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Helpers without bylines

Some sources are invaluable in helping journalists get the story

Stan and Blanca Lee Sophia Lee

Helpers without bylines
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Sometimes reporting can be lonely work, especially when you’re a print journalist with no companion other than a notebook. Just look at the byline. How many names do you see on there?

But any journalist’s work is only as good as the help he or she finds along the way, and finding that help takes a bit of luck, or in my perspective, God’s providence. Those people who help us journalists—whether it’s through connecting us with sources, feeding us story ideas, or even just listening to us ramble and rant about our latest stories—don’t share the bylines. But they are still there, guiding and inspiring and encouraging the writer behind the words.

God has blessed me with many such helpers in my six years as a full-time journalist, and I’d like to introduce you to the most recent two, Stan Lee and his wife Blanca. Stan and Blanca are missionaries in Tijuana, a Mexican border city near San Diego. They’re in their 60s (both are coy about sharing their exact age) and are founders of Relevant to Cross Ministries, which cooperates with Mexican and U.S. churches to minister to the homeless, deportees, and migrants in Tijuana.

Stan is a former CPA who was born in South Korea but lived in Argentina, New York, and New Jersey. Blanca used to serve Youth With A Mission and was born and raised in Mexico City. They met about three years ago in Tijuana and still act like honeymooners, holding hands often and doing everything together.

Stan originally moved to Tijuana to enjoy his retirement in an affordable city. But he saw that the harvest was plentiful, and soon, just as he was about to snuggle into a comfortable life, he felt God calling him to ministry. Now Stan works part time as a CPA again to fund his ministry work. After all, Jesus promised His yoke would be easy and His burden would be light, but never did He say Christians would be released from all yokes and burdens. And so Stan and Blanca plod on in their ministry, carrying the burden of missions and discipleship.

When I began reporting on the migrant crisis at the southern border, I had no idea where to start—or rather, with whom to start. I didn’t know anyone in Tijuana, and I didn’t speak Spanish (shame on me, after four years of Spanish classes in high school). The first time I visited Tijuana, I brought a Mexican American friend who taught me how to cross the border by foot and who interpreted for me. The second time, the pastor I was supposed to meet never showed up, and I ended up waiting for three hours in a hilly part of town that I later learned was occupied by a drug lord. On my third trip, I met Stan and Blanca through an old church connection and—jackpot!—they’ve been my Tijuana-based colleagues ever since.

I heard Stan before I met him and Blanca. He was yelling on his phone and waving energetically at me from the other side of the road. When he saw the busy street, he bounded across the road to make sure I didn’t try to cross it by myself, then yelled over at his wife to wait for him before weaving back through the traffic, opening up a path for me like Moses parting the sea. That’s Stan, the gentleman. He takes care of his wife the same way, lending her his hand as she climbs out of the car, offering an arm as she walks down the hill, translating our conversation for her in Spanish so she isn’t left out.

I observed him as a helper in other settings, too. Wherever we went, Stan never forgot his primary mission. He always looked for opportunities to evangelize and invite people to a church fellowship: He recruited an Uber driver to help him transport furniture for his ministry. He invited a deportee and his friend to Bible classes. He invited a Honduran migrant family to church.

In the time I’ve gotten to know him, I’ve noticed that Stan doesn’t try to take charge but rather connects people he meets to local churches. He may come up with a ministry idea, such as creating churches for the Central American migrant groups who arrived in caravans to Tijuana, but he then takes a step back so local church leaders can take the lead. He seems to embrace his role as a helper and a bridge, not the main star.

Stan … may come up with a ministry idea, such as creating churches for the Central American migrant groups who arrived in caravans to Tijuana, but he then takes a step back so local church leaders can take the lead.

Over my next four reporting trips to Tijuana, Stan and Blanca were almost always by my side, leading me up and down steep canyons, introducing me to local pastors, and laboring to interpret all my persistent questions and my interviewees’ responses. Blanca speaks little English, so my communication with her has been limited to very basic Spanish phrases, along with the sharing of smiles and pictures of her children and grandchildren. But Stan’s first language is Korean, so he and I mostly converse in Korean, occasionally switching back and forth between Korean and English.

Poor Stan. Interpreting is hard work, especially when you’re trilingual and you’ve got too many languages caroming in your head. Sometimes he gets the languages confused: Once he accidentally spoke Korean to a Haitian pastor and then turned to speak Spanish to me. Another time he spoke English to a Honduran asylum-seeker without realizing it and then patiently waited for the blank-faced man to respond.

“Um, you’re speaking English, not Spanish,” I reminded him. He let out a cry: “Argh! Sophia is really putting me to work!”

Ah well, I never promised that helping me would be easy. I asked Stan and Blanca to sacrifice their time and have given them little but headaches in return. Yet though their names are not on the byline, without them, there would have been no story. So here’s to our helpers with no bylines.

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.



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