I turned the corner carrying an armful of paper plates, heading for the small sanctuary of a Pentecostal church near the border in El Paso. What I saw stopped me cold. The whole sanctuary was full of men, women, and children – not in pews, but on cots. Some sleeping, some sitting up and just staring. They were dirty and tired, their faces sullen and gaunt. The babies and small children just stared, too tired to cry. I remember the eyes: open, but empty. Little emotion. No smiles. Too tired to cry.
It was early May, 2019, and I was visiting El Paso to see my friend Sami’s border ministry. He had taken me around earlier to see the migrants coming across, being picked up by ICE and put on busses to shelters and churches. Churches in El Paso all the way to Las Cruces, New Mexico and over to Phoenix were opening their doors and filling up with migrants. Approximately 250,000 migrants were apprehended at the southern border from April to May of 2019, and many were sent to churches as their asylum claims were being processed, to wait and for protection. Sami took me around to see some of them and meet some of the pastors.
I’ll never forget their empty eyes. Nor will I forget the Christians who opened their lives and churches to these suffering people. I was told by several workers in El Paso and elsewhere that around 60 percent of the migrants coming to the border were Evangelical Christians. They fled their home countries largely because they faced persecution through extortion and threats of violence, rape, kidnapping, and forced labor. If they didn’t pay money to the gangs or turn over their sons and daughters, they would be killed. The stories were horrendous, as was the grinding poverty that they were trying to escape. They came to America to start a new life. They went to the churches for refuge, rest, and a chance to regroup before continuing their journey on to family.
The migrants also came amid great opposition from politicians and pundits spewing xenophobic rhetoric and blaming them for an “invasion.” By and large, it seemed many churches and Christian denominations in the interior of the United States opposed the migrants or ignored them. But churches all along the border who saw their faces and heard their cries for help received them through great cost to themselves. Many who were not already Christians became so after receiving help and spiritual counsel from pastors and church volunteers alike.
On August 3, 2019, a twenty-one-year-old gunman from Allen, Texas traveled 650 miles to El Paso to shoot and kill Latinos he believed were invading the country. This happened almost three months to the day after I visited the same city to see the receiving work of Christians and churches acting as refuge. The gunman used an assault rifle and killed twenty-three people while wounding twenty-three more. It was the deadliest targeted attack on Latinos in recent American history.
The gunman had written a racist and xenophobic manifesto and posted it online spouting the Great Replacement theory, which is far right nationalist propaganda claiming that white people are being systematically replaced by immigrants from around the world for the purpose of wiping out the white race. Instead of seeing the migrants and being moved with compassion for them, the shooter saw what was happening at the border and decided he should travel 650 miles and kill as many people as he could. He bought into the lie that the best way to defend himself, America, and his way of life was to engage in racist violence based on xenophobia, or “fear of the stranger.”
Philoxenia is the opposite of fear of the stranger; it is the basis of hospitality. It is love. In the Bible, it is a character trait that accompanies those who know God and understand his deliverance and salvation. The Israelites were to love the sojourner because they were once sojourners in Egypt. They were to remember God’s grace and extend grace to others. Jesus says in Matthew 25 that the proof of those who know him will be their care for the poor, the needy, the hungry. They will visit the imprisoned, and welcome the stranger. When we reject strangers and sojourners, pushing them away and turning our hearts against them, we are actually ignoring Jesus. We’re opening ourselves to the destruction of the hardened heart.
Are we recipients and givers of grace or mercy, or do we believe we have to fight to protect our way of life?
The El Paso Shooter acted out of that hardness to the extreme, murdering almost two dozen people and trying to kill many more. He reaped the bitter harvest of death and destruction that he had been sowing with his fear and hatred. The vast majority of those who close their hearts and lives to migrants and refugees would never kill anyone, of course. But how we see people and whether or not we receive the migrant and refugee in our midst in their time of need says much about how we see God and ourselves. Are we recipients and givers of grace or mercy, or do we believe we have to fight to protect our way of life?
In late May of this year, I returned to another part of the border, this time in Tijuana. I went to visit Mexican Baptist churches which had again transformed their sanctuaries to receive thousands of migrants – families and children, mostly – who had come to the border seeking asylum and were waiting months to have their cases heard. As we walked through the migrant camp at the El Chaparral border gate, where hundreds of men, women, and children live in tents, I saw the tired eyes and exhaustion that I remembered in El Paso two years before. Thousands of migrants had come again to the border looking for refuge and fleeing violence, poverty, extortion, rape, and murder. Local churches opened up their buildings to house and receive these desperate people into their lives. They fed them breakfast and allowed them to sleep in their small sanctuaries and dining halls. The character of Jesus manifesting in love of the stranger was again on display.
As we met with pastors who were receiving the migrants, I asked, “Why are you doing this? What motivates you to open your churches and give refuge to these people while they wait for their claims to be heard, even though this could take months?” Every single pastor gave me the same answer. First, “Why would you ask that? Isn’t it obvious?” Then they would tell me about the love of God. They would tell me that God wanted them to do this. They had no choice. They would say that when people are in need, you help them. You can’t ignore them or turn them away. We must love like Jesus loved.
Then I heard about Pastor Jose Antonio y Adriana Altamirano of Camino de Salvacion church. He tragically died earlier this year, but in 2016 when he was going to the beach area by the border he saw a homeless Haitian family. Thousands of Haitians had come to Tijuana hoping to get into the United States via our asylum process. When they were denied, they had nowhere to go. Pastor Altamirano picked up this family to take them back to his church where they could stay and find refuge.
On that next Sunday, he spoke to his congregation about receiving ten people. Would they open their church to receive just ten migrants in need? Would they open their hearts to receive Jesus? They agreed. But thirty Haitian migrants showed up. Word spread. Suddenly, the ministry of the little church was transformed. They gathered what supplies they could such as oil, flour, and eggs and God used their meager offerings to feed many. They started with Haitians, but then those from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador began to come. This ministry grew until people who had been deported from the United States began to come as well, to find help in their time of need. When they opened their hearts and church to the migrants and to God in this way, God sent migrants to them to find refuge. Change came to the church when they first considered God’s love for people and how God opened their lives to the needs of the sojourners in their midst. We have much to learn from the church in the borderlands.
Faith in Jesus transforms us to love and welcome those different from us, even at great cost to ourselves. When we welcome them and open our hearts and churches as places of refuge, we welcome Jesus. This is what I saw in El Paso in 2019. And it is going on now amongst the churches in Tijuana and all along the border as they follow Jesus to love and receive the stranger among them.
In 2018, I was conflicted about the migrant caravans coming up through Central America. Should we let them in? How do we maintain a secure border in the midst of a rush of migrants? What does it mean to be Christian when a mass of people come to us looking for refuge? Eventually I realized that I was thinking first about the responsibilities of the state instead of thinking about the heart of Jesus and how he would want to love through us. I’d forgotten that the role of the church is to speak to the state about the character of God and the realities of God’s kingdom. Then I remembered how Jesus saw the crowds.
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:35–38)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion. He was deeply moved with sympathy and love, not because of what they had to offer or how they would benefit him. Rather, Jesus was moved with compassion because the crowd was harassed and helpless. They needed refuge. Jesus prayed that there would be those who would go out into the harvest and bring in those who were left out and harassed. In the same way, the church that gives refuge to migrants and refugees, whether through basic ministry, housing, or sheltering immigrants from those who might persecute them, is first thinking about God and the value of the people who need refuge. It is a move flowing from a heart that knows it has been rescued and now has much to give away in faith, and little to protect out of fear.
So, I return to the border to see the church feeding and harboring the desperate people who come to it for shelter and help. And, I am reminded that the church as refuge is the kind of church that Jesus would call every church to be no matter where we are. In that, we embody the love of Christ to every wanderer in desperate search for a place to call home.