Immigration is one of America’s greatest issues of our time: noisy, divisive and politically charged.
But all that buzz fell away this summer when four North Carolinians journeyed from Arizona across the U.S./Mexico border into Nogales, Mexico. At the border, the four talked with scores of people — almost all families — who were waiting to get into the United States.
Suddenly the complex issue became simple: They didn’t see a headline or a political issue, but they saw people in need of Christian ministry.
Here was a huge humanitarian crisis, but where was a Baptist response?
“We saw a big group of people, most with kids”, said Larry Phillips, former Southern Baptist missionary to Peru and longtime church planter and staff member with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC). “They were waiting to get into the United States. They had been sitting on that sidewalk for more than a week, just waiting at that Nogales border crossing. That was after a hard two-week trip through Central America and Mexico.”
Phillips’ newest convention assignment as contract worker is to help develop a new statewide ministry of the state convention to help immigrants. That new work is just beginning to take shape.
“Now, please understand that these people were not trying to sneak into our country,” Phillips said. “They were trying to go about it legally, though it was clear they did not fully understand the U.S. immigration system. Local Mexican people — not government officials but just average citizens, mind you — had brought them blankets, food and bottled water. Someone had given them pizzas.”
Joining Phillips were: Amaury Santos, convention staffer assigned to the new ministry to immigrants; Bobby Farmer, ministry coordinator on the staff of Hull’s Grove Baptist Church in Vale, N.C.; and John Faison, director of the Raleigh-based Council on Immigrant Relations, which is partnering with the convention as its leaders set up the new ministry to migrants.
Gaining a new perspective
The four men made two visits across the border at Nogales in June. They had gone to a conference on immigration in Tucson, Ariz., and the border was less than two hours drive to the south — a great chance to deepen their understanding from an on-the-ground perspective. Communication was not an issue for them because all four speak Spanish.
Farmer has ministered at the U.S./Mexico border several times. It was the first non-touristic ministry visit for the other three. For those three, it was a vivid, gut-wrenching experience that opened a new understanding of immigration issues.
“These are the folks talked about in the news,” said Faison, who has helped many legal immigrants get settled in North Carolina. But it was the first time he had gotten to see first-hand what those people went through to get there.
Some unknowns suggested the worst.
“One man had gotten separated from his wife and son on the trip up through Mexico,” Faison said. “He had not seen them for more than a week.”
These people at the border are exactly the ones Jesus was talking about in Matthew 25, the four men agreed.
“We saw people who had come through the desert,” Phillips said. “They were hungry. They were thirsty. They were dirty. They were not naked, but they had only the clothes on their backs. They were strangers we did not know. Many will be incarcerated upon entering the United States. These are the very definitions of the kind of people Jesus called us to respond to.”
Santos blinked back tears as he recalled seeing the children crawling around on the dirty sidewalk in such a hard situation.
“That was particularly moving to me because you could see the innocence of the kids,” said Santos, who is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and the father of three sons. “Your heart goes out to them. They have made this terrible journey through the desert and faced incredible hardships. Now they are just 10 feet away from realizing their dream.
“It was really touching to me. They are not criminals. They are families. These people are running from danger. We just don’t understand how bad it is back home. Compassion and mercy are needed.”
‘Please tell them to pray for us’
But the most amazing new insight was that a high percentage of these would-be immigrants were evangelical Christians. A number of people they talked with had come from evangelical churches in Honduras.
“I think it was telling that these folks did not ask us for money or to help them gain entry into the U.S.,” Phillips said. “When we asked what should we tell the churches in North Carolina, they said, ‘Please tell them to pray for us.’”
This personal experience is supported by the statistics, Faison said.
“My own estimation is that way over 50 percent of immigrants from Central America are evangelicals,” Faison said. “One leading Latino pastor has put the percentage at more than 80 percent. So while these people lying there on the sidewalk with their kids are strangers, we need to come to grips with the fact that these are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
“We need to pray and ask that the Lord will show us opportunities to reach out and help the immigrants,” Santos said.
“Yes, and that includes those immigrants already living among us, those who have already crossed over into North Carolina,” Phillips said. “In the United States, we have built walls within neighborhoods that need to be torn down so we can let the immigrants come into our lives.
“We can fear immigrants or we can see them as a blessing — a wonderful missional opportunity, a great door opening for us to welcome those who are already part of the family of God into our churches, a way to share the gospel with those immigrants who do not yet know Christ. But for the most part, these immigrants are not a focus for evangelism but a force for evangelism.”
Faison said U.S. natives can learn from the immigrants.
“These immigrant evangelical Christians have much to teach us about living in a land where there is little or no freedom,” Faison said. “We need their wisdom and their vibrant faith. We also need their youth, because they will be a big boost to our aging church members.”
“It’s all about love,” Farmer said. “I’m afraid that the love of the church has grown cold. First, we must repent for ignoring the immigrants and for not doing things now as we did in the past, which included taking care of the poor.
“Until we own that we have left our first love, we will never go out and love our neighbor. We know what we are called to do. The question is when.”