Through October and November, we heard a great deal about the Migrant Caravan from Central America and its journey through Mexico. Approximately 7000 migrants came from Honduras all the way to Tijuana, Baja California, to present themselves for asylum at the U.S. Border. Like many, I watched this development with interest to see what would happen and also to see how this would be framed by our leaders and how the church would respond.
Last week (December 15), I went to Tijuana to see for myself what was really going on. I joined 150 or so other pastors and church leaders from across America with the Global Immersion Project to meet with Mexican church leaders and those working with the migrants. We wanted to better understand what was happening there and how the church in America could join and help.
After arriving in Tijuana near the San Ysidro border crossing and the El Chaparral square, we crossed a foot bridge over the Tijuana River. There, we saw the area where the migrants tried to cross the border and were tear gassed by border patrol just a couple of weeks ago. We were told that a rumor was spread among the migrants that the United States was opening the border and that if you got there fast, there would be busses waiting for you to take you to safety. They especially wanted women and children to go first. Other migrants and those working with them warned that this story was not true. It could not be true. But, exhausted from a long journey, many migrants held out hope that the rumor was accurate and they would be let through to claim asylum. The story was, of course, a lie. No one knows where or how it started, but it does explain why some joined in the rush for the border.
One of those who attempted to cross was Maria Meza, pictured in the iconic photo above running with her children. But, just yesterday, she was, in fact, able to legally apply for asylum and is now on U.S. soil.
For weeks, El Chaparral was filled with migrants sleeping on the square and in the surrounding streets. Many also stayed in the nearby sports complex until the rains came and made that untenable. There is a notebook where their names are written and they are each given a number. The migrants and those waiting for asylum organize themselves and the presence of this “book” pre-dates the coming of the migrant caravan. It is how migrants in Tijuana hoping to be granted asylum have been keeping order and knowing who is next for some time now. When their number is called, they have to be present so they can then be seen by immigration officials who are bound by law to interview those claiming asylum. This process has now slowed to a crawl, however, through a process called “throttling.” U.S. immigration officials at the port of entry are only seeing a small number of people a day. The rest have to wait. The wait could be for months.
We heard stories of why the migrants fled from their home countries in Central America. We heard directly from a mother and her daughter who told us her daughter was kidnapped by the gangs and the mother had to work and pay to get her back. After she rescued her daughter, she knew they had to flee. We heard stories of violence and the abuse of the drug cartels, the corruption of the local government and police that does not protect the people, of young men forced into the gangs, of required payments of tribute, of girls and women raped, and of extreme poverty. People joined the caravan because there is safety in numbers and they are protected from the cartels when they travel together. And, they don’t have to pay thousands of dollars to coyotes to get them to the border. After traveling for weeks together, they now wait for their number to be called.
After the tear gas incident and ensuing rains that turned the migrant camp in the sports complex into a swamp, the Mexican government moved thousands of migrants 10 miles south of the border to a large shelter in an area called El Barretal. Approximately 800 migrants are still staying in tents near the border outside of the sports complex. This tent city near the border serves as a staging area so they can then present themselves for asylum when their number is called. If they aren’t there, they won’t get another chance.
Feeding the Migrants in the Name of Jesus
Before I went to Mexico, I wanted to know what Southern Baptists were doing to help, if anything. I contacted Baptist Global Response, the International Mission Board, and California Baptists. For different reasons (mostly logistics and prior commitment of resources), none of our major entities are able to engage at this time. I did, however, connect with the San Diego Baptist Association and their Director of Missions, Mike Carlisle. He pointed me to their missionary and church planter, Juvenal Gonzalez. Juvenal is leading an effort to feed and minister to 500 migrants each day at El Barretal. The work of this team of volunteers represents the work of Southern Baptists among the migrants. And, they are there every single day.
Mike Carlisle sent me this message explaining what they were doing:
As far as I can tell the San Diego Southern Baptist Association is the only SBC entity that is reaching out and ministering to the Caravan migrants that are in the Tijuana area. Our Missionary to Mexico, Juvenal Gonzalez, is currently leading a team of Mexican Church volunteers to provide breakfast to over 500 migrants every morning.
The humanitarian need is great. For example, Juvenal noticed that women and children were having to shower with water hoses in public view, without clothes, just to stay clean. As a result, Juvenal has raised the money to build 20 temporary showers with walls for modesty and cleanliness.
We are also providing funding locally to purchase 1500 Spanish Bibles that we are distributing to migrants as we feed them.
Juvenal and his team has provided children’s activities and VBS type ministry.
Juvenal texted me and said, “We would love to do more but we do not have all the resources and help that we need.” They are collecting supplies each day, bringing food, feeding the people, praying with them, and sharing Christ with them through Bible studies and activities for children right in the middle of the Migrant Caravan’s main shelter in El Barretal.
We traveled to another Baptist church in Tijuana and heard the story of how it became a migrant shelter. In 2016, thousands of Haitians came to Tijuana seeking asylum into the United States. Most of them were denied and they had nowhere to go. Pastor Jose became convicted that he had a warm bed to sleep in and the Haitian migrants had nowhere to lay his head. So, he went to get 15 of them and bring them back to his church, but he brought back 40 instead. He told his church that they supported missions to bring the gospel to the nations, but now God was bringing the nations to them, so how could they not welcome and receive the nations there at their doorstep? The whole church began ministering to the migrants and they used their classrooms and all their space to give them shelter.
When the Central American migrants and families came this year, Pastor Jose opened his church up to them. Many are staying there now and they are trying to build another building to house more until they can either be accepted for asylum, or more likely, are turned away with nowhere to go. The church will be a refuge for them until they can find permanent dwellings or figure out where they are going.
I talked to Juvenal about Pastor Jose and he said that they were doing great work and that he brings what he can collect from time to time to share with their church. They partner together.
The Church Across Borders
Later in the day, we went to the border wall at the Pacific Ocean where we prayed, sang, and engaged in something called Posada, which is a slight reenactment of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem with Jesus on the way. Ladies fed us amazing tamales out of an ice chest and wrapped in foil to stay hot. They were incredible. As I stood in front of the Wall and looked across to the American side where Christians gathered and sang, waved, and prayed, I was overwhelmed. Here in this place of danger, violence, and division, the church was gathered on both sides of the wall. We reached out hands to each other and blessed one another. While I understood that barriers and walls are necessary and that borders exist for a reason, I was also struck by the fact that the church of Jesus Christ transcends borders and walls. Worship and prayer rose up over and in the midst of border patrol agents, helicopters, and walls. The church existed on both sides of the border and was triumphant and beautiful and created beauty even there. It really seemed like Jesus was present in the borderland.
While the news pundits and political leaders have warned of invasion, I saw human beings in need and the church in the midst of that need ministering, humanizing, and treating people with worth and dignity. I saw sacrifice and gifts and blessing. I know there are political realities. I understand the need for border security and for the law to be followed. But, I’m so glad that when I went looking for the Kingdom of God in chaos and struggle, I found it. I found God’s people hard at work caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, providing the poor wanderer with shelter, and giving hope to the hopeless.
How to Give
No matter what you might think of the migrant caravan, they are people made in God’s image in desperate need of help and hope. And, the church is there ministering. If you’d like to help them, you can. Juvenal Gonzalez, is in great need of support for this work through the San Diego Baptist Association. Click on the “Donate Now” button and follow the prompts. When it asks what you want to give to, click on Juvenal Gonzalez. Gifts will go to help him in this work.
ICE Dropping Off Asylum Seekers At Churches in Phoenix, Arizona
But, the opportunity to minister to asylum seekers is not just at the border. This past August, I traveled to the border at Nogales, Arizona and crossed to the Mexican side to see what was happening there with a ministry. Then, I traveled up to Phoenix to meet with my friends, Pastor Anthony Cox of Mercy Hill Church (SBC) and Josh McCoy, who works with their ministry outreach. We had a great time together and talked about what God was doing there for hours. These are good brothers.
A couple of weeks ago, I ran across an article that said that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) dropped off around 4000 asylum seekers in church parking lots in the Phoenix area. These people are here legally. They are refugees. I contacted my friends, Pastor Anthony and Josh, because I knew they would be in the middle of helping these migrants. They were. Here’s what they said:
Recently we’ve all seen the contentious events taking place at the U.S. southern border. Those seeking asylum in the United States follow a process where they must present themselves to a U.S. official at a border or within the US in order to apply. Those at the border are typically detained and screened before being released pending their asylum hearing before an immigration judge. Phoenix is one of the locations Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains these asylees before being released. As much as possible ICE prefers to partner with Churches & faith organizations to coordinate these releases so that asylees are not being dropped off on the street or empty handed at bus stations or airports as they make their way to whomever is sponsoring them in their petition for asylum.
Mercy Ministries, our church-based non-profit, is coordinating to show the hospitality and love of Jesus to the foreigner traveling among us. Amid the political and practical chaos, Mercy Hill Church seeks to be a peacemaking congregation that moves quickly to express the love of Jesus toward our neighbors and those traveling through it. Members of our church are opening their doors, offering warm meals and clean clothes, to welcome asylees for 1-2 nights to give them a place to rest before continuing their journey. We are being so encouraged by the faith of our visitors, who are very often brothers and sisters in Christ, trusting God to make a way for them to live in a safe place with opportunity for their families. At the moment, our urban congregation is limited in our response due to financial constraints. There is a large need for more hosts and we would love the opportunity to welcome and serve more visitors. Would you consider donating to help support our hosts? All funds provided would be used directly to purchase food, clean clothes, and supplies for asylees as our church serves these families on their journey.
I asked Josh and Anthony if there was a way to give to help them and they told me that people could donate here. They are doing needed, holy work.
As we celebrate Christmas and meditate on and worship Jesus, whose family traveled for his birth and then fled murderous King Herod as refugees to Egypt after he was born, I think about Juvenal working with San Diego Baptists and the feeding of hundreds of migrants a day in Tijuana, and Mercy Hill Church in Phoenix welcoming asylum seekers into their homes and feeding them and providing refuge. I think that this is all very biblical and exactly what the church should be doing and I am so greatly encouraged. I’m reminded how much God loves these migrants to place his church there ready to minister the love of Christ to them.
As Americans, it’s easy to complain about migrants and the situation at the border. And, even have fear. But, we have Southern Baptists – Christians – who see this as an opportunity to minister to the people that God is bringing their way. Will you pray for them? Join them? Juvenal hopes to feed 2000 migrants on Christmas Day. But, he could use some support. Perhaps we could help him? (follow the prompts to donate and choose Juvenal Gonzalez from the drop down menu).
In the midst of so much strife, pain, fear, anger, and even rage, perhaps God has positioned His people in the midst of all of this so we can, through Christ, tell a better story?