A sharp border of fencing walls and police patrols separate El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico – sister cities located on opposite sides of the Rio Grande River.
I have been serving in this area for the last six years alongside many lay people and clergy. During this time, we have become intimately aware of the realities of life along this unique border.
Serving as the missions and evangelism pastor at First Baptist Church of El Paso, located in the heart of the city, has been a humbling experience.
El Paso is the state’s sixth-largest city and lags behind Texas’ average in household income and high school graduation rates. Twenty-five percent of its inhabitants live below the poverty line, contrasted with 17 percent statewide.
During the past year, an increasing number of families have been arriving to the city, a trend that has continued during the present year.
The countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where most current immigrants are from, are facing supreme levels of vicious crime and poverty.
Most of these families end up living in poverty-stricken areas of our city, where they are impacted by unjust economic, border and immigration policies.
As we build relationships with them and listen to their stories, we have learned that their exodus is set against the backdrop of severe economic, political and social realities.
We have also realized the discrepancy between discussions around immigration policy in Washington, D.C., and the true experiences of these families.
Fortunately, as we began putting forward mission efforts to address community needs, we met people on both side of the border whose deep faith had led them to come together to organize food pantries, after-school programs, clothes closet, hot-meal ministries and shelters for the homeless, refugees and people living in poverty.
These programs are initiated by churches, faith-based organizations and people of faith – Methodist, Presbyterians, Catholics, Anglicans and Baptists – who are in relationship with individuals and struggling families.
In the past several months with the influx of refugees, the Downtown Church Connection (a group of ecumenical downtown churches and faith-based organizations) has recognized the need in their neighborhoods.
Affiliated churches have risen to the occasion opening their fellowship halls and Sunday school rooms to temporarily host refugees released by ICE, collecting donations, cooking and serving meals, providing clothing and hygiene kits and so on.
They fulfill the Great Commandment by loving people regardless of who they are or what they believe.
First Baptist has organized a clothes closet that offers gently used clothing in good condition to people in need in the community and provides sack lunches twice a week to people who knock at our doors desperate for something to eat.
Each Sunday, we serve a hot meal in the downtown area, mainly to the homeless and agricultural workers.
Our long-term vision is to help restore these under-resourced individuals by empowering them in ways that respect their dignity, strengthen the community, promote freedom from dependency and are pleasing to God.
We also partner with The Kelly Memorial Food Pantry, providing supplemental food to families and individuals.
Similarly, we support The Mustard Seed Community CafÃ© and Garden whose mission is to feed everyone regardless of means.
In Juarez, First Baptist supports three churches and two shelters for girls and homeless boys. We furnish items such as clothing, school supplies, gifts for kids and sponsor “comedores,” where hundreds of children are fed weekly.
There are many opportunities to serve in ministry along the border. Churches and faith-based organizations in the area are deeply involved.
But the challenges are daunting.
Helping children overcome their fears when their parents are deported, changing labor policies that prevent immigrant farmers from making ends meet, and helping parents overcome their anxiety when they cannot openly work to sustain their children are a few challenges we face.
These challenges require us to move beyond our current charitable acts and commit to challenging systemic evil that causes these conditions of poverty, economic, job and immigration injustices along our border in the first place.
In response to these pressing ministry challenges and opportunities, March 2-4, 2017, we will be participating in the Life on the Border: Southwest Christian Community Development Association Conference.
This will be an opportunity to walk the fence, hear the stories of immigrants and experience life on the U.S.-Mexico border first-hand.
We expect this to be an uplifting and challenging look at the work of Christian community development on the border.
Hopefully, this experience will inspire us to take further steps to help tear down unjust conditions and attend God’s call “to do right! Seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17).
Edgardo Martinez is the minister of missions and evangelism at First Baptist Church of El Paso. He is a native of San Andres Island, Colombia, where he practiced human rights law for more than 13 years. He then became a Baptist minister and has pastored churches in Colombia and Texas for 20 years.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on local churches / Christian organizations and immigration.
Previous articles in the series are: