The migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border dominated so many national news headlines during the summer 2019 that Americans felt numb to the scope of the tragedy. From October 2018 through the end of September 2019, the US Border Patrol apprehended more than 850,000 people, over half of them families and unaccompanied children.
But as migrants trek north to escape violence and grinding poverty in Central America, believers must remember that every asylum seeker is made in God’s image. Behind every face is a story. And behind every story is a God at work.
PCA missionaries and churches were serving migrants at the border long before the situation was a crisis of unprecedented proportions. Below are some highlights from the work PCA people are doing to minister in word and deed in the desert.
A Kingdom View of an Earthly Problem
When it comes to intractable problems like material poverty and hardship, American Christians suffer from a narrow view of Christ’s kingdom, says Victor Martinez, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in San Antonio.
With other problems like a natural disasters, volunteers help fix the problems and move on. But a problem of the magnitude seen at the southern border requires a different paradigm. Rather than looking for things to fix, Martinez believes the church should see the border crisis as an opportunity to see how God is at work.
“Americans don’t like to engage with things that we cannot solve. But that is what you see in the ministry of Christ. He came and announced his kingdom but left before it was finished. We’re not called to fix it or resolve it but bring hope to the present,” Martinez said.
Martinez believes the migrants entering the U.S. represent opportunities for the church in the U.S. to engage with the church in the global south, learn from believers from other countries, share the gospel with the oppressed, and watch God work.
For years migrants have traveled through San Antonio, Martinez said, but the traffic has increased in recent months, particularly traffic of unaccompanied minors. For years Redeemer, like many other churches, has helped migrants who make their way through San Antonio.
He believes many Christians didn’t understand there was a problem until they heard it on the national news, so media outlets and politicians have shaped the church’s perception of the situation.
“There are certainly a political and legal aspect that need to be sorted out. But as a church we need to ask how we can absorb [migrants] into our churches, evangelize them, and how do we ask them to help us evangelize others,” Martinez said. “Many of them are believers asking to pray for the Americans. We need to pray and think about how we can bless them.”
Love on the Journey
When migrants arrive at the border, they spend their first few days in a detention center while they demonstrate that they are candidates for asylum and authorities locate a sponsor, usually a family member already living in the U.S.. Because of the number of asylum seekers, the time spent in detention centers has grown from days to months. Once they have received permission to begin the asylum process, migrants get bus or plane tickets to reunite them with their sponsors.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement provides the tickets, but migrants are on their own to navigate America’s transportation systems. For many migrants, San Antonio is the first stop on the journeys to their sponsors.
“People are afraid of the border because of what they have heard in the news. But we serve a God who is capable of incredible things.”
Volunteers from Redeemer San Antonio joined the work of Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC), one of the largest migrant ministries in San Antonio, to provide material and spiritual support to migrants at the bus stations. Volunteers with IWC provide meals, clothing, and help understanding the bus system. If migrants need to stay in San Antonio overnight, IWC volunteers get them to a church where they can sleep.
“Typically when [migrants] show up, they don’t know where they are,” Martinez said. “We help them with food and water and help them understand the bus ticket, help them understand the bus system, and of course we pray with them.”
“We Serve a God who is Capable of Incredible Things”
Since 2014 Tim and Kristy Holliday have worked with Isaiah 55 Ministries (I55) in Reynosa, Mexico. I55 started to provide education and vocational training for the deaf.
The Hollidays decided in 2016 that it was time to move to Reynosa full time. The move came during the height of Mexico’s cartel violence as Reynosa became one of the most violent regions of Mexico.
“We want to be wise in how we move about, but we don’t believe we have stepped outside of the Lord’s will, and we are not living any more dangerously than most people,” Kristy said.
When gifted some property in a low-income Reynosa neighborhood, I55 started an after-school outreach, tutoring sessions, and Bible studies. The Hollidays and two other couples work as Mission to the World missionaries at I55, but the ministry also employs missionaries from other organizations.
Even as the number of migrants crossing the border swells, ministry looks the same in Reynosa, where I55 has always worked with transient populations.
It’s a different story at the local migrant shelter, Senda de Vida, where migrants from Central American seeking asylum in the U.S. have crowded the shelter to three times its capacity. I55 brings in short-term teams to offer medical clinics at the shelter.
Holliday said that in some ways, their work is business as usual, despite the humanitarian crisis. They go about their work with confidence that God has them in Mexico for a time such as this.
“A lot of people are afraid of the border because of what they have heard in the news. … But we serve a God who is capable of incredible things, and we don’t believe this place should be excluded form the gospel.”
For years Redeemer San Antonio has sent mission teams to provide medical clinics in Reynosa, but because of the increased migrant population, Redeemer also now also sends medical teams to help at Senda de Vida.
Jim Richie, a member of the Redeemer team spent time distributing popcorn and snow cones to migrants. His simple act of kindness earned him the nickname “Señor Palomitas” (“Mr. Popcorn”).
Weeks later, Richie was serving in the San Antonio bus station with IWC when he heard a voice calling for “Señor Palomitas.” It was a child from Senda de Vida that had just arrived at the bus station. Martinez said the child was overjoyed to see a familiar face.
“Something as mundane as serving popcorn in Reynosa and then going to bus station created a powerful moment and picture of what the Lord is doing in the lives of people going through,” Martinez said. “It happens in minutes but it has eternal consequences.”