Ghosts in Paper Houses
Religion & Liberty Online

Ghosts in Paper Houses

One thing that they do over at GetReligion is track “ghosts” in news stories. I think I found one this morning on the CBS Morning Show, and it’s fitting to talk about it given that today is Halloween.

The piece was on the charitable work of a Houston policeman, Bob Decker, who founded the charity Paper Houses Across the Border (video here).

As part of their “Heroes Among Us” series, based on profiles published in People magazine, CBS described Decker’s work in helping the poorest of the poor in Mexico. During a trip to Mexico, Decker accidentally traveled down some back roads and saw people living in flimsy and ramshackle homes.

Moved by what he saw, “Decker began working overtime on weekends, taking that extra income to an orphanage just across the border from Del Rio, Texas, in Acuna, Mexico. It’s a 350-mile commute.”

“The fact that one guy just working part-time jobs could feed and pay for the shelter and clothing of 24 children just stunned me,” Decker said. “And I thought about the money I had thrown away in a lifetime. And I thought, ‘Man, if can do this much with just that, think what I could do if I got a couple more families involved.'”

That started Paper Homes Across the Border, Decker’s charity that provides all manner of charitable services to the residents of the so-called “colonias”.

There’s nothing on the moral or religious foundations for Decker’s loving work in the CBS piece (Update: I just checked the issue of People, nothing in there either), but here’s the ghost in the story: “I was lost when I came to the colonias but boy, I got found here,” he said.
This is an oblique reference to the theme in the New Testament of being lost in sin and found in Christ (see Luke chapter 15, and the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son). It also echoes the famous stanza from the hymn Amazing Grace: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, / That saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost but now am found, / Was blind, but now, I see.”

In perusing the charity’s website, you find that there is an explicit religious motivation for Decker’s work, although it is not overtly evangelistic. The Mission Overview says, “We are not here to preach religion, but to practice our beliefs,” and “We are not here to evangelize with words, but to be recognized by our actions.”

In the site’s FAQ section, the charity addresses the questions of governmental and ecclesiastical action. Decker’s basic point is one of personal responsibility: “I am doing what I can to help and to learn from the people of the colonias. The blame game and finger pointing is not part of my life in the colonias.”

It used to be that Paper Houses required attendance at a workshop designed to education volunteers about the work of the charity before they could go on a mission trip. One of the goals of this education was to “link our activities in Mexico to Scripture and the example of Christ.” They’ve now “blended the workshop into the trip,” but ostensibly the work of Paper Houses is connected to Decker’s Christian faith.

Check out more about Paper Houses Across the Border here, including the financials of the group, which has no paid employees.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.