Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
Many years ago, I watched a TV show episode in which the main character, a weed-dealing widow, is trying to cross the border from Tijuana, Mexico, back to her Southern California town. She’s stuck in her car behind hundreds of other cars waiting to pass the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the largest land border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana. It’s a sweltering hot afternoon, so she calls out to one of the street vendors and buys an iced latte. Bad idea. As the traffic moves along a foot every 15 minutes, she squirms in her seat, still hours away from the other side, and eventually relieves herself while still stuck in her car.
Ever since watching that episode, I told myself I would never, ever drive into Tijuana. Sure, the city is only a three-hour drive from my home in Los Angeles, and it only takes about five minutes to cross the border over to the Mexican side. But to sit behind a train of cars for half a day just to get back into America? With my overactive bladder? That sounds like my worst nightmare.
But then I began reading news about migrant caravans. I read President Trump’s tweets calling the migrants an “invasion” and promising to greet them with the military. I read accounts of protests and tear gas and overcrowded shelters—and the more I read, the more I wondered how much of what I was reading was true. As a WORLD reporter living close to the border, I decided—reluctantly—I might have to make that trip to Tijuana after all.
I ended up making several trips. When I told friends who had been to Tijuana that I was planning my own visit, they advised me to park my car on the U.S. side of the border and walk through the pedestrian crossing instead of driving. So for my first three trips to Tijuana, I followed my friends’ advice and crossed the border on foot, taking taxi and Uber or begging rides from my sources once I reached Mexican territory. Each time, I breezed back into my country by foot—the whole process takes maybe 10 minutes. Looking at the mile-long, unmoving lanes of vehicles sitting in their own exhaust fumes, I smirked: “Ha-ha, miserable folks. Should have walked the border like I did!”
Then last week, it was my turn to sit in my fumes. The night before my fourth trip to Tijuana, the missionary I thought would pick me up at the border told me his car was in the shop. There was no way we could get around without a car: We needed to visit various places in Tijuana the next day, and they were all in opposite directions. No way out of this—I had to drive in this time. I did not sleep well that night.
The next day, I woke up at 5 a.m. with dread fermenting in my stomach. It was going to be a very long day. I drove down to the last U.S. exit stop before Tijuana and stopped by an insurance agency to purchase Mexican auto insurance for the day. There, with fingers crossed, I asked an employee how long it typically takes to cross back over the border by car. He responded first with a grimace, which made my heart sink, and then said with a shrug, “Honestly, it can take about four hours.”
Four hours? Four hours! That’s longer than my entire commute back to LA! The guy looked at my horrified expression and took pity on me. “If you’re lucky, it can take just one hour,” he added sympathetically. OK, Lord Jesus, we’re shooting for an hour. I can do an hour. Please, God, have mercy.
That night, after a full day of reporting in Tijuana, I dropped off the missionary at 7:30 and headed toward the border. I came prepared: I had drunk no liquids during the previous hour, made a bathroom stop beforehand, and had two chocolate chip cookies in the glove compartment ready for stress-munching.
As I approached the border crossing and stopped, about 50 cars sat in my lane ahead of me. Every day some 70,000 vehicles take this border crossing into California, and today I was one of them. Within five minutes, dozens of additional cars lined up behind me. Every eight minutes or so, we moved a few inches forward, then braked again. We all sat in our cars with the same miserable, dazed expressions. The only person who smiled was a red-headed guy who kept honking at me from the other lane, flashing me a sweet smile and signaling that he wanted to cut in front of me. No way, Jose. When I ignored him, he tried honking and smiling at other people behind me, but nobody paid him any attention—no room for charity here.
Meanwhile, vendors walked up and down the lanes hawking their wares. Some sold local edibles such as Takis, raspados, elotes, and pan dulce. Others sold goods such as giant Mexican and Rams flags, child-size statues of Mother Mary and Jesus, rainbow light-flashing balloons, talismans, beaded jewelry, hand-knitted keychains, and blankets. They must walk for miles each day—walking around and around each and every lane, trying to make eye contact with bored drivers. I wondered how much money they make a day. I can’t imagine it’s enough to live by.
I also saw many beggars: men in wheelchairs with stumps instead of legs, women in sagging pants, even a young girl and boy who looked no older than 7. These kids seemed to have the most success earning people’s sympathy as they stood on tiptoes to rap on car windows. Probably like everyone else, I wondered where their parents were.
Then I thought about the two teenage sisters I’d met that day. They had trekked by themselves all the way from El Salvador to Tijuana as part of the latest wave of caravans. The older sister, a 15-year-old beauty, is now five months pregnant—a motherless child bearing a fatherless child. I also thought of the 25-year-old Honduran migrant I met at a shelter with a tin roof that barely keeps out the rain that drenches the city and turns roads into muddy sinkholes. He looked ill, with yellowed eyes, a split lip, and little hope of ever making it to his dream destination: America.
If anything, being stuck in my car forced me to pay greater attention to what was going on around me, and to process everything I saw and heard during my reporting in Tijuana. Here I was, complaining about the long wait to cross the border while watching signs of deep poverty and dysfunction in a Third World city. Less than a mile away was my country, America, the fabled land of opportunity that’s drawing tens of thousands of desperate souls from elsewhere. All that separates these two vastly different worlds are a wall and some border guards. Many of the migrants and locals I met in Tijuana were stuck in deplorable conditions, while all I had to do was wait in my heated rental car and flash my passport to enter what these people thought of as heaven.
It did not take four hours to cross the border, but only 2½. That was still longer than I would have liked, but as I gunned it back home to LA, I knew I would have a hot meal, a bed, and a roof waiting for me. As much as I anticipated those daily luxuries, I also felt somber: What am I to do with the knowledge that I am daily living a life that to so many other people remains a desperate dream?
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It’s been rain-storming a lot here in Los Angeles. I’m sure the dear weather-hardened folks in the Midwest are rolling their eyes at this Southern Californian princess, but hey, LA does get pretty nasty when it rains. The lightest drizzle can screech traffic to a halt, blare “flash floods” alarms on our cell phones, and blow a flu epidemic across our very pampered immune systems. Remember: Our “winters” are sunny 63-degree days with occasional showers if we’re lucky. Anything lower than 70 degrees, and you see people lugging out their parkas, wool sweaters, and Ugg boots.
But during these winter storms, something uncommon in California happens: The sun is gone for days. It might be 10 a.m. and the whole city stays tucked under a looming shadow. And for people who are used to golden sun-streaked days 350 days of the year, it’s a disorienting experience. Everything starts looking darker, more somber, more depressing. Warm sun rays? Golden-tanned skin? Cruising down the 405 with the convertible roof down and wind rustling your hair? Oh foregone days.
I feel the same about these LA winter storms as when I read the news, which is getting more and more depressing. Scrolling through a Twitter feed is mentally and emotionally hazardous, what with all the 280-character-long fearmongering and squabbling. This country seems to be on a continued decline: racial divisions, distortions of sexuality and gender, ghastly pro-abortion bills, the debt crisis, the government shutdown … The world also appears to be in chaos: dictatorship in Venezuela, corruption and poverty and violence in Central America, a stream of ailing refugees from the Middle East and Africa, rising anti-Semitism and riots in Europe, power threats and religious persecution from China …
Yes, reading the news is a surefire reminder that this world is a dark, evil, terrible place. I know that God is a perfectly holy and righteous Creator—so pure and holy that the presence of God set Moses trembling with fear, and made Isaiah cry out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!”—so it’s disturbing to realize how we humans are so openly rebelling against God, so audaciously wronging each other.
It was with this disturbed spirit that I was driving to a supermarket about a week ago. It had been raining for days in LA, leaving days-old puddles that cars splashed over poor pedestrians. Then I noticed that every driver was slowing down, his or her eyes peering up at the sky. I too lifted my eyes, and saw one of the most perfect rainbows I had ever seen sweeping across the sky in a pristine, multicolored arc. The reds, yellows, greens, blues, and violets were all soft pastels, yet bright enough to be in distinct layers, and a slight glow illuminated the area under the rainbow. It was a scene of magical wonder.
As I arrived at the supermarket, people were standing in the parking lot with their heads tilted up, momentarily forgetting their arms were full of groceries. “Look at that,” one older woman exclaimed, her mouth gaping. “Wow,” a man gasped, holding his son’s hand. When I walked out of the supermarket with my bags, people young and old were still looking up and pointing. Everyone had a little smile on his or her face, and so did I.
It was a short, rather insignificant moment—rainbows happen all the time, and even kids learn the science behind rainbows, how they are an optical illusion. But something about watching everyone look up in delight at the same sight touched me.
It reminded me of Ezekiel 1:28: “Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking.” It also reminded me of Revelation 4:3, in which John describes the majesty of God in heaven: “And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.”
And of course, I thought of God’s promise to Noah never again to wipe out his creation with a flood, a promise symbolized by the first rainbow to appear in the world: “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations” (Genesis 9:12). The rainbow is a sign of God’s mercy and common grace, even as it reminds us of the contrast between the sin-corrupted world and the perfect righteousness of God. Thank God that as unrighteous and blind and hard-hearted as we are, the Lord’s mercy and promises never fail. Without that, truly, woe to us!
Not everyone in LA believes that rainbows are a covenant sign from God—but I think deep down, somewhere in people’s beings created in the divine image of God, something stirs, something delights. So the next time I read Twitter and feel a disturbance in my spirit, I’ll aim to remember the rainbow.
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Here’s something I’ve learned as a journalist over the course of my many interactions with missionaries: Don’t entrust your schedule to the hands of missionaries, unless you’re prepared to spend the whole day with them visiting all sorts of people and places.
You see, their ideas of time management and efficiency may differ from yours. For them, spending a three-hour lunch with someone, traveling long distances to visit a family in the middle of nowhere—all those long periods of seemingly doing “nothing” aren’t nothing, but mission work.
I experienced this sort of “missionary time” in Denver when I followed a missionary on his 12 home visits to Burmese refugees. In Thailand, I trailed various missionaries to minister to Pakistani refugees, visits that turned into whole-day affairs with lots of chai-sipping. In Burma, I trekked with a missionary family to visit persecuted ethnic minorities, hiking through a rural jungle mountain for four hours just to visit one woman. In Malaysia, I called a missionary to ask a question, expecting the conversation to last 15 minutes tops, but it dragged into a three-hour phone call.
And of course, I experienced this as a missionary’s kid—how many hours have I spent accompanying my father on his cultural expeditions and impromptu evangelism to random strangers? I still remember the night my family spent almost two hours waiting in the car, windows rolled down, while my father preached the gospel to a cashier at a grocery store in Singapore (she professed Christ, so we all rejoiced—a happy ending to a long night).
Last week I was once again reminded of how missionaries operate on a different time than us ordinary, earthly folks when I met a missionary in Tijuana for a story I’m reporting on the border crisis.
It was my third visit to Tijuana, and I gotta be honest, I didn’t look forward to it much. It’s a long, trafficky drive from Los Angeles. Crossing the border can be cumbersome, and the city is close enough that there’s little of that sense of novelty of visiting a foreign country. Tijuana also doesn’t have much landscaping, which means there aren’t planted trees to provide relief from the biting Mexico sun, and the streets smell funky. The last time I was in Tijuana, I had spent three hours loitering in a hilly neighborhood 7 miles south of the border, waiting for a local pastor who never showed up for a meeting. So on this third trip down to Mexico, I went with little enthusiasm, praying I wouldn’t get stood up again.
Thankfully, a church leader in Tijuana named Maggie picked me up at the border right around noon, as we had scheduled. Maggie is a Korean immigrant who doesn’t speak much English but speaks fluent Spanish thanks to her college years in Guadalajara. She and another Korean missionary, Stan, helped interpret for me that day. Before we went around town, Stan asked if I was in a time crunch to get back home. As soon as I said “No” and saw his smile broaden, I knew I was going to be in Tijuana for a long time. “We’ll try to get you back across the border before the sun sets,” Maggie said, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
It didn’t happen. I was in Tijuana for eight hours, driving from one colonia (neighborhood) to the next, spending more time than I wanted on the road. One trip, we spent 100 minutes jolting inch by inch in traffic to cross 14 miles. Another trip, Maggie got lost while tailing another pastor’s car, and it took us half an hour to find each other again. The next trip, officials manning the shelter for Central American migrants wouldn’t let us in, so we spent the next half-hour trying to convince them and listening to their reasons why we couldn’t enter. By our last trip, the sky was already pitch-black with nary a star, and we were woefully lost, wandering around the dusty hills, following GPS directions that were just as lost as we were.
I have a weak stomach, so I was quite miserable in the car. I was hot, but everyone else was cold, so they kept the windows up and blasted the heat. The hot dog I ate from a gas station lurched in my stomach with acidic juices while I silently groaned from the back seat. I could tell even Maggie was tired. But Stan the missionary? He was whistling and humming all throughout the drive, pausing only to talk about so-and-so’s spiritual progress and so-and-so’s resistance to the gospel. Twice our car sunk into a pothole so big that it knocked the wind out of us. Maggie let out a scream—but Stan? He laughed and exclaimed the Korean version of “Whoopsie Daisy!” and then continued driving and whistling.
Though I was still nauseous and heat-exhausted in the back seat, I felt a wash of appreciation for the cheerful missionary. Here he was, dedicating a whole day to help a journalist he’d just met, yet I didn’t hear a single complaint or disgruntled expression. Instead, he seemed to be at rest throughout the entire journey, even during the tedious moments and roadblocks.
Stan takes longer to leave a place because he gives all his attention to the people he meets and asks more questions than I do. He expresses genuine concern for the migrants stranded in Tijuana, but he’s no passive hand-wringer or angry activist—he simply goes out there and investigates the situation, whether through a random taxi driver or a local pastor, and figures out what God’s next step is for him with strategic thinking, collaboration, and infectious cheer.
That night, as I drove back home to LA, I thought of the Apostle Paul, the great first-century missionary who proclaimed the gospel to more than 50 cities around Asia Minor and the Mediterranean coasts. I imagine the logistics of Paul’s travels were a lot more challenging then our pothole-ridden drive through Tijuana with Google Maps. We learn about Paul’s love and ministry to the early churches through Acts and his letters, and we also learn that he got shipwrecked three times, spending a night and a day adrift at sea. He went on frequent journeys in danger of thrashing rivers, street robbers, the wilderness, storm, and starvation (2 Corinthians 11:24-27).
And yet this is the same guy who exhorted his fellow brothers in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). I’m confident Paul’s journeys weren’t just about getting from point A to point B to meet person X. I’ll bet Paul had three-hour meals with strangers he met while on the boat, on the ship, on donkeys, and on foot. I’ll bet he sometimes got lost but somehow found someone to bless or extra time to rest while wandering. And I’ll bet he whistled and hummed along the way.