Sallie Felton, who is the secretary at Ridgecrest United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, told me recently how she chases away the blues. "When I start feeling low, I just think about my dear friends Mabel and Elizabeth, and all the wonderful work they do down in the Rio Grande Valley. Right away, I snap out of it and my spirits lift."
Mabel and Elizabeth are sisters. Elizabeth is 102 and Mabel says she's 39 and holding. Elizabeth has a pace maker. Mabel has trouble walking without assistance. The two women operate the Mexican Children Relief. Their headquarters is in their home, a Spanish-style house with 12-inch walls and a red tile roof, nestled in a grove of trees on the U.S. side of the border near Weslaco, Texas.
"I've never seen anyone who can be so funny as well as so serious, so tough as well as so gentle as Elizabeth and Mabel can," Sallie says. She enjoys telling about a birthday party that Elizabeth and Mabel and the Oklahoma Conference Volunteers in Mission gave for Dr. Irv Smith of Enid, a retired minister who was a member of the team. "It was Irv's 80th birthday," Sallie recalls, "and so we drummed up a 'This is Your Birthday Irv Smith' celebration. All of us from Oklahoma took turns telling something that we remembered about Irv, who was one of our beloved pastors and district superintendents."
Even though Elizabeth and Mabel had known Irv for only a few days, that didn't keep them from joining in the fun. After others had finished telling their stories about him, Elizabeth announced that she had a secret, and the time had come to reveal it. With a straight face she confided, "Mabel and I are Irv's daughters."
Of course, Mabel and Elizabeth were both older than Irv, but that didn't keep them from pretending to be his daughters. Here's how Sallie remembers what happened. "Elizabeth said Irv had been a wonderful daddy. She told about one time when she and Mabel were very small. They both fell in a mud puddle and got their new dresses dirty. Their daddy didn't scold them, he was real sweet, as always. He came to get them in a wheelbarrow and wheeled them to the car wash down the road and sprayed them with the hose. Several times while Elizabeth was telling the story, she would look at Mabel and say, 'Is that right, sister?' and Mabel, without cracking a smile would reply, 'Si.'"
One of Sallie's most memorable experiences with Mabel and Elizabeth occurred when customs officials at the international bridge refused to let her VIM team take a truck load of building materials into Mexico. Ironically, it happened in January 1994, only a week after the signing of the North American Free Trade Act.
"The officers demanded that we pay tax on the building materials," says Sallie. "I explained that we were volunteers building houses to give to homeless Mexican families, and that Mabel and Elizabeth had been doing this for years without having to pay taxes to Mexico, but the officials refused to let us take the load across unless we paid taxes to Mexico. So finally we went back to the United Methodist camp in Texas where we were staying, and called Mabel for guidance."
Sallie says Mabel immediately got in touch with DIF, the Mexican social services agency with whom she has worked closely for decades. "The people at DIF didn't approve of how the customs officials were keeping our mission team from doing our work, and they tried to negotiate for us, but the customs officials still refused to release our materials."
About 9:00 that night, Sallie received a phone call from Mabel, asking her and Irv Smith to come to her house and meet with a DIF representative. An hour later, Sallie, Irv, Mabel and the DIF representative drove across the Mexican border. "We went around waking people up and telling them what the trouble was and asking them if they could be at the bridge at 8 o'clock the next morning to help us get the materials across. And they agreed."
By 7:30 the next morning, Sallie and her VIM team were back at the bridge, requesting permission to take their materials across. Again their request was denied. "We stood there at the custom's office a few minutes," Sallie recalls. "And then people we had called on the night before started showing up. Mabel was there in her van, and crowds gathered around her.
"People in that town love her so much; she's done so much for them, they just want to touch her. Women with their babies were there. People of all ages were there, rallying to support Mabel. The school in Neuvo Progreso dismissed and the children rushed to the bridge and stood in the street. Even the mayor was there, supporting us.
"By 9 o'clock, 600 people were at the bridge, blocking traffic, which was already backed up for miles," Sallie says. "I saw a policeman standing in the street and I heard a customs official yell at him, 'Get these people out of here.' The policeman shrugged his shoulders, spread his arms out, and shouted, 'Like what can I do with them so many?'"
While demonstrators blocked traffic, Mabel, the DIF representatives, and others on her team negotiated with the customs officials. And finally, like the Egyptian Pharaoh had done in response to Moses' persistent appeals, the custom officials gave in. "At about eleven o'clock, they said we could take our materials across," Sallie recalls. "The crowd cheered. We had a parade down the main street of Neuvo Progreso. Leading the parade was our truck with the lumber piled high, and Irv Smith was on top, booming out, 'Praise God from whom all blessings flow.' Crowds followed us to the building site and helped us build the four houses. It was a festive, wonderful time."
"The blockade was not only a victory for the mission team," says Sallie, "It was a victory for the people of Neuvo Progreso. Mabel's courage had given them courage to stand up for what they knew was right. And they had learned that by standing together they could overcome great obstacles." Sallie says many people in Neuvo Progreso think Mabel and Elizabeth are angels. "I think they are right," she says. "They are angels, and they sure chase away my blues."