Scorpion’s Canyon isn’t as pristine as it might sound. Empty plastic bottles and straws and clothing littered the side of the road, some debris so old and sun-beaten that it looked encrusted onto the rocks. A little creek at the side was all dried up. Instead of brick walls, the walls on the side of the road were made of old, used tires stacked on top of each other, with big rocks keeping each tire in place. Already, these “walls” were blending into the elements—weeds and green plants sprouted out between tire and dirt, and roosters hopped up the tires like stairs.
And there, at the end of the road, was a beige, flat-roofed building with a bright blue-and-green banner that reads: Iglesia Embajadores de Jesús—The Ambassadors of Christ Church. Every Sunday, about 300 people gather at the sanctuary to worship together—Mexicans, Haitians, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Dominicans, and others from all over Latin America. And it all began with one good Samaritan in Tijuana who dreamed of building a “City of God.”
When Pastor Gustavo built this church, he had no idea his vision would materialize through a migrant crisis at the border. Ever since the pastor and his wife opened the church to shelter migrants in 2016, Scorpion’s Canyon has begun to resemble a picture from Revelation 5:9: “For you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Someone once described Pastor Gustavo as “eccentric.” Certainly, he’s not your typical evangelical pastor. What pastor would choose this poor, remote canyon to build a church? Not Pastor Gustavo—at least, not at first.
Pastor Gustavo told me when God first told him to build a church in Scorpion’s Canyon, he protested: “God, this place has no houses, only pigs and chickens and horses. It smells so bad here. Who’s going to come to this church, God?” God reminded him, “Remember where I was born? I was born in a manger.” Pastor Gustavo protested again: “OK. But God, when Jesus sent His disciples out to ministry, He sent them out two by two. I need help. I have no money. Send someone to help build this church, then I’ll do it.” Three days later, a man called him up: “I want to help. What do you need?”
In 2011, Pastor Gustavo dug a shovel into the dirt hills of Scorpion’s Canyon to build the church he promised God he would. He also built little houses around the neighborhood for poorer folks. He built in haste, spurred by an urgency in his spirit that something was coming. “My people thought I was crazy,” he recalled. “But I knew we needed to get ready for something.”
Today, Scorpion’s Canyon is still no Garden of Eden. It still smells like horse dung, and the sight of those dirty pigs made me want to swear off bacon. But it’s home for hundreds of people who are strangers in a foreign place and cannot return home for various reasons. Almost all of the 220 migrants currently living in the church are families and children. Here, they feel safe from the violence and homelessness in Tijuana. Here, they can cook meals, wash their clothes, sleep under a secure roof, and let their kids run free without worrying about gangs and kidnappings.