By Elket Rodríguez
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus demonstrates the power of compassion to transcend ethnic and religious differences. Now, 2,000 years later, shared love for immigrants has bound the hearts of Christian brothers from different quadrants of the Baptist denomination.
Carlos Navarro is the Southern Baptist pastor of Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville in Brownsville, Texas, just a mile or so from the Mexican border. Marv Knox is the Cooperative Baptist coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, a network of churches whose territory includes the U.S.-Mexican borderland.
After years of theological-political battles, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship split from the Southern Baptist Convention about 30 years ago. Navarro’s church has remained true to the SBC, while Knox represents CBF across the American Southwest.
In many communities across the region, Southern Baptists and Cooperative Baptists still carry that old enmity and barely acknowledge each other. But Navarro and Knox revel in each other’s company, texting daily and calling often. Navarro preached the last in-person worship service Knox attended, on a Wednesday night in Brownsville, back in March.
And last week, one beautiful product of their brotherhood—a brand-new immigrant respite shelter on the Iglesia Bautista West Brownsville campus—was inaugurated.
Their story started long ago, however.
When the refugee crisis ramped up along the U.S.-Mexico border, Navarro led IBWB to open an immigrant respite center in its main building. As immigrants worked through the asylum process, they would be released from camps and shelters in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville. As they entered the United States, they would be brought directly to the church’s respite center. There, they would take a shower, receive fresh clothes, eat a meal, get a huge goodie bag and feel the love of Christian hospitality before departing to the bus station or airport, bound to live with their sponsors while awaiting the results of their immigration cases.
When Navarro heard about the opportunity to open the shelter, he responded to deep human need—despite others’ political opinions about immigration.
“I don’t care where you come from, where you are going or your perspective on things. All I care is about the Kingdom of Heaven, not our little empires,” he explained. “If the goal we are pursuing is to bring people to the feet of Jesus, I am on it.”
Navarro and IBWB persevered, even though their facilities were not built to withstand that kind of traffic and the financial challenge was significant.
“All I saw was that an unrepeatable opportunity presented itself,” he recalled. “My neighbor was there, and I had to help him.”
The same heart for asylum seekers that moved Navarro to respond to refugees in Brownsville led Knox to partner with IBWB to provide ongoing funds for the respite center’s operations.
Jorge Zapata, associate coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas and director of Fellowship Southwest’s immigrant relief ministry, described IBWB’s need for support, Knox recalled.
“Jorge explained how Pastor Carlos and IBWB were sacrificing to serve the asylum seekers, and I was inspired,” Knox said. “They needed funds to keep on feeding and caring for the immigrants, and our donors made sure we had money. So, coming alongside them was the next right thing for Fellowship Southwest.”
The relationship expanded and intensified a year ago last summer, when Knox and others from Fellowship Southwest visited the church during a tour of immigrant ministry on the border.
“When we saw IBWB’s respite center for ourselves, we were deeply moved,” Knox said. “We saw the wonderful ministry Carlos was providing to the immigrants. We were impressed with their deep compassion and care.”
Besides all that, Knox couldn’t quit pondering how Navarro and IBWB overcame physical obstacles to provide a ministry that would have proved daunting for larger, wealthier congregations.
“When I got home, I kept thinking about how the flow of people wore down their church, but they kept on serving,” he explained. “And I couldn’t stop thinking about their ‘showers’—makeshift contraptions with cold water and tarps on concrete, out by the alley.”
Eventually, Knox decided to try to do something about it. He teamed up with Ray Furr, who was coordinating volunteers for Fellowship Southwest with his spouse, Jeni, and who visited IBWB, too. Calling on his background in construction, Furr helped Navarro draw up plans for a new respite center building on the church’s property.
“We got the plans completed and estimated the costs of the building late last year,” Knox remembered. “All I wanted for Christmas was money to build that respite center. And sure enough, in early January, we learned the total gifts we received during the Christmas break almost exactly matched what we thought we needed to build that building.”
So, early this year, Navarro got to work arranging construction. COVID-19 inflicted heavy damage to Brownsville city government and delayed inspections and permits, drastically slowing the process. But this Sunday, Nov. 15, IBWB will celebrate completion of its new respite center.
“What a wonderful day that will be,” Knox said. “I totally wish I could be there, but thanks to this blasted pandemic, I’ll be home while Carlos cuts the ribbon. But I’ll bet he sends pictures before the afternoon is over.”
Through all their journey together, Navarro and Knox never have discussed theology and the division among Baptists. In fact, they come from different backgrounds. Navarro was born and raised in Guatemala and has pastored on the border for years. Meanwhile, Knox grew up in the Texas Panhandle and lived the last quarter-century in North Texas. IBWB is affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, which split from the Baptist General Convention of Texas, whose news organization Knox led for two decades.
All that is beside the point for these brothers in Christ. They constantly interact about how to cooperate to minister to hurting people.
“The miracle is that our hearts beat together in care and compassion for asylum seekers and immigrants,” Knox said. “Pastor Carlos is one of my all-time heroes, and I love him dearly. FSW has been tremendously blessed to serve alongside him and his church. Multitudes will be nurtured, both physically and spiritually, because of their great love for people Jesus loves.”
When not hosting immigrants, the respite shelter will serve as FSW operations’ center in Brownsville and will provide a base for mission teams when they visit the Rio Grande Valley. The respite center is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it is expected to reopen soon after IBWB volunteers get trained on safety measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
Thanks to Fellowship Southwest donors, IBWB opens the respite center debt-free. But if you would like to support Fellowship Southwest’s ongoing Immigrant Relief Ministry all along the border, click here.
Elket Rodríguez is the immigrant and refugee advocacy and missions specialist for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Fellowship Southwest.