General CBF

“Welcome to the Legion of the Brokenhearted”—Immigrant relief ministry on the border

By Marv Knox, Fellowship Southwest

If the photograph of Oscar Alberto Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria—her tiny body tucked under his T-shirt, arm around his neck, both drowned face-down in the Rio Grande—broke your heart, welcome to the Legion of the Brokenhearted.

PIB Alamo, 1, Brownsville

Primera Iglesia Bautista in Alamo, Texas, which provides food and hygiene kits to asylum seekers huddled on the bridge over the Rio Grande between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico. Photo: Fellowship Southwest

Christians and others of goodwill who minister to immigrant refugees along the Mexico-U.S. border have had our hearts broken practically every day for months.

Fellowship Southwest has adopted immigrant relief ministry as our top priority. We are ecumenical and multicultural, so we are diverse. But besides our faith, we have something in common. We walk around with broken hearts. They beat in sympathy with traumatized refugees—confused and discouraged, many widowed and/or orphaned, often separated from families, children detained from parents—all seeking a safe home.

Whatever you think of the politics of immigration, the genesis of this migration is straightforward: Justifiable fear.

The governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have failed their citizens. They have failed to protect them from gangs, which rule with malevolent impunity. Immigrants’ stories reverberate: Parents flee because they fear their daughters will be raped and their sons forced into the gangs or killed. Decent Christians flee because they cannot afford extortion, and they know a cost will be extracted, perhaps their lives. Of course, some immigrants have journeyed north with impure motives. But they are insignificant compared to all the others, who have risked death on the journey and rejection at the border because staying put means certain peril.

Fellowship Southwest has joined others who minister on the border because, although the politics and demagoguery are enormous, the physical and spiritual need is infinitely greater. This is a political quagmire, but it’s a humanitarian crisis. And Christ’s love compels us to do something about it.

Frustratingly, even figuring out how to respond is vexing.

PIB Alamo, 2

Primera Iglesia Bautista in Alamo, Texas, ministers to asylum seekers on the bridge between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas. They provide food, hygiene kits, blankets when needed and plush toys for the children. Photo: Fellowship Southwest 

This week, I received the latest of many similar emails. A gracious volunteer just wants “to go down there and love on those babies”—the separated children she’s seen on the news. That’s not going to happen. Only federal agents and employees of outsourced service providers have access to those children.

Beyond that, the old adage, “you had to be there” is true for other forms of access to immigrants. Groups with long histories in the region—such as Catholic Charities in border cities and the Interfaith Welcome Coalition in San Antonio—have provided effective ministries to asylum seekers in their communities. In most cases, these immigrants are processed by the U.S. government. Then they receive shelter, food, help with transportation and sometimes trauma care before they head elsewhere to live with their sponsors as they await a court date to learn their fate.

Similar ministries are coming online. Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square, a multi-faith coalition, has created Dallas Responds, a volunteer humanitarian effort to shelter immigrants and help them reach their U.S. sponsors. A group in the Rio Grande Valley, led by Baptists, is putting together an evangelical coalition to operate a respite center for immigrants in McAllen, Texas.

Jorge Zapata

Jorge Zapata, associate coordinator of CBF Texas and director of Fellowship Southwest’s Immigrant Relief Ministry, with a child on the border. Photo: Fellowship Southwest

Fellowship Southwest has invested its time and energy in supporting congregations on both sides of the border. These pastors and laypeople sacrifice their time, energy and money to minister to refugees they find, quite literally, on their doorsteps. Our work is possible because of the faith, passion, commitment and connections of Jorge Zapata, a border native himself, who is associate coordinator of CBF Texas and director of Fellowship Southwest’s Immigrant Relief Ministry.

Jorge knows these congregations—Assemblies of God, Baptists, independents and others—and they trust him. He spends time every week talking with, encouraging, listening to, learning about and praying for these churches and their pastors. Along the way, Jorge tells Fellowship Southwest how we can come alongside them and support their ministries.

Mostly, that means providing funds to enable these churches to shelter, feed and spiritually nurture the refugees. Most of the churches are poor themselves, so their instincts to serve trigger deep sacrifice. Even though the logistics of buttressing them with volunteers has been slow to develop, the generosity of our supporters has ensured the viability of these ministries. For example, thanks to donors, Fellowship Southwest has been able to support:

  • Primera Iglesia Bautista and other Spanish-speaking congregations in Tijuana, Mexico, which provide breakfast and other support to residents of the huge El Barretal immigration camp. We’ve also built showers, so residents no longer hide behind barrels and bathe with water hoses. And we provided rent for 10 families who obtained Mexican work visas, so they could become self-sustaining in their new country.
  • Pastor Lorenzo and Oralia Ortiz in Laredo, Texas, who invited immigrants into their own home when a nearby church decided they no longer could house them. The Ortizes not only provide shelter, they lead in worship, filling stomachs with food and hearts with hope.
  • Iglesia de Dios El Elyon in El Paso, which built showers so immigrants bathe in privacy and dignity. Pastor Osvaldo Valdez and his family lost their home because of the strains of this ministry, and now they live in the church with the immigrants they serve.
  • Primera Iglesia Bautista in Piedras Negras, Mexico, which provides an ongoing feeding and shelter program for refugees seeking asylum and hoping to cross the border into Eagle Pass, Texas.
  • Primera Iglesia Bautista in Alamo, Texas, which provides food and hygiene kits to asylum seekers huddled on the bridge over the Rio Grande between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico.

Other churches and groups that have received Fellowship SW immigrant ministry grants include:

  • Iglesia Vino Nuevo in San Carlos, Texas
  • Iglesia Bautista Tierra de Oro in El Paso
  • San Diego Southern Baptist Association
Ortiz 3

Lorenzo and Oralia Ortiz minister to asylum seekers in Laredo, Texas. When a nearby church decided no longer to sponsor this ministry, they brought them into their own. Photo: Fellowship Southwest 

Our friends also are serving refugees you may not have heard about on your news. For example, a coalition led by City Church in Del Rio, Texas, has been ministering to African refugees—including up to 500 Congolese. These Christian sisters and brothers fled persecution in their homelands. Now, Christians here are providing food, shelter, prayer and encouragement.

Many churches and individuals across CBF and Fellowship Southwest would like to send volunteers to help minister in this immigration crisis. We are exploring ways to develop a volunteer program. To engage the process and/or get sign up to receive information as it becomes available, contact mknox@cbf.net.

We know asking for money sounds self-serving. Still, the best way to support our ministry to immigrants along the border is by providing funds, which we will channel to the congregations providing direct ministry to asylum-seeking immigrants. Because we cover our overhead with our operations budget, all the money received goes to the Immigrant Relief Ministry. To contribute to this ministry, click here.

Marv Knox is field coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, an ecumenical, multicultural Cooperative Baptist Fellowship network that collaborates alongside CBF organizations in Oklahoma, Texas and the West. He would be happy to hear from you: mknox@cbf.net.

Note: For unique insight into the spiritual lives of Central American immigrants, read Mennonite pastor John Garland’s article, “Fleeing North in the Full Armor of God” in Christianity Today

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