Each year more than 64 million vehicles funnel through Tijuana to California, making it one of the most-crossed borders in the world. With a population of 2 million, Tijuana is the third-largest and fastest-growing Mexican city. According to local residents, people from all over Mexico come to Tijuana to reach the “door to the north” into the United States.
But in addition to the millions who cross at the official checkpoint each year, another million cross illegally as a result of drug trafficking–or desperation for work, healthcare, family connections or what is perceived as a better life in the United States.
Burden for Tijuana
In May 2003, while Billy Graham was holding Mission San Diego about 25 miles up the Pacific coast from Tijuana, he stood at his south-facing hotel room window and said to Franklin Graham, “I have a burden for Tijuana.” At that time, pastors in Tijuana had already joined together to discuss the possibility of having a Crusade in their city–a possibility that became a reality with the Festival de Esperanza (Festival of Hope) With Franklin Graham held June 10-12.
While pastors in Tijuana were formulating an invitation for Franklin, a burden also grew in the heart of Tijuana resident Fanny Bayliss, who had been working with her church to bring people from Tijuana to the San Diego Crusade. She said, “As I worked with the San Diego Crusade, I had a vision for Tijuana.” She explained that although San Diego and Tijuana are neighbors, they are two different cultures and two different worlds; many in Mexico are so poor they cannot obtain passports. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a Crusade in our city?” Bayliss had thought.
Jose Rivera, a member of the Festival executive committee, said that Tijuana is a mixture of people and cultures from all over the country, including many who want to cross the border. He added that with problems like prostitution, alcoholism, drug-trafficking and vandalism, some don’t even like to think of the city as part of their country.
But he also said that Christians saw the Festival of Hope as a key tool for the Church of Tijuana to do something about these problems. And so thousands of God’s people in Tijuana, from more than 350 churches, came together to reach the city for Jesus.
Meeting at the Border
“Elda, tell him …”
Those words were heavy upon the heart of 20-year-old Elda Peralta as she stood speaking with a Mexican man named Pablo on the shoulder of a highway, several hundred feet up a hill from la l’nea, the metal wall that separates Mexico from the United States.
Pablo was waiting for his moment to cross the border so that he could see his family in the U.S. He had lost his papers and had no ID. Standing with Pablo were two other men. Antonio said that he has no money for anything, and that it would be better “over there”–where his family is, and where there is food. The quietest of the three, Luis, stood by with a worn superhero backpack slung over his shoulder. He needed work. If he made it, this would be his first time to cross.
While the men waited to make their move, their temporary home could be mistaken for a junkyard. Newspapers, plastic sacks, bags of trash, bottles, handbills, twisted metal, an old bicycle, a turned-over shopping cart and a number of clothing articles littered the area. In the valley created by the metal wall and the steep hill up to the highway, remnants of several small campfires signaled the presence of those who have waited for their moment of escape. A scrawny dog gingerly stepped around rocks and burnt-out fires, sniffing as he went. Farther down along the wall other men milled about … waiting.
From this particular highway one has a remarkable vista: the coast and the San Diego skyline, which almost seems to glow in the setting sun; the shiny white border control vehicles parked strategically on the US side; the hovering helicopters; the dark metal wall snaking into the distance; the hillside of trash and men camping near the wall; the hopelessness.
The lookout is not a place that Elda Peralta frequents, but this particular afternoon she was traveling to various parts of the city with a group of Christians working with the Festival of Hope. Here at this dusty camp near the border, Pablo, Antonio and Luis were intrigued by Elda’s group.
“Oh, no,” Elda thought at first. “Here I am with people who want to cross the border–it’s a good thing I don’t have my purse.” But as she started talking to Pablo, she began to see beyond her fears to Pablo’s desperation. He had been there for a week. “We started talking about God,” she said, “and I felt conviction from the Holy Spirit saying, ‘Tell this person. Just do it.’”
Pablo told Elda, “I don’t steal or do anything wrong.” But he listened attentively as she explained to him that we are saved not by works but by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ. Pablo questioned her about heaven. Would Jesus really forgive him? he asked. In the end, Pablo opened his heart, admitted his sin and prayed to receive Jesus.
Pablo’s parting words were, “Pray for me.”
Later, exhilarated, Elda explained that Pablo was the first person she had ever prayed with to accept Jesus Christ. She had talked to people about God, but she would end up talking about theological issues. “People didn’t get it,” Elda said. “This was the first time that it came out simple–I had been praying that something like this would happen.”
Elda said that the opportunities she had in conjunction with the Festival, to go places she wouldn’t have otherwise gone, dovetailed with the way God was working in her heart to share His message with others. She said that her experience with Pablo and other similar interactions have given her greater confidence to share Christ with people she knows.
Tijuana … and Beyond
The Festival of Hope in Tijuana, held at the Monumental Plaza de Toros, marked the first time either Franklin or Billy Graham had preached in a bullfighting arena.
The arena stands just a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean and a monument off the shore that reads, “Initial point of boundary between the US and Mexico.” Immediately to the north of the arena, the ubiquitous metal wall between Mexico and the United States stretches into the ocean. Fanny Bayliss pointed out that the bullring, physically, is located at the very beginning of Mexico, right at the ocean. She expressed hope that “God’s grace will flow south.”
In each of his nightly messages, Franklin Graham spoke of an individual who was seeking Jesus. First, Zacceheus sought Christ even though a crowd made it difficult to get to Him. Next, a woman with a bad reputation was tormented by her past and came to Jesus wanting to have her sins forgiven and wiping His feet with her hair. Finally, Franklin spoke of a young man who sought Jesus to find out what he needed to do to be saved.
One woman walked forward when Franklin gave an invitation to accept Christ, and she confessed to adultery. At first she said she couldn’t believe that God would forgive her because of her sin, but she asked Christ to come into her life, and she prayed for strength and wisdom to rectify the situation.
A man said, with tears, that he had much hate in his heart because his nephew killed his mother. He, too, made a commitment to Christ and said, “I’m going to follow Jesus no matter what I do.”
Franklin explained that the young man in Mark 10 worshiped the god of money, and like thousands of other young people, he wanted meaning in his life. “People get deceived,” said Franklin. “Some people say, ‘If I could just have a job in San Diego, I would be happy.’ Or, ‘If I could have a job in Los Angeles I would be happy.’ Or, ‘If I could go to Mexico City and work for a big company, I would be happy.’ But money is not going to make you happy. You cannot work for your salvation; you cannot buy your salvation. It comes through faith in Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone.”
At the final Festival meeting Franklin exhorted Christians: “Tonight is not the end. It’s the beginning for many who have put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. The work of the Church continues; the message of the Gospel goes forth. We don’t stop trying to reach Tijuana for Christ.”
Tijuana, and indeed, the rest of the country. “From here to the rest of Mexico,” said Fanny Bayliss. “The fire started in San Diego, and it’s moving from Tijuana to all of Mexico!”