This article originally appeared
in the April-May 2003 issue
Elizabeth sat on my couch and talked about her teaching job. “The kids are so poor,” she started. “Most of them don’t eat. They come to school hungry and then they have no food for lunch.”
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s so bad that I have to go away and hide so I can eat my lunch.”
“Yes. If I don’t, the kids just come up to me and stand there. They don’t say anything. They’re just hungry. I don’t have enough to share with all of them, and I can’t eat in front of them. They’re so poor,” she said.
I couldn’t believe her story. I kept looking at her and saying, “Really?” She kept nodding yes. Angry? That’s how I felt. Why does the world have to be like this?
My friend’s school is in Mexico. She was in her first year as a physical education teacher at a primary school south of Mexico City. She spent a year between her junior and senior years of college serving an internship at Harambee Center, the urban youth ministry I direct, then returned to Mexico for her final year at U.N.A.M., the prestigious national university. After graduation, she found this job, which pays $220 a month. The first chance she got, she visited us again in the United States and told us this terrible story.
That story stayed with me for days. I felt demoralized. It wasn’t just that these children lived in misery and my friend could do little about their plight. What bothered me more was that I felt I had done everything an evangelical Christian can do to help Mexico, yet the country was still a gross producer of misery.
I reviewed all the things I had done to help the people of Mexico.
Vacation Bible School? Yes. For five years in a row, from 8th grade through 12th grade, I went with my church on one-week missions trips to Tijuana and Mexicali, along the California-Mexico border. We played games with the children, taught Bible lessons, and did some maintenance work. We fed the children, visited homes, and endured long lines back through the border. We always came home feeling blessed and used by God.
Sponsored a child? Yes. Through World Vision’s child sponsorship program, I sponsored a child in Mexico. Nutrition, a place in a school, and access to a Bible and a church were all provided for $20 a month. I hung the photo and bio card of my child on the refrigerator.
Supported economic development? Absolutely. We bought coffee, greetings cards, drawings, and all kinds of things from poor Mexicans who produced these goods as a means of economic sustenance. The fair trade coffee was really cool. We bought ours from a Mexico City widow (she sold out of the local community center) and the coffee had been brought up from Chiapas — two for one. Helping this lady and supporting the cause in an oppressed part of Mexico — I felt really good about that.
Discipled an indigenous Mexican Christian leader? Yes. We met Elizabeth one summer while touring Mexico City. After speaking with her mother, we made arrangements for her to come north to live with us in Pasadena and serve a Harambee internship. That wasn’t easy; we had to get our local congressman to intervene. Only with his very official letter faxed straight to the U.S. Embassy did Elizabeth, a young single Mexican woman with exactly the profile of a person who enters the U.S. and never returns to her home country, get in. She served her nine months and returned, right on schedule. She learned our methods of ministry at Harambee and was equipped to take those skills and start an exciting program in her hometown.
Built houses? I’ve given money to missionaries and work groups that went into Mexico and built houses for the poor.
Financially supported Mexican missionaries? Absolutely. I supported a number of them over the years, and support one now.
I’ve even done other things that most people have not had the opportunity to do. I’ve written newspaper and magazine articles highlighting the plight of Mexico’s people. I appeared on CNN and debated the author of California’s controversial Proposition 187 during the 1994 election, arguing against a harsh illegal immigration measure. I battled on live international television to project a different image of Mexicans in a social climate poisoned with negative and stereotypical images.
I did everything I could. I did it because I was aware of the need. I did it, too, because I myself am Mexican-American.
My mother was born in Aguas Calientes, a state in central Mexico, and came north in 1950, crossing a border that was but a line in the dust. I was born in Los Angeles at the Ellis Island of the West, the USC County General hospital at the intersection of the 5 and 10 freeways.
All my adult life I’ve wondered what I would be doing if my mom had stayed put and I’d been born in Mexico. It’s that close identification with the Mexican people that’s driven much of my outreach effort. And what would I be doing today if I’d been born in Mexico? Would I be one of those lonely souls trying to cross at San Ysidro or Otay Mesa tonight? Would I be a desperate soul crossing a scalding California desert this summer? Perhaps.
I say that not as an endorsement of illegal activity, but to emphasize that there are simple reasons why the United States is experiencing the largest sustained migration of people from any one country to these 50 states since its founding. For the average, poor Mexican, Mexico is a terrible desperate place. People crossing the border illegally are searching for a future, grasping at a dream, seeking to open the window of opportunity.
Nevertheless, I was not born in Mexico. God chose for me to be born here, in the United States of America. I am grateful. I am proud to be an American. And I’m driven to do something about the plight of Mexicans anywhere.
What Can We Do?
I believe the number one thing we can do among Mexicans is teach them, through our words and our deeds, about the unique, salvific power of Jesus Christ. The second thing we evangelical Christians can do is what we’ve been doing, which is contribute charitably to the poor in a variety of ways.
After hearing Elizabeth’s story, I began to wonder if there isn’t a third thing we can do for the plight of the Mexican people. What if something could be done to change the society in Mexico, to change the conditions that produce such misery in the first place?
Changing an entire culture is a fanciful idea, to be sure. But what if Mexico could become as prosperous and opportunity-laden as the USA? What keeps Mexico from re-producing our success? Those seem like questions better suited for a political science class or the newspaper op-ed page. But for me, watching the suffering of poor Mexicans, it’s the question of the hour.
I got to thinking about this third front in outreach to Mexico one day as I read a secular book on economics. The writer contrasted countries to find out why some prospered and others did not. He was an entertaining writer, because I wouldn’t otherwise have read through an entire economics book. Truth be told, I first picked up the book because the writer is funny and I’d liked his previous books. I didn’t even know economics was the subject until partway through the introduction. But soon I was enthralled. He was funny as usual. But he told a fascinating story about the power of capitalism to drastically improve a society’s fortunes.
That was an odd lesson to learn. I’d been taught that capitalism was a terrible thing, a producer of untold misery for a number of centuries for countless people across the globe. But reading through Eat the Rich by P.J. O’Rourke, I encountered example after example of the ways that capitalism has made life better for people wherever it’s practiced. The nation that practices capitalism best, the United States, not only boasts untold wealth, but even our poverty is unique from poverty anywhere at any time in human history. Our poverty is the richest poverty the world has ever known. You don’t go to inner city L.A. to see the worst to be seen in the world. For absolute destitution you have to go to Smoky Mountain in Manila or a South African shantytown.
After reading the book, I was fascinated, yet also concerned. O’Rourke is not a Christian, and Eat the Rich has no biblical analysis of capitalism and its virtuous practice. A friend connected me to the Acton Institute where I studied the philosophical underpinnings of liberty and studied what the Bible said about freedom.
After O’Rourke and Acton, I kept reading. I picked up a book by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto that argued that capitalism was not a trick that could only be done by white Europeans, but rather that systems of law and justice and economics make capitalism work, or fail, around the world.
And so this urban youth worker took the red pill and tunneled into the world of macro-economic theory—not my original plan when I signed up at the Harambee Center. I’d never taken an economics or business class in college, yet I found myself reading the entire Wall Street Journal just like I used to meditate on the baseball box scores.
It was while reading a Journal article early one morning that all this theoretical stuff connected to my heart’s passion to relieve the suffering of poor Mexicans.
The Russian Experiment
The article was about how Russian president Vladimir Putin had just instituted a flat tax in his country. If you are not familiar with the flat tax, it’s what got billionaire Steve Forbes laughed out of the Republican primary in the 2000 presidential election. Whereas the U.S. tax code is thousands of pages long, with varying tax rates for a plethora of economic activities, flat tax theory says that everyone pays the exact same percentage regardless of their income.
Forbes was scorned, but Putin’s measure passed. Putin reasoned that a low flat tax would encourage ordinary Russians to pay their taxes—many Russians had not been prone to do so. If more Russians paid even low tax rates, government revenue would rise and the government would be able to do more because there would be more with which to do.
It worked. Ordinary, poor Russians began paying their taxes. Figures for 2001 show that the Russian government collected $8 billion more in tax revenue than in 2000. Eight billion dollars is a lot of extra cash; with it, the government can invest in business infrastructure, provide better schools, pave roads, clean up the water…the list is endless.
Whether politicians will do the right thing with the money is an entirely separate question; I pray that they serve the people, not themselves. But the point is clear. Simple economic reform can have a drastic effect on a country’s fortunes.
Which brings me back to Elizabeth’s hungry schoolchildren. I read another statistic at the time about job creation. A modest rise in the number of jobs, new jobs being driven by a rise in successful businesses, could lift one-tenth of the population from dramatic poverty to very simple means, the equivalent of entry into the lowest of lower middle classes. Not much of a shift for an average American, but huge for a very poor third world citizen.
Doing some math, it struck me that basic, pro-capitalist economic reforms would affect…hmm, let’s see…Mexico’s population is 100 million…a tenth of that number is 10 million. Ten million people could raise their standard of living if only basic economic reforms were enacted. With all that additional tax revenue, the government could do some interesting things. More children could attend school. Many Mexican children today cannot attend even primary school because all levels of school must be paid for; there is no compulsory public education, because there is no money to pay for a public school system like the one many Americans criticize so vehemently. More of those children could eat. There is no school lunch program for children in Mexico like the one we have for low-income children in the U.S. It takes tax dollars to pay for those school lunches, tax dollars the Mexican government does not have enough of. There could be more health care services. Better roads. More police.
Ten million Mexicans could genuinely rise from the lowest poverty. It seems like a cruel joke, Tantalus sneering from the edge of a Mexican squatter village. But reading about Russia’s fortunes and the growing wealth in many other countries, it seems possible. It’s a feat that no evangelical Christian organization or method, no World Vision program, no vacation Bible school, no house building crew, could accomplish or even boast.
Why can’t we invite people to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, support relief and development efforts wherever we find need, and help transform a society and culture for the better?
In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance. I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.” Millions of Mexican schoolchildren are hungry. There are macro-economic methods for giving them something to eat. Is it the role of us youth workers to teach our youth groups about every means available to live out the gospel? I say yes.