Showing Christ in south Texas’ colonias
Cooper has seen their souls, and that’s what matters to him.
“These people are in America now,” Cooper said, gesturing toward a Hispanic woman tending a small vegetable garden.
Nearby, four young girls played in the rapidly disappearing shade of their small, yellow-trimmed home.
Cooper serves as missions coordinator for the Church of Christ North in Pharr, Texas, about six miles north of here.
Almost every day, the shy church elder drives his silver pickup truck to poor, unincorporated areas as close as a mile from the U.S.-Mexican border to see the invisible people — almost 140,000 in Hidalgo County alone.
He pays attention to their lives, taking notes about who might need urgent help, how many children he sees and whether conditions appear stable.
The invisible people include migrant workers, young families and the elderly, all living in ramshackle neighborhoods known as colonias. Nearly 100 percent Hispanic, about half the population lives in poverty.
The ministry focuses on planting churches and making living conditions better — and safer — for the residents of Las Milpas and other border communities.
From middle school students to retirees, up to 25 short-term mission groups from Churches of Christ in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kentucky annually donate sweat to the cause.
In an election year, as politicians wrangle over immigration bills, border patrol standards and keeping people out, Cooper maintains a different focus.
“We steer away from those type of questions,” he said. “That’s not what we’re here for.”
A DISADVANTAGED POPULATION
In English, it means heaven.
However, the colonia north of Alton, Texas, that bears that name falls short of paradise — at least visually.
Such is the case with many of Hidalgo County’s 962 colonias: The attractive, inviting names are a stark contrast to the living quarters themselves.
“The people that live in colonias are … among the most disadvantaged population in the state of Texas,” said Lionel Lopez, executive director of the South Texas Colonia Initiative. “These communities are often built on pipelines, oil waste pits and/or oil and gas operations.”
On a recent 100-degree day, Jacob Arnold, 13, climbed atop a 6-foot ladder, balanced a tray of primer on a middle rung and dipped his roller into it.
The house he and six others were painting on a sticky day in Alton was much different from his own in an affluent suburb of Houston. The wood was rotting away in places. Iron bars concealed the windowpanes.
But Arnold and other painters from the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston said they were excited about transforming the exterior of a house belonging to a wheelchair-bound man and his extended family.
“I’m envisioning it finished and how nice it will look and how proud they’ll be of it,” Arnold said as he wiped sweat from his forehead and took a quick drink of cool water. “That’s what’s keeping me going.”
‘WE HAD NO IDEA THESE AREAS EXISTED’
Built starting in the 1950s, early colonia developments had no potable water or sewer systems, electricity, paved roads, drainage or sanitation. Living conditions were primitive, and disease was prevalent.
Because the residents lacked a political voice and many wanted to remain unnoticed for immigration reasons, they endured the conditions, Lopez said, largely unseen by the government.
Until 1983, that is.
On Christmas Eve 1983, the colonias made headlines when a deadly freeze hit the normally mild Valley area.
Temperatures plummeted to the mid-teens. Many in the colonias lived in structures with no insulation or heat.
At the time, Cooper, his wife, Janet, and their two small children worshiped in McAllen, the largest city in Hidalgo County. A fellow church member called the day after Christmas, asking if their congregation could do anything for their neighbors to the south.
The Coopers and three other couples from the church — Philip and Gaye Bailey, Dean and Alita Bagley and Steve and Dene Burton — collected dozens of blankets and drove to the Las Milpas community.
Philip Bailey said the group initially worked with local Roman Catholic leaders, farmers’ union representatives and area politicians to identify and help the poorest families.
“People not half an hour away (from where we lived) were struggling for life, struggling for food,” said Bailey, now an elder at the Memorial church.
“The freeze triggered a reality check about this area down here,” Cooper said. “I mean, we lived in middle class areas near McAllen. We had no idea these areas existed, just 20 miles away from us.”
The disaster relief initiated by the church became a full-fledged mission effort over the next few years. Partnering with larger congregations, the church brought in workers and donations and began hosting short-term mission groups to serve in the colonias.
Those initial efforts in the community of Las Milpas led to the planting of the first church in the area, in 1986. The core group of families purchased an unfinished home on a colonia lot for $15,000 and began having Bible classes for adults in the front yard and children in the back.
That first church plant, in time, birthed 17 others on both sides of the border. Additionally, the South Texas School of Preaching and Biblical Studies was founded.
“We had to have a spiritual presence,” said Cooper, who exchanged his banking career and for full-time ministry work in 1997. “We needed Spanish-speaking churches, neighborhood churches, that could be self-sustaining. We’ve been very strategic about planting churches.”
NEW FAITH IN A NEW HOME
When 12-year-old Marisol Gomez kissed her father and two sisters goodbye in 1990, she knew two things. First, they were leaving Mexico City without her to go to the United States to find work. And second, they were doing so illegally.
Two months later, the girl and her mother were reunited with the rest of the family in a colonia near Alton. On the same day, they learned about the Church of Christ from Dean and Alita Bagley.
“When we got here, the Bagley family was waiting for us,” Gomez said, “And Alita enrolled us immediately in school.”
Gomez struggled through her courses. Determined to learn English on her own, she began writing down words from school that she didn’t know, looked up their meanings and forced herself to use them in everyday conversations.
When she was 14, she followed her mother and sisters’ examples and was immersed for forgiveness of her sins. Her father was baptized afterward.
“The only thing I wanted to do was please God,” Gomez said. “That I was illegal was a barrier.”
Now a U.S. citizen, Gomez is raising two children, Shari and Enoc, with husband Ruben. The family worships and teaches at the Alton church, where Ruben Gomez serves as youth minister.
A graduate of the School of Biblical Studies, Marisol Gomez is working toward a degree in psychology. The couple plans to continue working in marriage counseling and ministry and remain in the Alton area.
“God is the most important person in my life,” Marisol Gomez said. “He dragged me out of a world of violence and poverty to a whole new life that I will not give away for anything.”
‘THERE IS NO PLACE ELSE LIKE IT’
In the 26 years since it began, the ministry has grown from a small-scale relief effort to an organized, all-encompassing outreach plan.
On any given week, workers can be seen scraping old paint on a home in one of the colonias in preparation for a fresh coat.
This particular day, a crew of workers from the Memorial church spent the sizzling summer morning atop a roof, layering paper and shingles. After a shower and a quick lunch prepared by much-appreciated adult volunteers from the church, teenage boys hoisted timid Vacation Bible School participants onto their backs for rides.
Mike Avery, youth minister at Memorial, looked on, smiling.
He has made this trip for 10 years and likes nothing better than to see the junior high and high school students he sponsors embrace the children he has grown to love.
“There is no place else like it,” Avery said of the areas and people involved in the Pharr congregation’s mission. “That we get to come be a part of this and serve here is the highlight of our year, every single year.”
Soon, the work here will go mobile: A renovated trailer will house a traveling dental clinic that will spend one weekend each month near one of the planted churches.
That’s quite an undertaking for the church in Pharr — a congregation with just 90 members.
“God keeps blessing us. That’s how we do it,” said Wade Welch, one of three elders at Pharr along with Cooper and Dale Fielder. “Craig brought this work when he joined us here, but we have many congregations that help us out. It’s a work that we all love and we’re proud of what we’ve got going.”
‘THEY WORK WITH WHAT THEY’VE GOT’
The last group of the summer has left, and Cooper is pleased. Three new houses have most or all of their exterior work finished. Dozens of others have been painted or repaired. Several successful VBS sessions are a parade of pictures and happy memories for the visitors and the workers alike.
People have been touched.
“I would classify those who live here as poor but industrious,” Cooper said, stopping to take a bite of spicy grilled chicken, rice and tortillas prepared for a group of workers by the women of the Alton church. “They work with what they’ve got.”
Cooper said that God has done the same, only with him. How else might you explain how a real-estate lender who still doesn’t speak a word of Spanish and didn’t know his neighbors existed was led into the heart of a Hispanic ministry, he asked?
“When I get to feeling sorry for myself, I just drive around here for a little bit,” he said. “It doesn’t last for long.”