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Desert oasis

West Regional runner-up: A border doesn’t stop Crossroads Nogales Rescue Mission from being good neighbors to those in need

Desert oasis

RUNNING ON FAITH: Women queue up for the Mother’s Day luncheon (Photo by Angela Lu)

NOGALES, Ariz.—As Arizona’s Interstate 19 comes to an end, the city of Nogales looms in the distance. It has low-rise buildings, colorful clusters of homes—and a jarring steel snake of a fence that divides residents. Nogales, Ariz., has a population of 21,000. Nogales of the Mexican state of Sonora has 10 times as many.

Many things are similar on either side of the 20-foot fence, which also extends 10 feet underground. Spanish signs proclaiming ¡Venta! (“sale”) decorate stores. Highway signs on both sides use the metric system. The differences, though, are profound: Police and border patrol officers roam on one side, drug cartel honchos intimidate and often control local authorities on the other. On the U.S. side, the hourly minimum wage is $7.80. That’s more than a day’s wages for factory workers on the other side of the fence.

Bert Wenke, assistant director of the Crossroads Nogales Rescue Mission, admits she doesn’t know what to do with the jarring disparities in her city, or America’s larger immigration problem. Illegal immigrants regularly run through her backyard or duck behind shrubbery as she drives home, and she responds by calling the border patrol. But Wenke and her husband, Ben, do know that the fence should not bar Christian compassion to her neighbors in Mexico who live in poverty.

They opened Crossroads in 1995. At the time friends told them it would never work: Nogales is too rural. Nogales straddles two countries. Nogales has no major industry so there’s no way to get support. But the Wenkes stuck with it, relying on prayer and the generosity of churches and donors in nearby towns. Today the mission has grown to four facilities and a budget of more than $600,000. It helps thousands of people, almost entirely from Mexico.

Bert was once an aspiring go-go dancer and barmaid. Ben was a drug dealer and alcoholic. After having children, though, they professed faith in Christ—first Bert, and then (after much prayer) Ben as well. They felt called to help others with troubled backgrounds and worked at rescue missions in Seattle, Boise, Wichita, and Tucson before heading to Nogales. Together they had 60 years of mission work between them, yet the issues they dealt with in Nogales were unlike anything they worked with before. 

For starters, the people who come for the free food, chapel services, and clothing come from a different country, using Mexican visas to cross the border. Rather than dealing with drug addicts and homeless people, most of the people either have jobs in factories with measly pay or are elderly societal discards. The Wenkes also deal with border city issues: One woman with children stayed at their shelter until they realized she was a coyote smuggling children illegally over the border, using the mission as a stopping point. From then on, anyone staying the night had to show an ID.

On the morning of Crossroad’s Mother’s Day luncheon, men, women, and children started filling up the mission’s courtyard at 7 a.m., hours before the chapel services even started. The regulars helped volunteers set up chairs and tarps, some picking up brooms and sweeping the floor. The journey to the mission—riding the bus, walking, waiting to cross the border—takes more than half a day for some.

Marta Jimenez Merino, a short-haired woman with glasses, waits under a canopy for chapel to start. A bandage covers her middle finger, which she said she cut at her factory job scraping off paint. The job pays only enough to cover her utilities, and as she also helps take care of her grandchildren, “we wouldn’t make it if the Mission didn’t feed us here,” she said in Spanish.

She’s been coming to Crossroads every Saturday for a year, traveling five or six hours one way from her home in Mexico. Merino, who is 56, fears for her job security, for many in Mexican society believe people over 50 are too old to work. She and others file into the chapel at 11 a.m., where the pastor preaches about the importance of mothers in the Bible. Men and women drop pesos and coins into the offering plate, which goes to help missions in other cities.

Around noon, the people queue up at the dining area, where volunteers passed out ham, corn salad, and a roll. They’re serenaded with a Spanish Mother’s Day song, and a Cub Scout handed each mother a carnation. Once outside the women stop by stations to pick up produce bags, loaves of bread, and purses filled with toiletries and a Bible. Then they head to the women’s shelter down the street, where donated clothes, toys, and appliances pile high on folding tables.

The scene is chaotic as the women scavenge through the clothing, filling enormous bags with goods. Mission worker Mike Atkins said most of these donations would end up being sold in flea markets in the next few days, but he said it didn’t bother him: “They need to eat, if they can make money off the clothes to make that happen, that’s fine. Whatever helps them make it.”

Lately the donated goods have decreased, with once-filled shipping containers now barely half full. The recession has hit Nogales hard: Unemployment flounders at 17 percent as jobs are scarce. Now the people coming to Crossroads walk out with 15-pound produce bags that once weighed 30 pounds.

Crossroads also lost access to USDA food supplies and funds after the Arizona Department of Economic Security added requirements that all religious organizations stop “proselytizing.” In order to receive government aid, Crossroads has to get rid of chapel, stop passing out tracts and Bibles with food bags, and take out the word Jesus in its signs.

“[The government aid] would have helped a lot, but we couldn’t do it because our purpose was to honor God,” Ben said. State officials told Ben the mission workers could talk about their faith only if any of the clients asked about it, but he didn’t think that was enough: “The prophets didn’t sit at the city gates and wait for people to approach them. They yelled for the people to repent.”

The chapel is a big reason why many regulars come. Gustavo Rosas, a 78-year-old man with a handlebar mustache and white cowboy hat, said he comes first for the necessity of the Word of God, then for the food. He loves discussing the sermons with the other patrons and hearing their different points of view.

Since losing USDA aid, the Wenkes have continued to pray and trust that God will provide. All nine of the supporting churches in nearby towns like Green Valley increased their giving. While the quality of the food may have decreased–hamburgers rather than sliced roast–the ministry was able to serve 39,000 meals on $4,000 worth of food supplies. Bert said she’s seen miracles while working at the fledgling mission. One moment she’d find the pantry nearly empty. Then someone would come in and drop off $3,000.

“God knew this ministry would run on faith,” Bert said. “We pray for everything. We told ourselves no one should go out of the mission without something in their hand, and that promise has been kept.”

Money Box

• 2012 contributions: $496,400

• 2012 expenses: $442,400

• Net assets at the end of 2012: $532,500

• Executive director Ben Wenke’s salary: $38,500

• Staff: Eight employees, 300-plus volunteers

2013 budget: $615,300

• Website: crossroadnewlifecenter.org

Follow this year’s Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition and vote for the ministry you believe deserves the 2013 award .

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a reporter for WORLD Magazine who lives and works in Taiwan. She enjoys cooking, reading, and storytelling. Follow Angela on Twitter @angela818.