COVID-19 / Fellowship Southwest / immigration

Despite viral pandemic, border pastors persist in ministry to refugees

By Marv Knox

Compassion and concern, faith and fear, respect and resolve crackled across the country as pastors who comprise Fellowship Southwest’s ministry to asylum seekers talked on the phone March 25. They spent almost two hours telling each other about their work with refugees on the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as their concerns for those immigrants, living in the shadow of the coronavirus.

Jorge Zapata, associate coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas and director of FSW’s Immigrant Relief Ministry, organized the call. The pastors represented the breadth of the border: Carlos Navarro of Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville in Brownsville, Texas; Rogelio Pérez of Iglesia Bautista Capernaum in Olmito, Texas; Lorenzo Ortiz of Iglesia Bautista El Buen Samaritano in Laredo, Texas; Israel Rodríguez of Primera Iglesia Bautista in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico; Rosalio Sosa, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Tierra de Oro in El Paso, Texas; and Juvenal González, a church starting leader in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico.

In addition to Zapata, others participating in the call were Shon Young, associate pastor of City Church in Del Rio, Texas, and chair of the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, and Elket Rodríguez, CBF’s immigrant and refugee advocacy specialist.

The pastors described their ministries to asylum seekers and told how the coronavirus has impacted them—through both the threat of COVID-19 and the partial closure of the border. They talked about their need for prayer, and they discussed other needs as well.

Border ministry: adaptable, faithful

From the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, they told their stories:

  • Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville’s immigrant respite center “has been completely shut down until further notice,” Carlos Navarro reported. IBWB’s center typically serves asylum seekers who have been living in the huge tent camp in Matamoros and have entered the United States to live with sponsors while awaiting a final court date. The center provides showers, clean clothes, a meal, goodie bags for the long bus rides, and Christian love.
02 Navarro

Carlos Navarro, pastor of Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville in Brownsville, Texas

“The government is not releasing asylum seekers,” Navarro said. “The city of Brownsville has closed our respite center.”

The church continues to monitor the local bus station, where volunteers provide food to immigrants. But that traffic has almost ceased, he noted.

The church often takes food and supplies across Gateway International Bridge, to the immigrant camp in Matamoros. But while U.S. citizens can cross the bridge into Mexico, they cannot directly contact the immigrants.

Still, the church’s partners living in the camp have asked that the ministry continue.

“The ladies in Matamoros say: ‘Don’t stop bringing food and supplies. Leave them on the sidewalk or park benches.’ Leaders in the group decide how to do the distribution now,” Navarro said.

“Nobody has died (of COVID-19) in this area yet, but a teacher in (nearby) Rio Hondo has the disease and has been distributing food to the kids” he added, noting fear of the virus-borne disease has spread through the camp. “Every day, we have to play by ear; every day, we have to listen to what’s happening.”

  • Iglesia Bautista Capernaum, which was launched as a mission of IB West Brownsville, started feeding refugees in the Matamoros camp when it was a tiny cluster of tents, Rogelio Pérez said.

Rogelio Pérez, Pastor of Iglesia Bautista Capernaum

“About a year and a half ago, there were 20 to 30 refugees in Matamoros,” Pérez explained. “We started by taking 30 to 40 tacos across the border, twice a week. … Lately, we’ve been taking more than 120 tacos and more than 200 sandwiches to the (refugee) families.”

Every Tuesday and Thursday, IB Capernaum members fill five large wagons with clothes, diapers and wipes, other supplies, and the tacos and sandwiches, and walk them across the bridge. Now, they can deliver supplies, but they cannot get near the refugees, he lamented.

They have been working with Gladys Cañas, who lives in Matamoros and whose nonprofit, Helping Them Succeed, operates from a storefront adjacent to the camp. Rather than delivering twice-weekly, the church has stocked Cañas with enough supplies for a month—just in case the border closes completely.

  • When the border closed last Friday night, Lorenzo Ortiz deliberately stayed in Mexico rather than return to Laredo. The U.S. and Mexican governments later clarified the travel policy, and he learned he can cross the border, but he spends most of his time in northern Mexico.

Lorenzo Ortiz

Ortiz’s ministry started about three years ago, when a wave of Cuban refugees showed up. Then immigrants from other countries began arriving, and then the huge caravan of Central American refugees flooded the border in 2018. Ortiz adapted along the way to serve those who came.

“We got massive amounts of migrants; it was pretty hard for us,” Ortiz mentioned.

Now, Ortiz operates three immigrant shelters—two in Nuevo Laredo, where Fellowship Southwest recently bought washers, dryers, tables and chairs, and another in Saltillo. “We’re feeding them three meals a day, plus providing legal information—how to fill out the form for asylum,” he said. “It’s a struggle. Some of the older ones don’t know how to read or write.”

Ortiz shelters about 200 refugees in the three facilities, but the ministry reaches many others. Fearful of the Mexican cartels, whose business plans include kidnapping refugees and holding them for ransom, he tries desperately to keep immigrants off the streets. So, he transports them—some to Monterey every day, two and a half hours from Nuevo Laredo, and sometimes some to Saltillo, four hours away.

This week, Ortiz witnessed a reverse human tug-of-war: “Mexican immigration didn’t want the migrants to wait (in Nuevo Laredo) because of the virus. So, they sent them to the middle of the bridge, but the U.S. didn’t want them on the bridge. So, they sent them back.”

Fear spawned that situation, and fear is spreading, even as caregivers choke it down and seek to remain helpful, he said.

“It’s not just the migrant families in Nuevo Laredo, but the church, too. We are taking seriously the health issue, because we know we can get infected, too,” he said. “They’re scared, but now they are being needed. … So, the crisis is getting worse, and we’re the only ones who can do this type of work. … God is providing for the needs we have.”

  • Primera Iglesia Bautista in Piedras Negras started serving immigrants two years ago, Israel Rodríguez said. “We provide food, shelter, medical care, psychological attention and spiritual guidance.”

Israel Rodríguez, Pastor of Primera Iglesia Bautista in Piedras Negras

The church shelters 50 immigrants in its downtown facility and another 25 at its suburban location. Teams of church members maintain the ministry, serving three meals a day, with funds provided by a family foundation working with Fellowship Southwest.

Last year, Primera served 4,300 immigrants, and 120 of them made professions of faith in Christ, he reported. Some of them decided to seek residency in Mexico rather than the United States and have joined the church.

“Now that the border has closed, (remaining immigrants) are desperate,” Rodríguez said. “They don’t know what to do. They don’t know what’s next for their lives. … The city government has asked us to try to convince the migrants to return to their countries. But they don’t want to go back. No matter what, they want to come to the U.S.”

Meanwhile, they are self-quarantining, because they fear the coronavirus. “They are afraid to go outside,” he said.

  • In the state of Chihuahua, across from El Paso, Rosalio Sosa helps coordinate the ministry of 14 immigrant shelters, mostly in Juarez, but also as far away as Palomas, about 100 miles west into the desert.

In the past week, the ministry moved its distribution center from a rented building, which had been burglarized, into the church.


Rosalio Sosa

Meanwhile directors of the shelters are “taking very good care” of about 4,000 immigrants who live there, Sosa said. In addition to supplying safety and meals, the immigrant relief network there is providing education for the refugee children, he added.

The refugee population in Chihuahua has grown, for at least a couple of reasons, he said. First, immigrants who have been living in other places—such as Nogales and Sonora—have been told their next asylum hearings will be in Juarez. Second, U.S. immigration authorities have released asylum seekers from detention centers. “Something is happening,” he said. “About 180 were released into Juarez last week.”

“We have a lot of coordination with the nongovernmental organizations operating shelters in Juarez and Palomas,” Sosa said. “Also, we are tight; I have a very good relationship with the municipalities and state—as well as the national guard in the area.”

Currently, “we do not have any cases of the virus—only allergies,” he reported. “We are taking steps to clean all our shelters.”

While one U.S. nonprofit partner plans to stop sending food because of COVID-19, “we are getting food from the government shelter,” he noted, adding he has wired funds for food to partners in Juarez and Palomas.

Sosa has not had trouble crossing from El Paso into Juarez. But a border guard at Palomas threatened not to allow him back into the United States if he traveled into Mexico. “I’m aware I can go” into Mexico, he said. “This was not an official denial, but the person there at the border.” He has requested a letter from a U.S. senator that would verify his right to cross back and forth.

  • In Tijuana, right by the Pacific Ocean, Juvenal González is leaning on the truth of the prophet Habakkuk. “‘The Lord will provide,’” he said. “That’s what we feel is happening.”

Juvenal González

González oversees operation of two shelters, which are home to about 130 refugees in Tijuana. But his claim of faith has taken on additional significance in the wake of the pandemic and subsequent border shutdown.

Now, González is seeking to support about 25 church planters and their families. These families are particularly vulnerable. The pastors are bivocational, but their church and secular incomes have been curtailed. Since only U.S. citizens can cross the border, many of their members whose jobs are in San Diego and usually cross on tourist visas cannot go to work. And since factories and other employers in Mexico are closing down or slowing production because of the virus, they either cannot go to work or only work very few days themselves.

“This is going to be hard for the church,” he said. “Now that the border is closed, we’re trying to serve both the local people (the pastors) and also the migrant people. I don’t know how we’re going to do it.” Fellowship Southwest is sending funds to help González feed both the immigrants and the pastors and their families.

“We’re committed to provide them with rice, beans, cooking oil and eggs, maybe pancakes to feed their families,” he said.

As with the ongoing supplies for the immigrant ministry, those groceries will come from San Diego. So, González crosses the border almost every day, bringing provisions when he returns.

Prayer requests from the border

Before getting off the phone, the border pastors shared their prayer requests and described their needs:

  • “Pray for wisdom,” Navarro said. “If I’m infected, I might infect someone else. Pray for wisdom. Pray for us and support us and pray to God that we can operate in a professional way and also to spread the gospel.”
  • “Pray for the refugees,” Pérez added. “They are desperate. If they cannot cross (the border legally), some will cross the river. The other day, a family almost drowned.

“And pray for our volunteers as they cross the border and as they try to serve safely.”

  • “Pray for us, that if we get infected, God will help us go through this and use our lives to share the gospel and continue to help the immigrant families,” Ortiz asked.
  • Rodriguez requested prayer for materials in short supply because of the virus. “The greatest need we have right now is for masks, hygiene kits and disinfectant. We cannot get liquid soap, which is needed for the refugees.”

“Also, pray for the volunteers from our church, who are taking care of the refugees,” he added. “We cannot get masks and gloves. They fear for their lives.”

  • Sosa echoed those requests. He also has been ill—not related to the coronavirus—and asked for prayer for strength to keep up the pace of ministry.

“And pray for wisdom to continue doing God’s work,” he added. “I’m very happy, because 90 to 95 percent of the immigrants are receiving Jesus Christ.”

  • “Pray for a green light to go into Mexico. Pray for the pastors, that we will take the gospel out,” González said. “Also pray for us as we receive about 1,000 hygiene boxes from Baptist World Relief, a project planned about a month ago. We want to take them to the migrants—to provide hand sanitizers, toothpaste, cleaning and personal supplies.”

Finally, words of hope

Before they finished their conversation, the border pastors expressed confidence in God’s provision—even while serving some of the world’s most vulnerable people, even during one of the most trying times in memory. Among their comments …

“We’re not going to stay home,” González said. “We’re going to work with our neighbors in preaching Christ. … I believe this is a great time for the church.”

“We understand God is in control, and we have to share the gospel, share hope, bring light to the people,” Ortiz insisted, reflecting the sentiments of the others. “We can’t stop; I can’t stop.”

Marv Knox is coordinator of Fellowship Southwest. He listened in on the border pastors’ call.

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