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Yonathan Moya

At the Border, Immigrant Churches Care for Migrants

 

Editor’s Note: This story continues our series on the U.S.-Mexico border with updates from reformers Hugo and Eunice Moya (featured in Nations Journal Volume 4.) The Moyas have ministered to immigrant families for twenty-five years through their house church Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive. In recent months they’ve extended their ministry to the border, where hundreds of migrants wait to seek asylum at the Reynosa/McAllen crossing—the U.S. Border Patrol’s busiest station for apprehending and detaining migrants.

 

It’s Tuesday, another suffocating summer night in South Texas. In the back of a tire shop in the town of Pharr, forty immigrants sit at tables with Bibles open before them. Most of them are undocumented; all of them are pastors and church leaders.

This summer the Moya’s church relocated from their garage to the back room of a tire repair center. The space, donated by a church member, is outfitted with white folding chairs and a pulpit. Every Tuesday after he gets off work from the school district, Hugo Moya walks past employees changing tires, through the front office of the repair center, and into this room, where he trains local pastors to lead their congregations.

Most of these pastors lack any formal theological training. Without citizenship or financial resources, they can’t attend seminary or Bible school. Still, each Sunday they pack 30 to 40 people in their living rooms and worship together. Their churches make do without a building, air conditioning, a praise team, a choir, or any of the other trappings that make up most American churches. Despite the apparent lack of resources or official training, this network of immigrant house churches is thriving.

Hugo and Eunice Moya partner with 11 immigrant house churches across the Rio Grande Valley, whose congregations are 90 percent undocumented. Many of the pastors are undocumented too. “They meet in local house churches because it’s safe, it’s secure, and they can freely worship and feel like they are among family,” said Yonathan Moya. Yonathan is Hugo and Eunice’s oldest son and the director of Border Perspective, the mobilization and equipping arm of the Moya’s church, Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive.

“The churches that are growing here in the [Rio Grande] Valley are the churches that are receiving undocumented immigrants,” Hugo said. Larger churches and religious groups in the region have largely ignored this population in their ministry and outreach efforts. In contrast, house churches led by immigrants have embraced them and given their congregations opportunities to serve and participate in the body of Christ.

“The churches that are growing here in the [Rio Grande] Valley are the churches that are receiving undocumented immigrants.”

On this particular week, one pastor in the tire center classroom had struggled to find work. He generally cobbles together odd jobs—whatever he can get without a social security number—but work had lately dried up. He was concerned about providing for his family, yet that Sunday he still opened his home to care for his congregation.

Up and down the border, immigrant house churches operate with few resources and no support from established congregations. They fly under the radar, meeting in living rooms and garages and tire shops, helping each other minister to the vulnerable members of their community. And as an influx of migrants waits at the border for entry into the United States, these churches are the first on the front lines: bringing food, praying with migrants, offering water or clothing or a warm conversation. As Yonathan said, “These are the people that are leading the Gospel efforts on the border.”

Church Service
Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive worships in the back room of a tire repair center.

 

The Journey Doesn’t End Here

It’s tempting to let the news cycle dictate what to care about and when. This summer, media and public attention centered on families separated at the border. Though the separation policy ended in June and a district judge ordered the administration to reunite families within thirty days, by late July over 500 immigrant children still had not been reunited with their parents, 300 of whom were deported.

Though the media spotlight on the border has faded, migrants fleeing violence and persecution continue to flood the U.S.-Mexico border. The influx of refugees creates a bottleneck. With nowhere to go, families camp out at border crossings waiting for their stories to be heard. “I really think that border patrol and immigration are trying to do their best to give people truly in desperate need a safer place—to find them a better life and a better future” Yonathan said. “But it’s a slow and very long process.”

In South Texas, this delay means migrants wait on a bridge in searing sun without food, water, or shade. The Rio Grande Valley is the busiest section of the U.S. Mexico border and it can take days for migrants to see an agent and plead their case. Suspended in the middle of the Rio Grande River, their journey stalls out in this stretch of no-man’s-land as they remain unclaimed and unwanted by both the United States and Mexico.

Several weeks ago, a caravan of 70 asylum seekers—Venezuelan, Guatemalan, Cuban, and even Chinese—arrived at the border. Shortly before stepping onto the international bridge they were stripped of personal belongings by Mexican immigration officers, who let them pass in exchange for their jewelry and watches. After an excruciating journey they made it to the border, only to be told they had to wait—for hours, days, or weeks, it wasn’t clear. This is when Hugo received a Whatsapp message.

This detail of the story feels like something from the underground railroad, if the underground railroad were digitized. On the Mexico side of the border, a trash collector and street sweeper keep an eye out for newly-arrived migrants. When a group arrives in need of food, water, or clothing, the vigilantes alert a network of immigrant pastors on the U.S. side via Whatsapp text messages, detailing where the group is located and what they need.  

When the caravan arrived in August, Hugo’s phone lit up with a short message: 70 men and women and children. No food or water. He crossed the pedestrian bridge with a cooler of supplies: ice, water bottles, and grilled chicken purchased and prepared by the Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive congregation. He prayed with the group and read Scripture, even managing to communicate with a woman in Mandarin with the help of Google Translate.

When the caravan arrived in August, Hugo’s phone lit up with a short message: 70 men and women and children. No food or water.

One of the immigrants in the caravan, a Guatemalan man, explained why he had fled. Gang members came to his barber shop and told him, “If you don’t start paying a quota, we’re going to come in here and shoot up the place. We’ll kill you and your family.” He couldn’t pay, and it didn’t matter. The gang members returned and ripped the barber shop apart with bullets. “It was by God’s grace I didn’t get shot,” the man said. He escaped the shooting but managed to record a video of the scene, and he’s carried this video on his exodus north. If migrants can show proof of violence or persecution, they’re more likely to receive asylum. This reminder of what he fled is his prayer, his ticket to refuge.

Yet even if he does receive asylum in the U.S., the barber’s journey is far from over. For the migrants in his caravan and those stuck at various points along the U.S.-Mexico border, their nightmare doesn’t end with a few papers and a stamp. Asylum seekers who cross into the U.S. are often stranded without family, contacts, or resources to begin a new life. And in South Texas, there’s a paucity of resources to help them. The tangled issues that surround the border is what led one San Antonio pastor to declare it not a crisis but “a long-term disaster.”

For the migrants stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border, their nightmare doesn’t end with a few papers and a stamp.

While the care Hugo and other immigrant churches provide is important and even life-saving, humanitarian problems on the border are so deeply entrenched that there is no simple solution. Migrants’ losses are immense and even if they can cross into the States they rarely have an idea what comes next. “When we show up with food and drinks and want to pray with them and helpful, people are receptive and appreciative, but they’re also traumatized,” Yonathan explained. “We’re showing them love but they don’t know what to expect. Their future is so uncertain.”

Yet if anyone understands this complexity, it is immigrants who have gone through the process before. Many of them settled on the border and now form congregations like that of Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive. These immigrants are the ones caring for migrants midway through their interminable journey. As more and more people settle in the border region and beyond, the need for immigrant ministries will increase. This is why Hugo teaches at the tire shop every Tuesday, and why he laments the lack of a greater church presence in the region.

“There’s not only families being separated and undocumented immigrants crossing the border, but what do you do with the large population of the undocumented immigrants who have already settled on the border?” Yonathan asked. “Who is called to lead these people and be their pastors and shepherds?”

Hugo brings Bibles and water to Cuban refugees stuck at the border.

 

An Absent Church

This summer, The Immigration Project partnered with Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive to raise funds to purchase Bibles, clothing, toiletries, food, and other supplies for migrants. Though Hugo was grateful, he prays that local immigrant churches will remain the first to stretch out a hand to those seeking refuge. He is wary of his congregation growing complacent and neglecting the needs of their brothers and sisters just a few miles away. “I don’t want my congregation to stop giving the little that they can,” he said. “The need is our own. As immigrants, we have to be ready to respond to the needs on our border.”

The uncomfortable truth is that the American protestant church is largely absent in this region, despite the ongoing humanitarian disaster. Instead, it is a network of under-resourced, largely undocumented immigrant house churches that have stepped up to provide care. The Moyas also partner with two Catholic refuge centers in South Texas, which offer immigrants a dignified place to eat, bathe, and rest. But besides these house churches and refuge centers, Hugo said, the church is not active on this stretch of the border where the crisis centers.

“The need is our own. As immigrants, we have to be ready to respond to the needs on our border.”

“The evangelical church is really not the one leading in these efforts, and yet we proclaim to know the true Gospel and the love, compassion and empathy of God,” said Yonathan. “We pray God will give us his eyes and heart and that he’ll lead us, and yet the evangelical church is not the one embracing these immigrants. So much of the Gospel is understanding that [embrace] and living it out, on the front lines or wherever we live.”

Immigration is a complicated issue, and one that gets wrapped up in politics and policy. Yet the work the Moyas do to care for their vulnerable neighbors is simple: they take seriously Christ’s call to love their neighbor, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked.

But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. “The cause is the Gospel, [and] it’s costing them a lot,” Yonathan said. For one thing, it’s costing them their physical health. Hugo has blood clots and circulation issues in his leg; Eunice has diabetes. Yet every day she cooks meals and gathers supplies. After his day job working in the sun, Hugo walks across the pedestrian bridge carrying an ice chest full of food and a cooler full of water. Day after day, Eunice and Hugo set aside personal care to love people who are desperate. Then they wake up the next morning and do it again.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s what Jesus would be doing. There’s no doubt in my mind that those are the people Jesus would be loving,” said Yonathan. Yet the church’s presence is slim, concentrated mostly in refuge centers and in undocumented, immigrant churches. “When it really comes down to it, the evangelical church is not present where Jesus would be.”

In the Rio Grande Valley, immigrant house churches are thriving.

 

Missions on the Border

To that end, Border Perspective recently launched immersive educational trips to the border for churches. Yonathan worked for an missions organization for years before transitioning full-time into partnership with his parents’ ministry. He now plans to help churches around the U.S. link arms with immigrant border churches for mutual encouragement and mobilization.

“When it really comes down to it, the evangelical church is not present where Jesus would be.”

“Before it was like rainfall, the amount of missionaries that came here,” Hugo said. “But missions organizations and church planting organizations are no longer coming here. And now we are facing the huge needs of the people.”

“It’s so easy for us to go and love people in Guatemala and take pictures with them,” he continued. “But the reality of the need on the border is in some ways greater than other countries, and the church is not showing up here. Within our own borders, there’s a lot of work to do.”

Border Perspective’s immersive trips bring the mission field Stateside by partnering churches and immigrant leaders. Visiting groups will learn directly from pastors like the Moyas who are embedded on the border and discuss what it looks like to embody Jesus’s love for the immigrant and foreigner among us. These trips will pose the question: How might the church be mobilized as an instrument of compassion and empathy in this day and age?

Yonathan acknowledges these immersive border trips pose a complicated dynamic between established visiting churches and local house churches.

“I want people to come, but I want them to come with the right heart, not with the desire to come and lead,” he said. “There has to be an understanding [in which] we give the local partner the value and the voice and the authority of what they have encountered.” He recalls following Hugo across the border through a specific lane that allowed pedestrians to cross back and forth—a lane Yonathan wouldn’t have known to take on his own. “I’m letting him lead, and that’s the posture we have to come with: the posture of uplifting local leaders who’ve been on the front lines of doing this work.”

He’s also aware that this kind of missions trip is less glamorous than a week building houses abroad. “We do good so we can feel good. The reality of missions on the border is that you’re not going to feel good—you’ll realize the complexity of the immigration system and the unhealthiness of what people and churches are facing there. You can feel convicted, but you won’t feel good, because the need is so much greater than any of us.”

“The reality of missions on the border is that you’re not going to feel good.”

Christ calls his people to run to the edges of our communities, to the complicated places, where people are vulnerable and hurt. The border is one such place—and church is needed there. Yet even though established churches are largely absent, God’s love is incarnated here in a hundred daily acts of mercy. There’s something hopeful about a network of overlooked immigrant churches bringing Christ’s love and beauty to the border. After all, the kingdom of heaven has always spread through subversive, overlooked channels—through living rooms and street sweepers and tire repair centers. The kingdom reveals itself in places where people thought nothing good could come, and it is carried—like a pearl or a mustard seed—across borders.

 

To partner with the Moya’s ministry and attend an immersive education trip to the border, visit borderperspective.org/missiontrips.

To donate to Border Perspective, the mobilization and equipping arm of Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive, visit borderperspective.org/donate.

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