By Elket Rodríguez
COVID-19 has transformed Fellowship Southwest’s immigrant relief ministries all along the U.S.-Mexico border. Among the pastors who guide the effort, some are reinventing their ministries, others have identified new service opportunities, and still others have suffered losses and obstacles that put their work at risk.
Yet they demonstrate resiliency only achieved through God’s grace and mercy. The pandemic has delivered more work, but more opportunities. It has created more challenges, but more paths for God to bless them and their ministries.
Rosalio Sosa, who operates 14 immigrant shelters in the state of Chihuahua, across from El Paso, sees the pandemic as a blessing in disguise.
“There is a saying in Mexico, ‘The load makes the donkey walk,’” noted Sosa, who was an entrepreneur before becoming a pastor. Now, he coordinates Red de Albergues Migrantes (the Migrant Shelter Network) which is home to more than 2,400 refugees in Ciudad Juarez and Palomas, a town 100 miles west into the desert.
He’s launching four businesses to encourage migrants who live in the Mexico 68 shelter in Juarez to generate their own income. “I’m furnishing a structure and a kiosk that will allow four Cuban migrant families to start their own businesses,” Sosa explained. In the back of the building, a seamstress will make facemasks and cell-phone covers, and in the front, immigrants will sell used tools and machines the community donates.
“Outside the building, a young Cuban couple will make pizzas in a wood-fire oven,” he said. “Another Cuban couple will sell medicinal smoothies in a kiosk in the morning, and in the afternoon, another family will sell tacos.”
Sosa’s ministry has been blessed with educated, talented and eager Cuban migrants who want to prosper, he said. Eighty percent of the Cuban immigrants who live in shelters want to stay in Mexico, and they are excited to showcase their talents, he added.
“That community loves Cubans,” Sosa reported. “We know this is going to be a success. Sometimes, you just show them how to fish. They just need a boost to keep going.”
Meanwhile, in the Palomas shelter, across from Columbus, N.M., unaccompanied children continue to be turned back to Mexico by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“We are very eager to help (the children and the Mexican government), but we don’t have enough resources, because children require special attention, and they tend to stay a little longer,” Sosa acknowledged.
Once again, Cuban migrants have stepped up, offering talent and ability.
María Rodríguez is a nurse who was two months shy of becoming a doctor in Cuba. She arrived at the Palomas shelter in February, along with her daughter Yinet Pérez, a certified accountant, and her grandson Christian. They are the backbone of the Palomas shelter, Sosa stressed
“Miss Mary and Yinet are a gift of God,” he said. “Miss Mary is the director of unaccompanied children in the shelter. She does ointments that work miracles. Even people from the town of Palomas visit her. Yinet teaches and entertains the children. She also keeps a strict record of everything in the shelter.”
Meanwhile, 690 miles southeast of Palomas, in the border town of Nuevo Laredo, Lorenzo Ortiz remains tenaciously committed to immigrants in his care. He operates three shelters, including one in Saltillo, deeper into Mexico, where 200 refugees live.
His ministry faces three main obstacles: the menace of the cartels, pressure from the government and diminishing support from local churches.
“The cartels are inspecting everyone who travels with us in the van,” Ortiz said. This week, they kidnapped a father and his son, who were waiting for their U.S. asylum hearings. Because of the U.S. Migrant Protection Protocols—also known as MPP or the “Remain in Mexico” policy, they waited in Northern Mexico.
The cartels have expanded kidnapping as a revenue stream, because fewer immigrants try to cross the Rio Grande to get into the United States, a transit business they control. They used to not kidnap MPP migrants,” he said.
The state of Tamaulipas also is pressuring Ortiz to close the two refugee shelters he operates in Nuevo Laredo, even if it means leaving immigrants on the streets at the mercy of the cartels.
“The Tamaulipas government suggested to close down the shelters,” he said. “They haven’t given us any alternative to closing. They used to leave (immigrants) vulnerable on the streets, and cartels used to kidnap them. That’s why churches jumped in to help them.”
Ortiz also is not sure if local churches will continue to assist his ministry as the pandemic continues. Pastors and church members are losing their jobs, and pandemic fear has spread through the community.
“We are not having the same support from local churches anymore,” he said. “I believe migrant families are the most vulnerable because they are more exposed to being kidnapped by the cartels.”
In Piedras Negras, Pastor Israel Rodriguez from Primera Iglesia Bautista operates the only remaining immigrant shelter in the city. The government recently raided the city’s other shelters and transported more than 300 immigrants inland to Monterrey.
“There were three shelters in this city, but last week, the government decided to deport immigrants who were not allowed to be in Mexico,” Rodriguez said. “No migrant is allowed to be in Piedras Negras right now. They have police safeguarding the borders of the city.”
The shelter now houses 18 migrants who belong to four families. All are seeking asylum under the MPP program.
“The authorities told them have the right to be here,” Rodriguez said. “We are trying to help them get a job. Most of them want to stay in Piedras Negras, work and make a living here”.
In Tijuana, close to the Pacific Ocean, Pastor Juvenal González is struggling to encourage and comfort pastors and migrants alike.
“Migrants feel like this is the end of their journey. Pastors are worried with the uncertainty as the pandemic keeps prolonging,” he noted. “The pastors are still concerned, trying to figure out where this is going to take them as their church members are losing their jobs, too.”
González operates two shelters in Tijuana, where 120 migrants.
Recent weeks have been difficult for González. Two Mexican pastors with whom he worked died in circumstances that could be COVID-19-related. Pastor Damian Baltazar from Mexicali and Pastor Pedro Guape from Iglesia Bautista Emauz died quickly after visiting the hospital.
“I was astonished at how many funeral cars I saw coming out of the hospital when I was supporting Pedro Guape’s family with clothes and food,” González said. “It is a matter of uncertainty the extent of the COVID-19 spread in Tijuana. The Mexican government is not informing about this.”
González’s wife, a nurse who works in a San Diego hospital, is quarantined in their U.S. home.
Near the gulf of Mexico, Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville has given “another twist to the ministry,” Pastor Carlos Navarro reported. With its immigrant respite center shut down by the city, the church feeds the homeless.
“We are the only church serving them,” Navarro said. “I visit them with my wife three to four times a week to give them burgers or pizza, Gatorade and facemasks. We are serving 27 to 32 people every day.”
The situation has worsened for the homeless, since restaurants are not operating, and they cannot glean food from trash cans.
IB West Brownsville will continue to provide food to the homeless during pandemic, Navarro said. And the respite center is set to reopen May 11, when it will continue assisting asylum seekers with meals, showers and clean clothes.
IB West Brownsville also would take food and other essential supplies across the Gateway International Bridge, to refugees living in tent camps in Matamoros. Navarro is set to visit Matamoros to assess needs and determine how to continue serving the immigrant community.
Iglesia Bautista Capernaum, which was a mission of IB West Brownsville, continues sending rice, beans, and sports drinks to two pastors in Matamoros who distribute the food to families in their communities, Pastor Rogelio Pérez reported
“I cross once a week with the food and the supplies, and they come and pick them up,” Pérez said. “What we send helps to feed 400 families a week.”
Before the pandemic hit, IB Capernaum visited the refugee camps in Matamoros once or twice a week and delivered supplies, diapers, clothes, tacos and sandwiches. Now, the church focuses on feeding their community in Brownsville, which has been impacted profoundly by COVID-19.
“Every Monday, we are delivering food to 150 to 160 families,” Pérez said. “Before the pandemic we used to serve 80 families. This has doubled. Most of them are immigrants. They live day by day. They have lost their jobs. People are very needy.”
As the effects of the pandemic continue to impact these ministries, the need for prayer, encouragement and assistance to these pastors becomes all the more necessary and urgent.
Fellowship Southwest provides ongoing financial support to every ministry and every pastor—González, Navarro, Ortiz, Pérez, Rodriguez and Sosa. You can support these pastors and their ministries by donating to Fellowship Southwest Immigrant Relief Ministry by clicking here.
Elket Rodríguez is the immigrant and refugee advocacy and missions specialist for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Fellowship Southwest.