely cross the bridge from El Paso, Texas, into Juarez.
"We're on the northwest side of Juarez," said Quick, 55. "Most of the violence takes place on the east side or downtown. We're off the beaten path and isolated and protected that way. It's away from where we are, not that we don't hear about it."
Quick roams the city almost as he pleases, purchasing lumber and other supplies. He said he has never felt unsafe. It's a good idea to stay out of the red-light district, he said - and don't try to find sanctuary in a drug rehabilitation center.
"People were going there to hide out, but their enemies caught on," he said.
When pressed, another nod he can think of to safety is to remain calm in traffic.
"Don't honk your horn," he said, repeating advice given to him by a local. "You never know who you're honking at."
He said he feels in no more danger than he would in the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia or Detroit. "If God calls you to go, you are in a safer center than if you are outside of his will," Quick said.
Quick, a financial adviser for the Edward Jones office in Taylorville, founded Amigos en Cristo - Friends in Christ - in 2008 after numerous trips to Juarez. The group obtained non-profit status, and Quick is the president of the board of directors.
"I sensed God was leading me to take it to a different level," he said. What strikes Quick and other members of his organization is the short distance - the Rio Grande is a "trickle" at El Paso-Juarez, he said - between two entirely different worlds.
"They are very poor in relation to us," he said. "There is no government safety net. They work for $40 a week and work 55 hours a week for that."
Shaun Hill, a local optometrist and member of the board of Amigos en Cristo, said Americans are accustomed to agencies such as the Salvation Army or various food pantries or bread lines to help fill needs.
"Down there, it's the haves and the have-nots, and there is no one reaching out" to the have-nots, Hill said.
Quick's first trip was with Casas Por Cristo (Homes for Christ) almost 11 years ago. He and his family were there for a few days - wife Lisa and daughters Ashley, 23, and Colleen, 19, accompany him on many of the trips. Ashley spent time visiting an orphanage and didn't want to leave her new friends, Quick said.
"I felt the sense that we could do more," Quick said. "It caught my heart, and several other hearts."
On the first few trips, the Quicks and other missionaries slept on the floors of churches as they began planning a mission training center. In March 2002, they opened a building that would have a kitchen and room for 36 people to sleep.
From then until Amigos en Cristo formed in 2008, the Quicks and their fellow Cherry Hills church members went to Mexico as frequently as possible, taking a flight to El Paso and driving the half-hour to Juarez. The return trip takes two hours because of border control.
"Jerry is just a great guy," said Kurt Wilke, a Springfield attorney and an Amigos en Cristo board member. "He has been a very driven and dynamic leader of this effort. It has expanded in the last several years because of him."
Often, the first trip is the best recruiting tool for future trips, Wilke said.
"You go down there with the idea that you are going to change people's lives," he said. "They really have more of an impact on you than you have on them. "
The organization built the Amistad Community Center in Rancho Anapra, on the western outskirts of the city, in December 2009 and decided to sharpen its focus to education and life-skills classes."Education is the key," Quick said. "We could have the next Billy Graham or Mother Teresa."
The community center, Quick said, is providing the Mexican equivalent of the GED to students who were kicked out of their regular school or adults who had to leave early for economic reasons. The Mexican government provides certification for the program, but does not provide funding.
Last year, seven students graduated from the program.
Another aspect of the community center is the after-school ministry. According to the group, parents often have no choice but to leave their children at home, sometimes in the care of other children too young to handle the responsibility. Injuries or even deaths in accidental fires are not uncommon.
"We are keeping them from running the streets," Quick said. In Juarez, students attend either morning or afternoon school, and the morning shift ends at 12:30 p.m. The students in Amigos en Cristos charge receive lunch and an afternoon snack, get help with their homework and receive a Bible lesson.
The third focus of the group is to offer life-skills classes. Quick proudly shows off small coin purses made from foil chewing-gum wrappers. People in the community center made the purses and then were able to sell them for a bit of money.
The life-skill volunteers have taught hair styling, crafts, sewing and other trades. Many of the students find work in those fields, and even those who don't can save money. "Even if they just learn to cut their family members' hair, that's a savings," Quick said.
There is always more to do. Amigos en Cristo recently took over another community center, and Quick wants to build a Christian school in the town. He'd also like to start serving breakfast to the students and is on the hunt for a sponsor.
"Jerry is a very humble person," Wilke said. "He is somebody who would tell you that this is a God-directed thing. He is trying to be faithful to that calling."
Over the past decade, Quick has watched the city devolve into violence. He knows it is there, even if his corner of it is remarkably untouched. He believes nothing short of a miracle will help the city.
"I believe in God. I believe God works miracles," he said. "That is what needs to take place. Can God do it overnight? Yes, but that is not what usually happens."
Story published Friday, January 7, 2011 ( Volume 5, Number 8 )