By Marv Knox
Greetings from the U.S.-Mexico border, where a Fellowship Southwest team recently crossed back and forth—meeting both refugees and those who serve them; listening to their stories; and thinking and dreaming and praying about how we can help them.
Our hearts are full of grief, glory and gratitude as we process all we saw and heard. We grieve for the refugees—for the violence and suffering that prompted them to flee their homelands. We basked in the glory of saints who sacrifice to minister to them in Jesus’ name, day after week after month. We felt grateful for how God is working even through this horrible crisis to bring people to faith by experiencing the love of Jesus.
The border churches with which we partner reach out in love to provide shelter, food, clothing and, more importantly, Christian hope to refugees. They’re not going to stop. This crisis—and, by God’s grace, ministry opportunity—has no end in sight. But for now, we want to tell you about the people whose lives intersected ours on the border this week.
Meet the pastors
In Brownsville, Carlos Navarro, pastor of Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville for 26 years, has developed a major immigrant respite center in the church’s building. It’s impressive. The place is spotless. Supply rooms are well-stocked with everything labeled and ready to use. The volunteers are well trained. On the day we visited, a researcher from Princeton University was there to work with the staff to study the impact of trauma on the resilience of children.
IB West Brownsville has ministered to more than 3,200 immigrants. “We’re not just feeding them; we’re sharing the gospel,” Pastor Carlos said, describing the church’s migrant ministry from the practical to the eternal.
“Hygiene is the No. 1 issue,” he explained. They have served over 3,000 people and have had no disease outbreaks, not even lice. “No. 2, we treat everyone with dignity and respect. We may not approve of the way they came here, but everyone has got to eat. And No. 3, we make sure everyone who comes here is presented with the gospel. … When they get to heaven, there will be no borders, no papers, no skin color.”
“This has been the best thing that could happen in my ministry,” he added. “This is the best thing that has happened to our church.”
Pastor Rogelio Perez of Iglesia Bautista Capernaum in Brownsville crosses the border into Matamoros to serve breakfast alongside members of his small congregation. Two days a week, they bring 200 tacos to immigrants who would have nothing to eat were it not for the kindness of strangers. And because they’re sensitive to others and have observed most Cuban immigrants don’t care for tacos, they also pack 70 sandwiches.
Pastor Perez demonstrates the sanctified frugality of saints on the border: For $1,000, they can provide 400 meals a week for three weeks.
We experienced a pleasant surprise when we bumped into Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, on the sidewalk outside Catholic Charities’ respite center in McAllen, where many CBF volunteers have worked across the months.
She demonstrated the changing nature of immigration policy as she described changes she’s planning to make in Catholic Charities’ ministry. The respite center is located in the prime location—across the street from the McAllen bus station. For months, throngs of immigrants have bustled through the center, waiting in the city to be processed in their quest for asylum. Now, the U.S. government forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico. So, Sister Norma is figuring out how to load food and supplies on trucks and provide CC’s ministry across the Rio Grande, in Matamoros and Reynosa.
In the respite center, we visited with Baptist Pastor Victor Ramirez, one of Fellowship Southwest’s key partners in the Valley, demonstrating ecumenical cooperation. He’s recruited four congregations to cook, deliver and serve lunch at the center. So, Baptists stand on Catholic turf every Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, demonstrating Christian harmony and feeding hungry refugees.
After we left McAllen, we drove up the border, where we met Lorenzo Ortiz in Laredo. Pastor Lorenzo has been one of our heroes for a long time because of his loving heart and sacrificial spirit. When his former church fired him because he wouldn’t quit ministering to refugees, his family started serving them out of their home. More than 6,000 immigrants passed through their house in three months, and they served all of them from their own kitchen. We stood in that kitchen; it’s small. But with faith the size of a mustard seed and a tiny kitchen, Lorenzo and Oralia Ortiz have done great things.
For them, the refugee crisis is a divine opportunity, he said. “If we share the gospel now, we can change the future,” he explained. “We help people seek God, and we tell them, ‘he will bless you out.’”
Because the government policy changes have moved the flow of people into Mexico, the Ortizes’ kitchen is quiet, and their yard is populated by dogs, not immigrants. So now, he supports four immigrant shelters in Nuevo Laredo.
We also met another pastor we won’t identify. His church—small, immaculate and obviously poor—sits near a house that stands out in the neighborhood because of its opulence in the midst of poverty. It belongs to a cartel leader. In a hushed voice, the pastor pulled out his cell phone and showed us a newspaper story. It described how the cartels recently kidnapped and murdered a pastor. They sent a message to other pastors, telling them refugees are a “revenue stream” for the cartels, which capture them and hold them for ransom. Now, the churches are expected to pay the cartels for each immigrant they shelter. Or else. The dead pastor is the exclamation point behind the “or else.”
Across the river from Eagle Pass, Pastor Israel Rodriguez picked us up and showed us the two shelters operated by Primera Iglesia Bautista in Piedras Negras, where they care for 140 refugees every night. In addition to providing two meals a day, PIB also leads worship every evening, and they average 35 professions of faith in Christ per night. Last year, they baptized 28 immigrants into their fellowship.
I first learned about Pastor Israel years ago, when he launched cell-group Bible studies that enabled PIB to evangelize and disciple people all across Piedras Negras. Now, his compassion for immigrants and fervor for the gospel are impacting a steady flow of people from Central and Latin America.
Meet the immigrants
Our team met immigrants up and down the Rio Grande. They have come to the border from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba, Venezuela and even countries in Africa. Here are a few notes about some of them:
One morning, we met many of the 500 camped in downtown Matamoros. They journeyed to the border seeking asylum in the United States. Now, they wait to cross the border to apply for asylum. Then the U.S. government sends them back across the border to wait, which is where we found them, for up to two months. Then they get a hearing, and by most accounts, only 3 percent to 4 percent will be accepted into the United States.
A Salvadoran girl (not pictured) in McAllen broke down in tears when a member of our team asked her about her trip to the United States. On the journey, she had been raped. She had the most beautiful, broken face you can imagine. We wept as our friend prayed for her.
We met Janel Anibal, a youth pastor from Cuba, at a shelter in Nuevo Laredo. He left his homeland intent on seeking asylum in the United States. But in northern Mexico, he already has passed up on a chance at a hearing, in order to remain behind and minister to other refugees. He smiled sheepishly, apologizing for the sweat that dripped down his arms in the stifling kitchen of the un-air-conditioned shelter. Meanwhile, our hearts swelled with gratitude to God for this dedicated, compassionate young man. Pastor Lorenzo already has tapped him to lead that shelter.
Speaking of people we admire, we met Javier Rodriguez at Primera Iglesia Bautista in Piedras Negras. Javier fled Honduras more than a year ago, intent on seeking U.S. citizenship. Along the way, the cartels kidnapped him. They called his family in the United States and drove a rod through his leg, seeking ransom as payment for his release
and an end to his torture. This happened twice before he escaped and found his way to the PIB shelter. There, Christians nursed him to health and Pastor Israel led him to Christ. Javier fell in love with Jesus and with the church. Now, he’s the maintenance director at its school and responsible for its downtown immigrant shelter. He took Mexican citizenship so he can stay right there.
We talked with a young couple in Piedras Negras, with two of the cutest children you ever saw. Their story echoes all along the border. They came from Honduras, and we asked them why they left their homeland. “Corruption,” is the father’s short answer. “Gangs control our country and abuse our people, threatening us with death,” he said. “If we report the gangs to the police, they tell the gangs, and the gangs come to our homes and threaten to kill us if we ever report to the police again,” added the mother. She knows; it happened to her.
Meet our team
Jeni Cook Furr and Ray Furr are Fellowship Southwest’s new volunteer coordinators. They’re recently retired—Jeni from chaplaincy; Ray from business and ministry. They are members of Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio.
Cameron Vickrey edits Fellowship Southwest’s newsletter. She is on the staff of Upward Strategy Group, which helps FSW with advocacy and communication. Cameron is a member of Woodland, where her husband, Garrett, is pastor.
Jorge and Rosa Zapata live in the Rio Grande Valley, where they are members of New Wine Church in LaFeria, Texas, which Jorge planted. He is associate coordinator of CBF Texas and director of FSW’s Immigrant Relief Ministry. Pastor Carlos said of Jorge’s support for IB West Brownsville’s ministry, “An angel appeared from heaven, and his name is Jorge Zapata.”
If you would like to support Fellowship Southwest’s Immigrant Relief Ministry, click here.
Marv Knox is coordinator of Fellowship Southwest and a member of Valley Ranch Baptist Church in Coppell, Texas. Marv also went on this trip. Photos: Cameron Vickrey.