Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and women seeking refuge from violence in their home countries in Central America are crossing the United States-Mexico border, and numerous humanitarian and faith-based agencies are doing what they can to provide for their safety and well-being.
Among such agencies are churches from various denominations, working in tandem with other organizations to meet humanitarian needs of the children – primarily from Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – who often cross into the United States without their parents. In some cases their mothers accompany them.
Since October 2013, U.S. border authorities have detained more than 52,000 children under the age of 18 crossing the nation’s southern border into the states of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. Many of them are entering the country to be reunited with their families or to escape risk factors in their homelands.
The recent influx, deemed an “urgent humanitarian need,” is a result of la ack of protection from drug trafficking, violence, sex trafficking, poverty and unemployment in their native countries. As a result, these children are vulnerable to harmful acts, such as sexual violence, harassment, persecution and extortion.
A surge in the last year has left many border patrol stations and detention facilities, especially in Texas, overcrowded. Feelings about how to handle the issue are mixed, with some in favor of sending the refugees back to their homes while others see the need to address their needs here in the United States.
“The need is massive,” pastor Chad Mason of Calvary Baptist Church in McAllen, told The Christian Post. “The goal is to do the best we can to serve with the heart of Christ in Matthew 25. We still have a lot of work to do.”
Presbyterians have ‘boots on the ground’
El Paso, located in western Texas just across the Rio Grande from Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, is one of the areas that has seen an influx of immigrants. Those women and children streaming into Texas need food, clothing and shelter until U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers can process them and transport them to other locations to meet family members.
John Nelsen, pastor of University Presbyterian Church in El Paso, said the Presbyterian Church has “boots on the ground” in the area daily, dealing not only with immigration issues but also the overall poverty of a region that makes up one of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation when combined with Juarez.
“We are dealing with these issues daily,” said Nelsen, who also serves as president of the Presbyterian Border Region Outreach, which has six border ministry sites in the six border presbyteries (Mission, Tres Rios, Sierra Blanca, de Cristo, Grand Canyon, San Diego). “Presbyterians are very much in the thick of this.”
Nelsen said the issue is one of great significance.
“These are families coming in desperation from hundreds of miles,” he said. “It’s sort of like a house on fire. As a parent, what would you do if your kids were in danger from that fire? You’d do what you had to do to get them to safety. That’s what is happening here. It’s a humanitarian crisis, and we’re dealing with it as Jesus said to in Matthew 25.”
Nelsen said it is imperative that the faith-based community take a strong stand in providing assistance during such a crisis, noting that it is an opportunity to share the Gospel through word, deed and action.
“It is extremely easy to present the Gospel by providing food to a hungry child or housing to a family with none,” he said. “When they ask why, we share that this is what it means to follow Jesus. This is what God’s love looks like. These are people coming to a first-world community from very desperate places of the world, and they need to see what the Gospel looks like. If we can’t get that partnership right, we are doomed for the future.”
Offering dignity, seeing Jesus
Jessica Vaughan Lower, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in El Paso, sees an incredibly complex mixture of emotions when she looks in the faces of the women and children seeking asylum as refugees.
“I see exhaustion on the faces of the women. The emotion ranges from exhaustion to fear to relief, even if it is just in that moment they have a chance to rest and be seen,” Vaughan Lower said. “With the children I see an extraordinary resilience of their spirit and curiosity. It has to be a special feeling for those women to know they have protected their children by bringing them here safely.”
Of course there is no guarantee that all the refugees who cross into the United States will remain here.
“These people know the risks. They have received the warnings that they may be sent back, and they continue to come,” Vaughan Lower said. “We think the crisis may be a few days from being over, and they keep coming. But it’s not a situation we have not been in before. When will it end? I don’t know.”
Grace Presbyterian remains committed to assisting. Numerous volunteers from the church help provide clothing, food, medical attention and even security as needed. A weekly food pantry operated by the congregation from a Methodist church in the area serves as one of the processing sites. Grace also serves as a donation clearinghouse for Annunciation House, a Catholic charity that works year-round to help refugees seeking asylum in America.
“Our focus is on what we can do to offer them dignity when so many people have tried to strip that away,” Vaughan Lower said. “We’re committed to doing that as long as it takes.”
She observed the need to put politics aside and focus on meeting the needs of God’s people.
“We need to overcome the boundaries of politics and unite,” Vaughan Lower said. “Whether we believe they should be here or not we need to see the humanity in the face of this crisis and realize these are people seeking a way to preserve a life that is threatened. It’s a Matthew 25 moment for us. When we see them we need to ask ourselves, ‘Is this person Jesus?’
“We are a wealthy and gracious country, and I hope we can continue to be that and not succumb to fear and seclusion.”
John Andrews of the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino County shared that assessment, telling The Christian Post, “I would encourage them to view this as a humanitarian crisis. When your brother or sister presents themselves to you in their need, as we know from the parable of the Good Samaritan, then we don’t pick and choose. We don’t say, ‘Well, we’re going to help this person in need but not that person in need. When you see a person who’s presenting themselves to you and you can see clearly that they need your help, you see the Lord Jesus in them, and you help them.”
The boundaries of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Mission and Tres Rios presbyteries border Mexico, and both have seen high volumes of women and children making their way into Texas.
Karen Stocks, Mission’s stated clerk, said there are some meetings taking place within the presbytery to determine exactly what can be done to assist. She said Catholic Relief Services has taken the lead in addressing the situation.
“Our folks are looking at ways to help by giving support through supplies and other resources,” Stocks said. “It’s important right now that we get the right things to the right people in the right place. These people need to be kept safe and cared for as best as they possibly can be. This is a humanitarian effort and helping in this way is a mandate of ours as a mission-minded presbytery. We need to step out on faith and do what we can to help those in need.”
Mission Presbytery sent out a letter that includes a list of items needed by a welcome center for those who have been processed at detention centers and cleared for travel to meet family members in other parts of the country. It also provides a list of organizations accepting donations of money and/or food.
Jose Luis Casal, general missioner for Tres Rios, said there is activity within the presbytery to assist those coming into the country, primarily by providing much-needed food and clothing.
“They are here, and they need to eat,” Casal said. “We believe what we are doing through our churches in this moment is providing for a human need that is very present. There is a humanitarian need that is affecting El Paso, and our churches are responding to that. We are helping a human group that is suffering and in a very desperate situation.”
Want to help?
Following are links to organizations in Texas committed to working with and for those coming into the United States who need assistance.