In the mid-1900s, my grandfather was a highly successful farmer. He grew tomatoes and a number of other crops in the Covina and West Covina area of Los Angeles county, a place with rich soil that can grow just about anything if you can get water to it. When World War II hit, he was not drafted because he was helping feed the war effort and the country through his daily labors.
When a Japanese neighbor was detained and sent by declaration of Roosevelt to live in an internment camp, my grandfather farmed his land too, keeping their bills paid, and keeping their land from being sold off to greedy speculators. He wasn’t alone in doing that, it was the Christian thing to help your actual neighbor when they encounter injustice. He had also gone to Biola, and his faith was a driving factor in his life.
When the war ended, and the Japanese neighbors returned to their land along with everyone else returning home, my grandfather continued to farm his own land, becoming one of the largest growers for Hunts. He did what was right and found bounty.
It was a lot of land and a lot of work, which he couldn’t do alone. The war effort and then the population boom meant there was an insatiable need for laborers to work the fields. In 1942, the same year that Japanese-Americans were interned, the US instituted a number of laws and agreements with Mexico called the bracero program.
Migrant workers would help with the crops. While they were needed because almost all the healthy young men were fighting the war or had been interned or otherwise taken away, these workers were often not treated well.
Not just in California, of course, as laborers are rarely treated with honor at home or away, and they were so desperate for work they were willing to move a long way from home simply to provide for their families. People put up with a lot of injustice by oppressors when they need to eat and provide housing.
My grandfather got to know these men, and their families. He learned Spanish, and the more he worked alongside them (he was no absentee manager), he got to know their stories, their hopes, their sins, their dreams, their hurts. He developed a heart for the braceros, started a church, and gave them places of participation and respect.
In the 1950s, a series of repeated weather events over the course of several years, caused my grandfather to lose his farm.
He could do all the work possible, do it as well and as efficiently as anyone, but weather is weather, and crops that are destroyed by hail or flood can’t just be replaced. It’s a loss. When the margins are thin, and the devastation comes in waves, the loss is too much.
He lost his farm, but along the way had found his mission. Rather than getting back into farming, he focused on his church, and started a training center, a Bible college, to train braceros in becoming ministers.
Because of my mom’s polio, he did not move to Mexico, instead starting the Instituto Evangelico in La Puente, California. In addition to leading this, he and my grandmother made repeated trips to Mexico, establishing churches, training leaders, preaching the Gospel. They knew him as Macario Mendoza. That was the man he became in the pursuit of God’s mission. He became himself a migrant field worker of the Gospel.
Life in the fields gave him dark skin, and his commitment and facility with language gave him a native level fluency in Spanish. When I was young, I think I assumed he was Mexican, inasmuch as I thought of it, which I didn’t really.
My grandmother would often babysit me while she did the bookkeeping, and I have a lot of memories hanging out at the Institute, as we called it.
It was just life for me, hanging out in a Spanish speaking Bible college in La Puente. Not just there, it was part of my family culture. Homemade tamales and churros, Spanish just part of the background conversations, people with dark skin, and light skin, and skin in between, speaking different languages, and from different parts of the world, all sharing a mission.
By the time I was born, his ministry was his life. I didn’t really have a grandpa, truth be told, not in the way so many others did, since I only spent time with him on holiday afternoons in between his church events.
It bothered me for a while, but now realize how much he had committed his life to men and women the rest of society often ignored. He poured into that as he had previously poured into farming.
He was committed to his mission, to his ministry, to the braceros and their successors as laws and labels changed over the years.
At his funeral in February 2013, I didn’t have much to say, but there were many who did, almost all in Spanish, about how his life brought light and life to them.
Many of them even expressed sadness and apologies to us, knowing that he had focused all his energy elsewhere so that he didn’t have any left for grandkids or family.
I missed knowing him, missed having a grandpa, but hearing how his life was poured out in bringing fruit to their lives wasn’t just helpful for me, it is what continues to resonate.
He had lost the farm, but found a mission. It wasn’t all easy and there were certainly missteps. Some big missteps as the pressures of ministry grew and he was lured into wrong directions.
The way of ministry in those days encouraged minimizing family life and indulging all sorts of busyness. The need to pay bills and develop leaders caused my grandpa to indulge in what I now see as anxious frenzy, a frenzy which drove me farther away from connecting with him when I was beginning my own forays into ministry.
Everyone gets to the age where they have a lot of questions they’d ask their grandparents, only to find that it’s now too late. Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking especially about my grandpa and all that I’d ask him now and all that I’d like to share with him. I’d like to know what it was like for him when he lost all his work and how he prayed to God when his farm was gone, even though he was a great farmer and loved farming with all his being.
I’d like to know what spurred him to start something new, how he gathered people in support, how he navigated all the politics and pressures.
I’d like to pray with him, just once not at a family meal, and ask him to pray for me. Because I’ve lost my farm. I found out recently that I don’t have a job after June. We’re not sure what we’re going to do.
Despite my best work, despite doing things as well as I possibly can and getting extremely positive results from teaching and writing, I don’t know where I’ll be working in July.
It wasn’t the weather, it was ‘budgets’ and I was among the vulnerable whose job was at the mercy of the privileged. I’m not alone, to be sure, but getting booted tends to be a very isolating and anxiety inducing experience. My grandpa certainly wasn’t the only one to lose his farm in that weather, but he had to carry the weight of the loss, the confusion of it all, and the need to find a new direction. I’d like to ask him about that, since if I’m not mistaken he was about my age when he started the Institute.
Rather than indulging anxiety, I’m seeking faith, seeing how my experiences are calling me deeper and further into the mission the Spirit has given me. I have a PhD in theology, have 3 books published, one book coming out this year, and two books on contract. For some, these are markers to walk in ever more hallowed halls and converse with ever more esteemed people.
But I was told I don’t have a job. They weren’t obligated to keep me on, and so there isn’t a commitment to me or what I’m doing. It’s business. I’m collateral damage. The storm hit, then another.
I’ve lost the farm but haven’t quite found the mission.
Maybe I am called to teach and train pastors in Southern California. Maybe I’m called to start my own church and lead in other ways there. Both are in my genes. I’m seeing that more and more. It’s the where and the how that’s currently confusing.
Rather than seeing myself in isolation, I’m taking inspiration from my grandfather after he lost his farm and found his mission. My parents have similar experiences, great loss in their early 40s thrusting them into new directions where they work with those society often ignores. It’s not celebrated work, without a lot of acclaim by those with fancy titles and wearing fancy robes, but I think it’s the kind of work that the Spirit moves within.
I’m a Californian and have a family history of educated laborers, where loss and challenge seems a regular part of the story. My calling is to empower women and men for ministry, so that in the church and well outside the church, they express the fullness of the Spirit’s work in their life so their life resonates deeply and broadly with the work of Christ wherever they go.
Maybe I’ll stay in teaching and teach those who are in the mix of ministry. Maybe I’m being called to get into the mix myself. At this point, I don’t know and anxiety tugs at my heart and soul and mind each day to give up and shut up.
But I won’t give up. This history, these experiences, this constant experience living on the edge of anxiety and hope has helped me become a better teacher and more creative writer. I suspect, even am willing to risk everything in believing it, that God knows what he is doing and that I am called to press on in faith and diligence in the tasks before me.
I think my grandpa Merle, Macario Mendoza, would be proud if I keep doing this. And I look forward to the day we can compare stories of loss and faith and bountiful crops.