By Elket Rodríguez
COVID-19 not only tests the limits of medical care, economic endurance and society’s willpower, but also congregations’ ability to meet burgeoning needs all around them.
Three pastors from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley experience the pandemic’s stress on their churches and communities every day.
Ivan De León of Iglesia Vino Nuevo—New Wine Church—in Donna, Julio Guarneri of Calvary Baptist Church in McAllen and Victor Ramírez of Iglesia Vino Nuevo in San Carlos wake up committed to serving friends and neighbors devastated by the virus. Then they go to bed praying for strength to do it all over again the next day.
For Ramírez, delivering food to hundreds of people is nothing new. His church is located in one of the poorest communities in the United States, where immigrants live scattered in colonias—unincorporated townships that populate the U.S.-Mexico border.
The number of people requesting food assistance grows weekly by 10 percent, Ramírez estimated.
“Food (distribution) service has increased, especially for people from surrounding towns like Palmview, McAllen and Mission,” he explained. “Every Thursday, 500 families … are provided with food baskets. That food should last them for about week.”
Ramírez and New Wine have been able to continue feeding families, thanks to the help of Hearts4Kids, a nonprofit ministry founded by Jorge Zapata, associate coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas. Hearts4Kids is a recipient of CBF Global’s Coronavirus Emergency Relief Fund.
COVID-19’S economic devastation has ravaged families who never needed help from others, and they are looking to New Wine Church for food, Ramírez reported. “If the rich are already coming here, it means the need is reaching there,” he said.
While food can be obtained from local nonprofits for nominal costs, Ramírez’s primary concern is keeping up with operational expenses. Picking up, storing, delivering and distributing food baskets strains the congregation’s modest budget.
The church’s survival, as well as the steady arrival of food for the community, are miracles, Ramírez said. And this would not be possible without the ongoing efforts of more than 40 volunteers who have stepped up to support the ministry, he added. Even so, the feeding program has put other parts of New Wine’s budget, such as the pastor’s salary, the church mortgage and payment of utilities, at risk.
The U.S. government’s economic stimulus checks, distributed nationwide this spring, did not phase New Wine and its community, he said, noting the vast majority of immigrants who live there did not qualify for government aid. Ironically, the community’s immigrant population suffered a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s impact, when agricultural and service-economy workers lost their jobs.
“I know people who have been very affected by not receiving the economic stimulus checks,” he said. “Four immigrant families have lost their land during this pandemic.”
Pastor De León in Donna has faced similar challenges. His congregation is located in the heart of one of the poorest colonias in South Texas.
De León and his New Wine Church distribute food weekly to 150 families in association with Hearts4Kids. Unfortunately, the church’s feeding ministry also has taken a toll on its budget.
“The food ministry is taking 50 percent of our resources, but we are doing more with less,” De León said.
De León often works 12 hours a day to ensure the recollection, classification and delivery of the food to the community.
Also, New Wine members’ financial situations are precarious. Most residents of the immigrant community do not have bank accounts to receive and disburse money electronically, and they cannot financially support the church. Many are unemployed and did not receive economic stimulus funds.
Still, De León expressed confidence in God’s provision. “We see God taking care of us, even when there is no money,” he said. “Through this trial, we will come to know God in a different way.”
Pastor Guarneri and Calvary Baptist Church serve about 15 miles away, in McAllen. Calvary has adapted its benevolence ministry to meet the needs of its community in this “very different and very challenging” time, he said.
Calvary has streamlined the process for supporting its benevolence and food pantry budgets. Even so, “there is less income, but more needs” in the community, Guarneri said.
“The number of families benefiting from our food pantries ministry has increased,” he noted. “We were serving 100 families before the pandemic. Now, we are serving 180.”
Calvary has sponsored several events where it distributed fresh produce through its “farmer to table boxes” initiative. About 200 to 250 families have benefitted, Guarneri said.
Meanwhile, Calvary has assisted members who suffered from the pandemic, including a couple who visit the church, but live in Reynosa, Mexico.
“They used to come and go, but since the (U.S.-Mexico) border has been closed to those with a tourist visa, they are not able to visit our church,” Guarneri said.
The family almost simultaneously lost half its income and welcomed the birth of a baby. Calvary assisted them, as it is helping a church member whose medical expenses have skyrocketed.
These churches are adapting to the realities surrounding their communities. They are caring for people during tumultuous times. They are being the presence of Christ to hurting families in the Rio Grande Valley.
To support the CBF Coronavirus Emergency Relief Fund, which Hearts4Kids has used to help several Valley churches feed their communities, click here.
Elket Rodríguez is the immigrant and refugee advocacy and missions specialist for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Fellowship Southwest.