When 5-year-old Yolanda Roman finally smiled, it was no hesitant little grin. It was a full-blown smile of delight that stretched her wide face to the limit.
The little girl, one of 13 children in an impoverished family, had been given a pair of panda slippers. She wore them a full five minutes before the astonishing truth hit her--they were hers to keep.
Yolanda's moment of joy took place one recent Sunday in the rain on a muddy hilltop in a part of Tijuana that tourists seldom see. The members of Tree of Life Ministry, a loose-knit Christian group from the San Fernando Valley, nearly didn't see it either. Their yellow bus packed with gifts had failed in three previous tries to reach the hilltop, turned back by slippery dirt roads, potholes and an abandoned car.
But when the bus arrived at the summit, where homesteading Mexican families have built a series of ramshackle dwellings, the 35 Americans were met by a group of about 70 singers. While rain fell and small children, some barefoot like Yolanda, stood by cold and uncomprehending, the groups of Mexicans and Americans sang religious songs to one another and held a prayer service.
Gave Away Own Coats
Afterward the visitors handed out gifts of clothing, food and toys, then said goodby and headed for their second stop, where a similar meeting took place. When their supply of gifts ran out, some Tree of Life members gave away the coats they were wearing. They arrived back in the Valley at 11 p.m., more than 18 hours after their pre-dawn departure.
"What they do for these people is wonderful," said Jose Hernandez, 37, who works weekdays as an auto mechanic in San Fernando and as a minister in Tijuana on Saturdays and Sundays.
Hernandez's one-room, blue clapboard church, Monte el Sinai, was the second stop on the trip. During an emotional service, some Tree of Life members joined those of the regular congregation at the altar in a laying on of hands. As Hernandez preached in Spanish, the Mexicans and their guests wept and hugged one another.
Tree of Life dispenses a spiritual message along with material gifts. It is made up of so-called New Age Christians who believe that a "personal relationship" with Jesus Christ is essential for contentment.
Cindy Anderson, 32, said that many members also belong to Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational church in Reseda, but that the charity's activities are open to anyone who wishes to join. On the Tijuana trip were persons who attend Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Encino, First Baptist Church of Canoga Park and Hillcrest Church in Thousand Oaks. Hillcrest Church provided the bus.
In addition to a December trip to Mexico, Tree of Life runs an ongoing food program in the Valley. Anderson remembered how she and her husband, Steve, 37, began the effort.
Crisis Led to Group
"We had a picture-framing business in Tarzana and we were doing very well, then we just went under. Two of our biggest customers left us, and just like that we were destitute. We had to take our three kids and move into a two-bedroom apartment with my mom. After we went through our own crisis, we decided we wanted to help other people go through theirs."
Steve Anderson began selling advertising for direct-mail coupon booklets, and the couple recovered sufficiently to rent a house in Van Nuys.
The Andersons started Tree of Life Ministries four years ago, running it from their garage. They said their food program assists between 60 and 100 people a month, giving each enough to eat for a week.
"People donate food and money and we deliver it to the poor," Cindy Anderson said. "A big part of our ministry is to keep the families together. We go into the home and get to know the people. We also give them good quality food. People have a tendency with charity to say, 'Oh, they'll take powdered eggs and powdered milk,' but we give good quality."
Tree of Life members say, however, that their spiritual sharing with the poor is more important than the gift-giving. The group visiting Mexico was in enthusiastic agreement with Joel Ley, a minister in Tijuana and one of their guides, who spoke as the bus crossed the border at San Ysidro.
"Some people thought that you were getting out of a sermon today, but no way," said Ley, 29. "The highest way of serving the Lord is by giving, but giving is not our only mission today. We will give them material things, but we want to give them ourselves. We want to give the word of our Lord, Jesus Christ."
"How do you say 'Jesus loves you' in Spanish?" someone shouted from the back of the bus.
"Cristo te ama," Ley answered.
"Now we're all set," another person said.
Like Hernandez, the Valley mechanic with a Mexican congregation, Ley has an unusual method of financing his ministry. On Tuesdays and Saturdays he travels from his San Ysidro home to the San Fernando swap meet, where he sells health and beauty products that are made in Mexico.