Southern California has secrets. Unless a person knows her well, So Cal appears worldly and sophisticated—and indeed, she is in many ways. She has, however, an unspoiled and nurturing heart which she hides from glamour-struck outsiders.

Growing up as I did in the Pacific Northwest, my contact with Southern California was limited to nine months our family spent at Loma Linda during my eighth year while my dad finished a physical therapy degree. As I grew up in the gray winters of Oregon, my nostalgic memories of So Cal were shaped by beaches, the scent of orange blossoms, Disneyland, palm trees, smoggy freeways, and huge cities full of tanned, glamorous people with nice cars.

When I returned to So Cal to live as an adult, however, I discovered the “insider’s” Southern California. I was shocked to find that massive, rugged mountains with peaks up to 13,000 feet marched boldly from Los Angeles to Palm Springs. Furthermore, So Cal was not primarily a suburb of Hollywood. Only a few miles outside of Los Angeles there are huge areas devoted to agriculture: flower growers, avocado and citrus groves, dairy farms, truck gardens, and strawberry fields. Not only is there cultivated agriculture, however; acres of unimproved land comprise much of Southern California and are home to eagles, hawks, roadrunners, coyotes, mountain lions, and almost countless rodents and reptiles. These natural fields are brown most of the year, but in the spring they become emerald green, and in years of heavy rain, the hillsides are covered with a gold and purple mosaic of lupines and fiddleneck.

My favorite surprises, though, are the itinerant flocks of sheep that appear every few years to graze in these fields until they nibble away everything edible. Last week a flock of close to 100 sheep appeared in the undeveloped foothills just west of our house. We were out walking with our dog Rocky, and as we crested a hill, there before us was a flock of wooly creatures staring at us curiously.

Over the next few days we observed the sheep, their shepherd, and his two border collies from a distance. Today, though, I took my camera on our walk.

The shepherd stays in an old travel trailer parked on top of a hill. Our hunch that he spoke only Spanish was confirmed when Richard approached him to ask if we could photograph his flock. One of his dogs moved instantly between the sheep and us. It stared at us, unmoving, back arched, ready to defend its charges at the slightest command.

The friendly-faced shepherd gave an order in Spanish, and the dog turned and ran, settling into the grass next to the other dog, alert but motionless. With gestures we asked to photograph the man and his sheep (once again I realized how useless my three years of academy German classes are in So Cal!), and he willingly agreed.

And then the most amazing thing happened. The shepherd called out a brief command, and the entire flock of sheep, which had been slowly moving away from us, suddenly turned and walked as one body straight toward us. They did not run; they were not afraid, nor did they seem restless or confused. When they were about ten feet away, they stopped as if on cue and looked at us.

They remained where they were, now and then reaching down to bite off a chew of grass or moving out of each other’s way, but they did not wander off. I happily snapped pictures, and finally I motioned for the shepherd (who communicated to us that he was from Peru) to come with his staff and pose with his flock.

Finished, we thanked the man, marveling not only at the obediently motionless but watchful dogs, but especially at the instant and knowing response of that entire flock of sheep when the shepherd called out his command.

“The sheep know the Shepherd’s voice,” Richard paraphrased as we turned toward home.

I am humbled by that shepherd’s quiet command of his sheep as well as his sheep dogs. I am also impressed by the dogs’ instant obedience. I am moved, however, by the sheep’s instant response to the shepherd’s voice, by their utter lack of fear when he called them to approach a strange situation. Because he called them, they knew they were safe.

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30)

Southern California hides the secrets of her unspoiled heart —but they are the secrets of God. To those willing to see, He reveals them—including the miracle of being safe with the Shepherd. —Colleen Tinker, editor

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