February 17, 2006

Reaching the Promised Land

Young Evangelicals Find Fulfillment in Tijuana

By Josue Rojas

TIJUANA, Mexico — TJ is the last place I expected to find a modern-day Canaan. I’m in an industrial area of the city, home of Ministerios El-Im, where the sound of drums and trumpets echo loudly against neighboring auto-body shops. A van kicks up dust, it stops long enough to spill a load of believers, packed like sardines, it’s mid-day and I’m loitering outside the church. The van pulls off abruptly — it has more rounds about the city.

In 2006 the congregation has grown to over 800. Photo by Josué Rojas

It’s the Sabbath and for many the van is the only way to church. Some come from towns as far as Tecate and Calexico, hours away. Others come from the nearby (yet somehow, infinitely distant) San Diego. Truly, a local diocese would’ve been easier to find — overwhelmingly, most of Mexico is Catholic. But these folks come from far and wide for something they believe they can only find here and nowhere else.

Gerardo Najar, 34, is wearing a pinstriped shirt as he greets the believers at the sanctuary door. Once a heroine-addicted gang member, Gerardo is now a pillar of this congregation.

He came to Tijuana as a child, fleeing his father’s dishonor. He’s the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest who, since birth, denied any relation to him.

“I want to go and see him,” Gerardo tells me. “He’s old and sick. I want to forgive him and tell him about Christ.” He’s a living example of the religious wind of change that’s sweeping Latin America and keeping would-be immigrants to the United States in Tijauna.

Before entering the church, he shows us a tattoo on his hand, a memory of his old gang set. The ink on his skin now appears blurry and partly burned off, like the memory of the man he once was. He keeps only enough of the tat to testify about his former life.

Photo by Josué Rojas

A mural behind the pulpit says all you need to know about the atmosphere of the church. It depicts Israel’s encampment in the desert just after leaving Egypt and slavery, as they head for their promised land — Canaan. A pillar of fire stands as a bridge between heaven and earth. Ministerios El-Im is swimming in color and music. The painting comes alive.

In an instant, this once empty warehouse transforms itself into the Hebrews’ camp, freedom bound in the heart of the wilderness.

It’s like a concert. People are sweating, leaping in the air. Children and adults are running around, laughing. Some dance, spin and drop before God.

Over here — screams, wails. Over there — hands are raised, more hands clap. A deacon lays hands on a gang member, tears flow. A father and son worship side-by-side. Downcast heads are lifted, families restored. I step aside as a parade of kids carrying banners victoriously marches in a line making their way across the sanctuary. Angels are everywhere, big and small — I’m surrounded.

They’re drunk on worship. It’s their upper room wine, spiritual wine. This radical brand of praise is considered to be sacred intoxication, an abundance of which — in Pentecostal/Evangelical churches — is the mark of a Holy Spirit-filled church. They’ve had their fill and are overflowing. I can see the spirit in them, busting out the seams; pressed down, shaken together and running over.

Pastor Jaime Román, 34, a Salvadoran-born San Francisco native, spent his youth running around S.F.’s Mission District getting lifted on drugs. Now he yields to a higher calling. These days he spends a chunk of his day in traffic as he travels trans-nationally from his home in San Ysidro, Calif., to his church. He is the lead pastor of Ministerios El-Im Tijuana.

“Many people in my congregation came here looking for dollars... instead they found love,” says Pastor Roman. “That’s what happens, they came to cross the border (to the U.S.) then they realized that (money) wasn’t what they were looking for. They where looking to fill their emptiness. They were looking for something spiritual. If you don’t have that kind of fullness, then you’ll look for another Canaan.”

Many of the 800-plus members of his congregation are would-be immigrants to the United States. Their spiritual needs are being met here, but they’re materially blessed as well.

Miguel testifies about his relationship with God.Photo by Ryan Furtado

Tijuana is the television assemblage capitol of the world. All kinds of technology consumed in the United States is produced and put together here. The factory assembly lines need to be manned. Steady work and decent pay are abundant. Movies are made here. TJ is Mexico’s wealthiest city.

“I guess you could call (TJ) The United States of Mexico,” Roman says. People from every state in the Mexican union are represented in Tijuana. Ninety percent of Pastor Román’s church are from different parts of Mexico.

Not one of the young people I spoke to expressed any desire whatsoever to move to the United States; they are perfectly content right where they are.

Alejandra, 19, is an American citizen who lives in TJ. She commutes to San Diego daily, where she studies oceanography and works retail. She, like many of her brethren have the chance to cross freely into the United States and make a life there, but doesn’t. “This is where my family is, and so is the church where my God speaks to me.”

It’s Sunday, twilight — and cold. Two-dozen young people wearing their best clothes pile into cars and the back of pickup trucks. The mood is festive as they joyfully head for the heart of the city.

Downtown has already begun her night, pharmacies and brothels illuminate the streets. The youngsters set up on a busy intersection, spreading out in groups of four or five. They cover the four corners, sharing space with food vendors selling hotdogs wrapped in bacon and corn in a cup.

Armed with leaflets and a megaphone, these young people build a wall of prayer.

They pray for a city notorious for crime, prostitution, violence and drug traffic. Some take turns on the megaphone testifying, others hand out leaflets that read “Are you in the desert?” “Spiritually bankrupt?” They offer “living wells” to Tijuana’s pedestrians.

They’ve all had words with the Mighty One. They’ve had their wine. They’ve had practice at pouring themselves out, and tonight they do it all over again in front of the entire city. Like Joshua before Jericho, they believe their cries can tear down unseen walls.

Most of these young street preachers weren’t born here. Tijuana was just a pit stop on their quest for a better life. Without leaving, they found it.

Among the street preachers out that night is Juan Guzman Tellez, 26. “My first impact at arriving in TJ is knowing God,” says Juan. “That’s why I won’t go north (to the U.S.), but I also won’t go south. I encountered the Lord here, and I will serve him here. Our purposes are no longer earthly.”

San Diego’s lights gleam in the distance. From where I stand, here in the Third World, I can see richest state in the most powerful nation in the world. None of my young friends have the most remote desire to cross to the other side. They’ve already reached the promised land.

Josue Rojas, is a writer and editor at YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia

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