Responding to that other crisis on the border
McALLEN, Texas — For weeks, the world’s attention focused on…
REYNOSA, Mexico — Virginia Chaves knows what people think of her.
“We have a bad reputation,” says the 51-year-old Mexico City native, who worked for years as a housekeeper and a nanny in the U.S. — illegally. She mowed yards and raised four children.
Her employers threatened to hand her over to immigration if she complained about the conditions or the pay. By 2010, she’d had enough, she says. She turned herself in and was deported.
Now, in this border town just south of McAllen, Texas, she stands outside a respite center run by the Catholic church. She says she’s trying to get a passport so she can return to the U.S. legally and see her kids. Three are in their mid-20s. The youngest is 18. They’re educated, she says. They’ve made lives for themselves.
“I’m a hardworking lady,” Chaves says. “I didn’t depend on the government when I was in the U.S.
“Even dogs labor to eat.”
Her words are eerily evocative of the Canaanite woman’s response to Jesus in Matthew 15: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Today she’s fed by another Jesus — Jesús González, a recent graduate of a school, supported by Churches of Christ, that prepares Spanish-speaking ministers and their wives to serve congregations on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. Weekly, González brings food and water to the people who congregate outside the respite center.
Across the Rio Grande River, in McAllen, news of mothers separated from their children as they crossed the border sparked a national debate. At protest rallies and on social media, Christians who advocate amnesty for the undocumented clashed with supporters of President Donald Trump’s call to build a border wall to protect U.S. citizens and jobs.
“When you break the law, you go to jail, and they provide food and shelter. Why should Christians not do the same?”
Amidst the fiery rhetoric, González spends this Friday morning handing out foil-wrapped sandwiches of chorizo sausage, egg and beans on homemade bread, plus plump jalapenos in Ziploc bags.
Two of the recipients are from Honduras — a country in which many say they have endured daily violence and death threats, forcing them to illegally enter the U.S. These men, however, say they left mainly because there were no jobs.
González doesn’t talk politics. And he doesn’t see the humble meals he provides as a means of helping people break the law. It is, he insists, simply a response to God’s command to serve those in need.
“It breaks my heart when I see people who are hungry,” he says. “I feel like I have to do something.”
The controversial parent/child separations took place far from the eyes of most Christians, says Dale Fielder, an elder of the Church of Christ North in Pharr, Texas, a few miles east of McAllen. The facilities that hold the detained children are government-run and tightly guarded, he says. Few people are allowed inside. Christians must find other ways to serve.
So Fielder and two other church members — José Cabello and Robert Bazan — made the short trip to Reynosa to help González distribute the sandwiches.
The men represent an ever-widening, yet intertwined, body of believers who worship with Churches of Christ (or Iglesias de Cristo) across the Rio Grande valley — on both sides of the border. Continually they grapple with the complicated ministry of serving the documented and undocumented alike.
“When you break the law, you go to jail, and they provide food and shelter,” Cabello says. “Why should Christians not do the same?”
Cabello ministers for the 70-member Palmview Iglesia de Cristo in Texas and directs the South Texas School of Preaching and Biblical Studies, where González recently completed a three-year program.
Church of Christ North overseas the school. The 70-member, English-speaking church began as a house church in Pharr in 1989. Even then, its members realized that they would soon be the minority in the Rio Grande valley, Fielder says.
So the church reached out to Spanish speakers and planted Iglesias de Cristo among the impoverished colonias of south Texas, including Palmview, where Cabello preaches. Now the Pharr church supports nine missionaries north of the border and nine more in Mexico, from Reynosa to Monterey. The church also coordinates service projects in the colonias. Fielder serves as missions coordinator. Bazán, a bilingual minister from south Texas, is training to succeed him.
As the border debate has intensified, the Pharr church has hosted seminars for the Spanish-speaking churches in south Texas, bringing in attorneys to address topics from immigration law to U.S. driving regulations for church buses. (A bus overloaded with churchgoers could get pulled over by police, Fielder says.)
The preaching school now issues ID cards to its students — partly to give them a sense of connection to the school and to encourage them to complete their studies, Cabello says.
But also, “if they get pulled over, it gives them a connection to the school,” Fielder adds. “It shows they have roots in the valley.”
The church members don’t ask those they serve in the U.S. if they’re in the country illegally, Fielder says.
“We’re not going to help someone get across the border,” he says.
And yet, “our understanding of God is to take care of their needs.”
For many immigrants, Reynosa represents one final, dangerous step in a long and perilous journey from Latin America.
As they eat their sandwiches, the souls clustered outside the respite center describe encounters with coyotes — smugglers who prey on illegal immigrants, offering passage to the U.S. for $1,500 per person. The coyotes store their customers in “stash houses” until the time is right to move them across the river.
This has gone on for decades in Reynosa, but few church members see it, says Alejandro Barrios, minister for the Balcones Iglesia de Cristo, one of the congregation’s planted through the Pharr church’s ministry.
In recent months, however, the heated war of words to the north has heightened the 100-member church’s awareness of the problem — and its resolve to help, Barrios says. Church members have provided aid for about 10 immigrants and are on the lookout for more, hoping to do what they can to keep them safe from human traffickers and the city’s deadly drug cartels.
Barrios shares the information and other news about the Balcones church with Fielder and the other ministers from the U.S.
While in Reynosa, the ministers also spend time with Mateo Dimas, who preaches for the Iglesia de Cristo Lampasitos.
Such visits are rare, Dimas says. In addition to the border controversy, concern about cartel-related violence has kept away Christians from the U.S. Three of the church’s members have had relatives kidnapped by gangs, Dimas says, though all were returned unharmed.
As he translates for Dimas, Bazán explains the plight of the Mexican border churches. “They’re kind of the forgotten people,” he says.
But the church is growing, Dimas says, up from 100 to 120 in attendance in the past three years. Many are young children. For that reason, the minister is thankful for the groups that do visit, including the Mabelvale Church of Christ in Arkansas, which recently sent a team to conduct a Vacation Bible School.
The visit was “a great encouragement,” Dimas says. “They haven’t forgotten about us.”
It’s a question Lee Henry says he’s gotten more than once when he talks about his mission work.
“You can’t just pass by somebody who needs help.”
Henry and his teammates from Lampasas, Texas, are finishing a mission trip in the waterlogged border town of Weslaco, Texas — just as, to the south, the U.S. ministers are finishing their visit to the Lampasitos church. The members of the First Street Church of Christ spent a week pulling soggy drywall from flood-damaged homes in the colonias of Weslaco.
The team, which includes four teenagers, also gave shoeboxes of toys and candy to children during a Fourth of July celebration. Healing Hands International supplied the boxes through its MAGI (Making A Godly Impact) program.
Lee knows that some of the people he helps aren’t in the U.S. legally.
“To some degree, you’ve got to look past that,” he says. “You can’t just pass by somebody who needs help.”
The team, like the country, is diverse in its views. A few members express support for President Trump’s call for a stronger border.
Regardless, they’ve come to love the people they’ve served in the past week, says Lorelai Dixon, 17, who begins her senior year of high school this fall.
“I’ve met so many nice people who love you like family,” the 17-year-old says. “And they make good tamales.”
Back at the respite center in Reynosa, Fielder leads a prayer for Virginia Chaves and the small crowd of immigrants living in limbo.
“Help these people to find a relationship with you,” he prays as Cabello, the preaching school director, translates his words into Spanish.
As they wait at the border, debating whether or not to cross, the immigrants are easy prey for drug dealers, Chaves says. As for her, “I put my faith in God every day. I commit my life to Christ.”
After crossing back into the U.S., Fielder drives by a stretch of farmland near the town of Penitas, Texas, where many immigrants cross illegally. On top of a levy here stand sections of a tall, metal frame — the beginnings of a border wall.
The structure predates the Trump administration, Fielder says, and there’s confusion about its real purpose — and its usefulness. It’s several acres north of the Rio Grande and has massive gaps to allow farmers to access their land.
“If you wall it off, you’re basically ceding that land to Mexico,” he says.
That can’t be his concern right now, says Fielder, 70, who took the reins of the Pharr church’s Hispanic ministry when his longtime friend, Craig Cooper, the ministry’s founder, died of a heart attack last March.
After decades of serving alongside Cooper, Fielder says he’s amazed by the faith he’s seen in his Hispanic brothers and sisters on both sides of the border.
And after a year of overseeing the ministry, he’s equally amazed by the challenges of the job — supervising construction projects, coordinating mission teams and raising support for the missionaries.
When he took over as director, “I didn’t sleep for two months,” Fielder says. But time and again, he’s seen seemingly insurmountable obstacles washed away by the power of prayer. Help seems to come from nowhere. At the last minute, a person materializes who can drive nails or supervise an entire construction project.
“We just walk up to the wall and it falls down,” he says with a chuckle. “Sometimes we have to put our noses on it, but it falls.”
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