“Everything is so familiar, but we feel so out of place.” My sister said it best when we first walked into our local Walmart after returning from two weeks in Mexico. For a few days after, I would drive down the road and half expect to see a crazy quilt of houses and shacks built into the hillsides, or at least a road sign in kilometers.
I loved Mexico, the Spanish everywhere, the concrete homes, the bedlam of roadside marketplaces. But I loved the people. There’s a desperation in Tijuana that is both heartbreaking and at the same time a refreshing break from the independent arrogance of Douglas County, Colorado. That hit home in the heaviest but most special moment of our trip, getting to visit “the family on the hillside.” I can’t think of a better way to describe it than to quote from an excerpt of my journal that evening:
“What a privilege to speak a few words for Christ, to be amongst the people of Mexico, to see the shy smiles and brown eyes of the children. Seeing Angelito, so excited about his “new” clothes, run to Jaime [a local Mexican and fellow believer], perhaps the only good man he has ever known in that drug-infested shamble of a neighborhood. He hugged Jaime and tumbled around his neck, then ran back to the box of ‘ropas’ and tried to lift it, the little sack lunch on top. And how do I describe the ‘family on the hill’? Their rotting trailer home perched on top of a square of dirt 20 yards up from the ‘libre’ highway below. Jaime climbed on top of a stack of wood and rocks to peer over the makeshift fence and call, patiently, hoping against hope the children would not have yet been taken away by the state. The nine-year-old finally came to the gate and Jaime shoved aside the scrap metal, and we squeezed in.
The small yard was covered with wood, rusting nails, and trash. The trailer’s paint was peeling, windows hopelessly cracked. The thin mother, probably weighing 80 lbs, had been bedridden for two weeks by COVID, and her son had just come down with a fever. We brought oranges and yogurt, a pittance compared to the need, but our mere presence seemed to cheer.
Jaime found an old tire to sit on and started asking about the children. Tears started falling down her face–she worried about their time with their father on the streets. As it was, I wondered how her frail body had the strength to work the long hours in the factory.
Jaime moved closer, having to stand occasionally to avoid a wandering roach or pile of ants.
“Who is God to you?” he asked.
“God is God, he’s in the sky.” She explained how she prayed to him every night from her trailer.
Jaime told her of his own past, growing up a street kid on the streets of Tijauna. But he spoke mostly of Christ, how Christ was the Word, the Logos of God. Jesus is God Himself, come for us, to sacrifice himself and rise again. Mary is not God—simply his mother. He pleaded with her to receive Christ, to believe, to cry out to God to save her. Her tears showed she understood. We gathered to pray, Nick, our missionary friend, grasping for the right Spanish words to express his longing to her soul and finally reverted to English.
“¿Puedo darle un abrazo?” (May I hug you?) I asked, and she said yes, so I embraced her.
“En el nombre de Jesús” Nick had prayed, and Jaime explained she must cry out to God in the name of Jesus. We promised we would return in a few days and bring her a Bible in Spanish. Then, we left.
I cannot describe the heartrending sweetness of those moments. It wasn’t the poverty. That was everywhere; the hills of TJ are littered with plywood shacks, trash, and a pandemonium of hardly inhabitable huts clinging to eroding piles of dirt. It was the despair, utter despair without Christ. “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Christ himself offered them hope, not of a pleasant, comfortable life but of a living relationship with their Creator, a Father far more tender and gentle as their own father was cruel and apathetic.
I think of Christ’s own entrance into this world, far more shocking than my visit to Zona Norte. He descended to a world of filth, sin, and rebellion, all bent on hating him. He saw the same children—saw through their shy smiles to a life of hunger, instability, abuse–and he embraced them. He too traveled past villages and cities and yearned, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:27). He grieved over the hardheartedness of the rich young ruler, choosing the gain of this life rather than the riches of eternal life to his own doom. He loved him.
The Lord used those weeks to impress two lessons on me. The first was a greater understanding and appreciation for Christ’s heart as a tender shepherd. There’s something about being with children that reveals your own need for fatherly shepherding. Part of that was simply exhaustion–we tackled a lot during those two weeks—and the need to rely on the Lord for patience and strength in a new way. Part of that was the extra challenge to get quiet time (with 3 little boys!) gave me a new hunger and recognition of how much I constantly needed the Word.
The first few days of the trip, I devoured a book I found in the missionary’s library called Gentle and Lowly, by Dane Ortland. The book is part commentary on Matt. 11:28-39 and part an overview of what Puritans like Thomas Goodwin, B.B. Warfield, and Jonathan Edwards had to say on the heart of Christ. The book opened for me a new rest in Christ as my shepherd, empathetic and gentle with his little lambs rather than constantly disappointed in us. What sweet, life-transforming truth!
Second, the gospel is not a truth we peddle but a life we live. It’s so easy to think of missions as a marketing job. Rather, it’s a lifestyle of living out the gospel faithfully before a watching world. I saw this daily, consistently lived out in the missionary family. Missions was not a face they put on or a job description that only applied when they were in Mexico. It was the air they breathed amongst the local church in the States before they left for the field, their constant focus with their children, and their burden in ministry. I got to see that heart even as they dealt with the daily, hourly discipline issues of having toddlers and then pleaded with the Lord in prayer for their sons to see Christ in the gospel. “We’re not after good children but converted children,” they would say.
There was a raw, realness there. If they were exhausted after a night up with the new baby, they would run to Christ. If the boys were particularly difficult or the noise constant, they would go back to Christ as the source of their patience and love. They daily pointed us with their lives to a gospel-centered Christian life, a life not for strong people or perfect people or gifted people but weak people who had a strong, able Savior. Such a life testifies to Christ, not self.
I pray that I’ve come away from Mexico with a greater love for Christ and his gospel as well as a hole in my heart those little boys left when they gave us “squishy hugs” goodbye. I pray my time there would not be wasted but continue to serve as a constant reminder of the faithfulness of my God!