Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
I live in a neighborhood that seems to be the proselytism hub of Los Angeles. Let me describe why.
Recently, I was doing a quick run around my block when a woman jumped out of a corner, scaring me out of my skin. I skidded to such a sudden stop that my knee made a resentful “pop!” sound. The Hispanic-looking, guava-shaped woman, who had a long jet-black braid that swung near her hips, thrust a pamphlet at me and said, “Jesús te ama!” I refused the pamphlet, and though I smiled at her, frankly I was a little annoyed.
A while later, I was walking out of a Mexican grocery store with a carton of eggs when the same woman accosted me again. “Jesus loves you!” she declared in English this time, waving a pamphlet in my face. I shook my head no thank you, but she insisted that I take one: “En Inglés! English, sí!” As I marched back home, I saw several crumpled, damp pamphlets littering the sidewalk.
Two Sundays ago, I was strolling the downtown Broadway Theater District when I heard beautiful choral hymns. I turned and saw a group of people in Amish-style clothing—bonnets, plain solid-colored dresses, and trousers—singing classic hymns a capella by an old theater, swaying with half-closed eyes. Meanwhile, similarly attired women stood across the street passing out what looked like gospel tracts. I loved the singing, but I was confused by the clothing: Are they real Amish folks? If not, why were they dressed in such clothing? At a time when people dismiss Christianity as antiquated and irrelevant, why dress up in a way that further perpetuates that idea?
There’s more: About a week earlier, I was driving up a street in my neighborhood when I heard loud honks and swear words. The traffic in my lane was moving more slowly than usual, which meant cars were crawling at the speed of an old lady in high heels. When I finally swung into the other lane and zoomed up, I saw a round-faced bald man in white shirt and black pants, waving a white wooden cross. The words “JESUS SAVES” were painted in black across the vertical and horizontal planks, with red ink dripping on the spots where Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed.
I knew this guy—I had seen him several times doing the same evangelistic shtick in various parts of my neighborhood. As usual, the man had headphones on, presumably blasting loud music as he danced up and down the street—legs kicking, arms pumping the cross up and down, sweat pouring down his face. If not for the goofy grin on his face and his churchy dress shoes, he looked like he was doing a Richard Simmons workout.
He was also completely oblivious. Cars zipped all around him, and one irate driver in a fancy yellow car slammed his fist onto his horn, blasting out a drawn-out, outraged, Hooooonnnk! But the gleeful disrupter of traffic shimmied on: He had his music and his cross, and he was doing the work of the Lord, so he looked quite content.
I wondered what passers-by must think of Christianity…
I wondered how effective these street evangelists were, wondered what passers-by must think of Christianity, and I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed. But I also knew I came from a perhaps jaded perspective as someone who was born into a Christian family, who’s been evangelized to by my missionary-pastor father since before I was potty-trained, who’s perhaps a bit too sensitive to what secular culture thinks about religion. Who knows, maybe there’s one lonely heart who needs to hear “Jesus loves you” and be invited to church, one city-weary body who needs to hear beautiful songs of worship, and one downcast soul who needs to see a happy man dance in the middle of the street.
Then, the day before I wrote this, I became that weary, downcast soul. Something happened that upset me, and I was sitting alone on the outdoor patio of a shopping complex in downtown LA. It was early evening, when most of the city employees and bankers and lawyers were leaving their offices. Bodies in suits and pencil skirts swarmed around me in blurry streams, and bright-colored shopping bags, cupcake boxes, and briefcases bobbed around my peripheral vision.
All that activity and chatter, but I could see nothing, hear nothing, think nothing but the darkness in my head. I had brought a book I planned to read, but the words on the pages dissolved into illegible blots as my eyes pooled with tears.
Then someone tapped me on the shoulder. “Here you go,” he said, handing me a neatly folded napkin. I started, surprised, then thanked him. He was a middle-aged guy with gray hair and a look of concern on his lined, gentle face. “You OK?” he asked. I nodded, feeling terribly embarrassed, and turned away to pretend to read.
After a while, that gray-haired man’s companion, a curly-haired Hispanic, also tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” he said. “I just wanted to share with you something that gives me great comfort when I’m feeling down.” Using the Bible app on his iPhone, he read to me Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Then he said, “I know life can be hard, but know that one day all that suffering will be over. And please know that somebody cares. God cares. He cares for you.”
Well, so much for trying to put on a dry face. My eyes filled again with fat tears, and I blubbered out my gratitude. It was a Bible verse that I had memorized and quoted numerous times. But at that moment, hearing it from a stranger in a busy corridor who noticed me and felt prompted to read the Word of God out loud to me, that piece of Scripture felt like a precious gift, hand-chosen and special-delivered with my name on it. “Thank you, I needed to hear that,” I told the two kind strangers.
We chatted, and I soon found out these two men were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were taking a break while their wives stood on the sidewalk, inviting passers-by into conversation meant to win new converts. I was crestfallen, of course. I knew Jehovah’s Witnesses were very active proselytizers. How many poor Jehovah’s Witnesses had knocked on the door of my parents’ house, only to have my father evangelize back to them with a three-hour sermon? I had passed by their evangelism team downtown countless times, and had always ignored them.
But these two strangers didn’t engage me in a theological debate. We talked about the best Korean and Mexican food in LA, about our cultural backgrounds, and about mission work. It was a nice conversation, and though we have theological differences—and they are major ones—they gave me what I needed at that precise moment: A reminder from God’s Word that God cares for me.
God cares enough about me to encourage me through the mouths of two people who don’t even share my faith. Regardless of the mouthpiece, whenever God desires to reach someone, He does it—and maybe He’ll even do it through a man having a fun time on the streets.