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Jesus at the border

The Savior’s love for a widow in the Bible reminded me of the Christian compassion I saw in El Paso

Jesus at the border

Bobbie Hutson, a volunteer at El Calvario United Methodist Church, sets up cots for asylum-seekers in Las Cruces, N.M. (Josh Bachman/Las Cruces Sun-News via AP)

Two weeks before the shooting happened in El Paso, Texas, I was in that city reporting on what local churches in border communities are doing to help one of the most politicized groups in our country today.

El Paso has attracted a lot of media attention lately, not just because its high number of apprehensions of asylum-seekers at the border, but because of reports of inhumane conditions at its Border Patrol stations. The pictures of hundreds of migrants cramped in cages, the reports of underfed, neglected children in filthy, overcrowded cells—all these stories have horrified most Americans, though I’ve also heard some people comment that if conditions in the United States are so bad, these people should just “go back to their countries.” 

So when I flew to Texas in July, I was ready to see something more hopeful. I wanted to see local churches doing something different regarding this controversial, emotionally charged issue.

What I saw were members of the community giving so much that they filled storage rooms and lobbies with mountains of boxes stuffed with diapers, snacks, underwear, socks, and more. One volunteer told me a church filled his truck with so many donations that things were falling out as he drove off. That says a lot, because I know that most people in this community are not financially well off.

I saw a tiny, Spanish-speaking church of only 12 members open its doors to 40 asylum-seekers twice a week. The congregants use every inch of space for the effort, even turning the pastor’s office into a processing room. They’re now planning to do this ministry full time as one of the church’s core missions. Staff members from the nonprofit Save the Children came to visit the church, and one told me, “This church is unbelievably generous. I’ve been to a lot of places of charity, and this place has been the most incredible—and that’s coming from us, a secular organization.” 

I met many individuals who had been working tirelessly for years before this issue became national daily news: There’s Sami Dipasquale of Abara, who after 15 years of serving youths and families in downtown El Paso, saw the pressing challenges at the border. For years, he’s been helping connect churches on both sides of the border and guiding interested parties to the border to learn the realities on the ground. 

There’s 21-year-old Gustavo de los Rios, who drives back and forth between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez about three times a week, carrying loads of donations to church shelters in Juárez that don’t have enough resources to help all the migrants in their neighborhood. The day I met him, he was off to Juárez again to help deliver air conditioners to church shelters that have been suffering in the unbearable summer heat. 

There’s Joseph Gainor, the refugee ministry coordinator of an Anglican church in downtown El Paso, who says through his volunteer work he learned “first of all, that God is good, and God always provides.” 

It’s not just material goods or money that He provides, but servant-hearted people—individuals who feel moved to help by cooking, filling out paperwork, playing with the kids, picking up the migrants and sending them off at the bus station or airport. Women in their 80s would show up to pick up all the dirty laundry and bring in fresh sheets the next day. When medical supplies ran out, volunteers dashed to the nearest pharmacy and purchased things out of their own pockets. 

As a Christian journalist, I try to look for Scripture passages that provide a framework to my reporting. Going into the El Paso trip, I thought I already had the guiding Bible verses down—there’s Deuteronomy 10:19, Leviticus 19:34, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Ezekiel 47:22—solid words commanding us to welcome the immigrant. 

But I’ll be honest: Although these verses stirred a sense of moral imperative in me, they didn’t quite strike deep into my heart. I received these Scriptures with an intellectual understanding, a fear of God, and frankly, a sense of pressure: I shall love the alien as myself; I’ll be cursed if I withhold justice from the foreigner; I must not oppress the alien. ... They are a lot of commanding, authoritative, imperative verbs. 

Then last Sunday, a day after the El Paso shooting, my church studied Luke 7:11-17. 

Here’s the passage:

Soon afterward [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.

This familiar story doesn’t directly reference immigrants and refugees, but it still struck me afresh in light of all that had occurred in the past two weeks—seeing Christians serve the stranger with sacrificial generosity, and then hearing the news on the horrible mass murder in El Paso, a deliberate, violent statement against immigration and brown people. 

This story isn’t just about the miracle of Jesus raising the dead. It’s about that woman—a widow who, after all the public wailing and mourning of the funeral, will mostly likely be forgotten because she probably isn’t the only widow in town. She is a nobody—she has no advocate, no power, no voice, no valuable contribution to society in the eyes of her neighbors. Jesus didn’t just perform that miracle to show everyone that He is God. He did it to display to everyone His amazing love. Those who only marveled at the dead rising would be missing the deep implications of what actually happened. 

You see, Jesus saw that widow among the crowd. Out of all the people gathered around Him and thronging the streets of the town of Nain, he noticed her. He saw the suffering of someone who’d lost her status and protection and security. He saw her loneliness, her fears, the reality of her circumstances—and He had compassion on her. Then He did a strange thing: He told the widow not to weep, even though He knew she had every reason to do so. But He knew something she didn’t: There will be a time when her tears are wiped away and there is no more death or mourning or pain, because He has come to dwell among men.

Throughout my reporting at the border, volunteers told me the same thing over and over: They said they’re simply being “the hands and feet of Jesus.” That phrase is so familiar to me that I had lost grip of its meaning—until I wondered what He would do at the border if He saw everything that’s happening to the asylum-seekers. 

Today, we are the body of Christ, and we’re receiving a group of people who, like the widow of Nain, have lost their status and protection and security. They have no power or voice and are considered too poor and too uneducated to bring any real value to our society. They are, for political, economic, and social reasons, often despised and mischaracterized. As secular as our nation has become, Americans still look to churches for examples of hope and compassion. And they should, because we worship the only Lord and Savior who walked the earth and offered compassion to the despised, the poor, and the oppressed, from wealthy tax collectors to banished lepers.

That’s why what I saw churches doing at the border was nothing short of a miracle: They weren’t serving just because the Bible commanded it—they did it because they were first touched by the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. It’s not an act of obligation, but an act inspired, motivated, and sustained by an undeserved, God-given love.

Comments

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  • Shari Salzman
    Posted: Mon, 08/12/2019 06:42 pm

    Wow! It's good to finally see a positive article about my hometown, El Paso! Thank you for seeing God at work.

  • CJ
    Posted: Tue, 08/13/2019 03:23 pm

    "Jesus didn’t just perform that miracle to show everyone that He is God. He did it to display to everyone His amazing love." Amen.