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Encouragement for a journalist

A visit with a New Mexico church sheltering asylum-seekers put a spring in my step

Encouragement for a journalist

A migrant mother and her son take shelter in a church in Las Cruces, New Mexico. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Early this summer, I joined a group of World Journalism Institute students via Skype to talk about my experiences as a Christian journalist. World Journalism Institute is an intensive course that teaches participants how to do Biblical journalism, and I myself am a WJI alumna. 

After my brief talk, several students raised their hands to ask questions. One student asked if I ever feel tempted to join a nonprofit while reporting on it. Don’t I sometimes get so excited by the concrete, compassionate work a group is doing that I want to be part of it rather than merely writing about it? I said no, because I feel pretty clear about my calling as a journalist. I said I know I’m doing exactly what God called me to do, so I don’t envy other vocations. 

That said, journalism can sometimes be discouraging work. After all, I’m not effecting much change—I’m usually following the wake of tragedies and crises, observing and writing about the tears and anger and hurt instead of stopping them from happening or making the suffering go away. It can also be discouraging when I feel like I’m not changing any opinions about certain critical issues, such as immigration or race.

It was with this somewhat discouraged heart that I visited the El Paso Border Patrol Sector last week to report on the ongoing border crisis. Just six months or so ago, to call what’s happening at the southern border a “crisis” would have provoked bellows of outrage from liberals. Now, almost nobody denies that the situation has hit “crisis” level. 

The El Paso Sector, which encompasses the entire state of New Mexico plus two counties in far-west Texas, has seen the largest increase in unauthorized border crossings this year compared with other sectors. This fiscal year in this one sector alone, Border Patrol officers apprehended 14,953 unaccompanied minors, 117,612 family units, and 23,595 single adults. Most came from impoverished, violence-riddled parts of Central America. 

For four days, I visited El Paso, Texas; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. There, dozens of local churches have been sheltering and ministering to the hundreds of asylum-seekers that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol are releasing each day. On my second day of reporting, I spent an entire day at Las Cruces, a desert city of about 100,000 residents. The last church I visited in Las Cruces was a nondenominational church of about 120 members called Sierra Vista Community Church. 

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Migrants from Guatemala and Brazil sleep on cots at a church in Las Cruces, New Mexico. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

At Sierra Vista, I met Gayla Ortega, a worship pastor and pastor’s wife who showed me where the congregation shelters the asylum-seekers, all of them families. Since May, the church has taken in 16 people a week. It began with a conviction that weighed so hot and heavy on Gayla’s heart that she couldn’t sleep. She said she had been reading the news what was happening at the border, and she felt God telling her, “It’s time to put action into prayer.” 

So one Sunday morning after the church service, she stepped to the pulpit and told her congregation to pray for three days about what they could do to help. The following Wednesday, the church community responded by stuffing the church lobby with stacks of donations—diapers, bags, nonperishable foods, bottled water, clothes … Ever since then, the congregation has been opening its doors to asylum-seekers from all over Latin America and Africa, and it intends to do so for as long as needed. 

After Gayla and I spoke for a while, she asked me, “Which publication do you work for again?” 

“WORLD Magazine,” I said. 

The wheels began turning in her brain: “Wait … Did you … did you write that article about the migrants?” 

I was confused: “Huh?”

Gayla started looking excited “There’s an article I read from WORLD Magazine that I’ve been telling everyone to read,” she said. “That’s the article that convicted me to get involved!” Then she grabbed my hand, led me to her office, and whipped out a printed copy of WORLD Magazine from her cabinet. The cover story, dated April 27, was my report this year from Tijuana, Mexico, about the growing border crisis.


WORLD Magazine, April 27, 2019 (Handout)

“Oh!” I gasped. “I wrote that!” 

“Oh, wow,” Gayla cried, falling back down on her chair, eyes wide and shining. “Now, isn’t that amazing? Isn’t God wonderful?”

And then we both gaped at each other, feeling exhilarated and gratified. 

“I do hope this encourages you,” Gayla said, clasping her hands over mine. “You see? We read. Your work has impact.” 

I was as shocked as I was overjoyed. What are the chances that I would travel from Los Angeles to New Mexico and unknowingly visit this particular church that had apparently been inspired by my work? Oh, how full my heart was now—full of praise, encouragement, and gratitude that God, in His infinitely wise understanding, gave both a New Mexico pastor and a Los Angeles journalist exactly what they needed at exactly the right time. If that’s how God works, then I need not burden myself with the responsibility to change minds and hearts—that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. My job as a journalist is simply to report the truth as accurately and vividly as I can. 

That morning, I had driven up to Las Cruces feeling tired. But that evening, I sped off feeling … free. 


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  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Wed, 07/31/2019 11:08 am

    Sophia, I love your writing, as I have written before. I celebrate with you the wonderful outcome of praise and encouragement that you and Gayla experienced.

    There is one sentence that hits me wrong, however. You wrote,

    "Just six months or so ago, to call what’s happening at the southern border a “crisis” would have provoked bellows of outrage from liberals. Now, almost nobody denies that the situation has hit “crisis” level."

    1) In this particular article, why do you feel it is necessary to swipe at "liberals" at all? Isn't that off-topic and extraneous to the beautiful story you are telling? 2) As with most words, "crisis" can mean different things to different listeners based upon who is the object of the word. Is immigration a crisis for the Americans on this side of the border, because it upsets their lives, or is immigration a crisis for the immigrants?

    Six months ago, liberals may have objected to the word "crisis" because they object to those with strong hatred of immigration no matter how many. Some people may perceive all immigration as a "crisis" to their own lives, because they would prefer no poor immigrants to begin with. Now, however, the numbers and inhumane conditions suggest that the crisis is most experienced by the immigrants themselves. With this as the word's meaning, the "liberals" can agree. And, as your article expresses, the vast numbers bring the compassionate people who live in small communities into "crisis" mode themselves, as their resources are overwhelmed. Do you see what I am saying?

    There is indeed emotional prejudice on both sides of the aisle--liberals get emotional about conservatives, and conservatives get emotional about liberals. For my part, I can't help but bristle whenever I hear disparaging labels being applied. Generally, their purpose is to insult and put down. I bristle when a liberal applies disparaging remarks to conservatives, and I bristle when I hear conservatives apply disparaging remarks to liberals. Very wisely Jesus himself was apolitical. He ministered to the rich centurion, to the poor people, to the Pharisees, and to the so-called "sinners." He ministered to Roman soldiers, who at times surely mistreated the populace, and he ministered to the populace. It's so unfortunate when people on both sides of the aisle choose to denigrate people who interpret the world differently, rather than seeking to understand and love one another.




  • TY
    Posted: Thu, 08/01/2019 10:21 am

    great encouragement for persevering in our callings!

  •  Cavanaugh's picture
    Posted: Sat, 08/31/2019 04:47 pm

    An otherwise great article about the Christian response to the border crisis was marred by the Democratic party playbook description of how the President singlehandedly created the problem.   I realize reporting how his creative opponents might have crafted the crisis [and hurt so many people in the process] would not have been useful – but without that balance, it just weakened the attention to “What do believers do now?” – the legitimate point of the reporting.