By Blake Tommey
When thousands of Central American migrants flooded into Tijuana in November 2018, a team of leaders from across Fellowship Southwest hit the ground with them, including Jorge Zapata, associate coordinator of Missions and Hispanic Ministries for CBF Texas. Zapata and his team—Marv Knox, coordinator of Fellowship Southwest; Rubén Ortiz, CBF Latino field coordinator; and Glen Foster, coordinator of CBF West—met with families seeking asylum. They were crammed into makeshift camps across the city, many living in tents.
“That was an eye-opener,” Zapata said.
Amid the chaos, they began partnering with Juvenal Gonzalez, a church starter with the San Diego Southern Baptist Association, to construct showers and feed breakfast to nearly 500 migrants each morning, in partnership with local congregations. For the past nine months, however, Zapata has extended his ministry eastward along the United States’ southern border, where the U.S. and Mexican governments are now dispersing migrant families away from Tijuana, he said.
“Because there were so many migrants and more were coming in, the Mexican government started shifting people along the border and asked me if we could help get evangelical churches on the Mexican side of the border to open their church facilities as shelters,” Zapata explained.
Zapata stepped in as the lead organizer for Fellowship Southwest and met with Mexican congregations and government agencies along the border. Starting in Piedras Negras, he began teaching pastors how to work with the U.S. and Mexican governments, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and how to receive refugees at their church facilities. Their first and last responsibility, he explained, is simply to protect migrants and provide for their basic needs, including bedding, showers and regular meals. In between, church leaders work with families to determine the status of their asylum claims and plan travel, if necessary.
Ironically, Zapata noted, the churches that opened their doors primarily represent communities living in poverty, with few resources to extend to migrants. That’s why Fellowship Southwest continues to contribute grants to Mexican congregations to support the feeding and housing of migrants in San Diego-Tijuana, Piedras Negras, El Paso-Juarez and Brownsville-Matamoros, depending upon support from congregations and individuals across the Fellowship.
“The strong churches didn’t open their doors; it was the poor churches, because they know what poverty is about and what it feels like to be a migrant,” Zapata said.
“We started responding because these churches didn’t have money to feed the migrants they were sheltering—especially on the Mexican side. But they saw a need and responded, so we started helping financially, sending offerings every two months. They call me when they’re running short. It’s been a heavy load on the local church. But since October 2018, Fellowship Southwest has responded through offerings to local churches to feed families and children on both sides of the border.”
Eventually, strain sets in for even the most compassionate and responsive congregations, Zapata explains, especially when multiple families are residing in a church. Many congregations lost members in divisive disputes. Utility bills more than tripled. One congregation pays $150 a week for trash service alone. Day-to-day, a church must provide three meals, soap, toilet paper, bedding, you name it, he said, right down to bottles of Gatorade for dehydrated arrivals.
Nevertheless, as of August 2019, 17 congregations are feeding and housing migrants in Juarez, with seven hosting in El Paso. Many more open their doors every day in Brownsville, Matamoros, Laredo, Reynosa and Tijuana. Fellowship Southwest is building infrastructure to support American congregations that want to partner in serving migrants and experience a different perspective, Zapata said. While migration breeds political division and resentment in most parts of the United States, he explained, it requires partnership and cooperation along the border, where churches and government agencies work in tandem every day to protect migrants.
“I try to remind people that folks who live in Dallas or other big cities in the U.S. don’t see what we see, don’t live what we live,” he said. “It was non-stop. It was like a tidal wave coming in, over and over. Everybody’s being fed by the news, and I don’t care if it’s Fox or CNN. People are going to hate immigrants and people are going to hate the administration we have right now. We don’t work through politics. We work through the body of Christ, and we want to protect the refugees. We’re not here to march against Border Patrol or the ICE facilities. We’re working alongside people because they need our help.”
Because U.S. government funding cannot extend across the border, Mexican congregations in particular depend on partners like Fellowship Southwest to continue hosting migrants, Zapata explained. Congregations and individuals can sustain their work by praying and giving to Fellowship Southwest at fellowshipsouthwest.org. More specifically, Mexican congregations are constantly in need of fresh clothing, underwear and shoelaces for arriving adults and children.
This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of fellowship! magazine, the quarterly publication of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Read online here and subscribe for free to fellowship! and CBF’s weekly e-newsletter fellowship! weekly at www.cbf.net/subscribe.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is a Christian Network that helps people put their faith to practice through ministry efforts, global missions and a broad community of support. The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission. Learn more at www.cbf.net.