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About two months ago, I interviewed a 55-year-old single woman who pastors a church in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Mexico. My interview with her didn’t make it into a story, but my interactions with her left a deep impression on me as my church begins praying about how to help the marginalized in our community.
Virginia Ponce has been pastoring El Rey Ya Viene (The King is Coming Soon) Church in Anapra, Mexico, for more than 25 years. Anapra is close to the U.S-Mexico border, so when the migrant caravans started arriving at the border three years ago, many asylum-seekers from Central America spilled over into Ponce’s town. Her church—as tiny and dirt-poor as it is—opened its doors and gave them food, shelter, and legal help. It could only house 10 people, so sometimes Ponce invited migrants into her own house right next to the church. At any given time, the yards around the church and Ponce’s house were full of children’s laughter and squeals.
And then the pandemic hit. If first-world folks in the U.S. are reeling from the economic impact of the pandemic shutdown, imagine how much more asylum-seekers and migrants in an already-poverty-stricken Mexico border town must be suffering. Before the pandemic, many were barely scraping by day-by-day, doing low-paid manual labor such as cleaning houses, washing cars, working in factories, and peddling snacks and trinkets on the streets. When local authorities enforced public health measures, migrants were the first to lose their jobs.
Despite lockdown orders, Ponce decided her ministry couldn’t stop. As often as she could, she piled her van with dispensas (baskets filled with basic staples such as dried beans, rice, milk, and some fresh produce and candy if Ponce had extra money) and drove door-to-door to the 50 families she knows. A coalition of American churches in Las Cruces, N.M., regularly sent funds to Ponce to provide for those basic needs.
Ponce always took precautions. She would stay in her van and honk when she arrived. The family would come out to greet her, and Ponce would pass out the dispensa from inside her van, knowing if she stepped out, the kids would jump over to hug her. She would check up on each family, ask if they needed anything, and prayed out loud for them. God’s work need not cease due to the pandemic, even if it continues in a van.
I was amazed at Ponce’s positive attitude and active love for her community during this time. This is a woman who had suffered her share of trauma in the past, a single woman who gives her all to serve the needs of others despite having very little for herself. No matter the obstacles, she finds ways to care for and love people in her community.
Here’s another way she’s serving her community: Schools are closed, and all classes are virtual. However, a lot of poorer folks—particularly migrants—cannot afford internet service, which means their kids have no access to education. So Ponce went to her local school district, asked for that year’s schoolwork, and printed out all the classwork. She then packaged the print-outs in plastic booklets and distributed them to each kid according to grade level, along with a Bible study curriculum she created. Each time she visits in her van, she asks the kids about their schoolwork, answers any questions they may have, and if needed, calls the teachers for help on solving a question in their booklet.
Children are the heart of Ponce’s ministry. And I sensed a childlikeness to Ponce’s spirit as well, in the way she sees the world with childlike faith and trust. It is a purity of heart and soul that isn’t naïve—Ponce knows better than most of us Americans what fear, hardship, persecution, and poverty are—but her purity is one that is both childlike and mature. Her posture and perception don’t sink into today’s cynicism, conspiracies, and criticism. Instead, I sensed in Ponce a constant, daily wonder in the world God has created, a strong belief in the supernatural, and a trusting acceptance of God’s mysteries.
And because of that childlikeness, Ponce doesn’t miss the opportunity to see God’s work. Every time I talked to Ponce, she praised and thanked God for every little thing that happened, then expressed delight in the people in her life—especially the kids, who unlike their parents, are not weighed down by cynicism.
Ponce sees the difference between adults and children: The parents are worried and anxious. They watch the news on TV, hear things on the radio, and ask Ponce, “Is this a political attack?” “Are we being manipulated?” “Did God send us a plague to punish us?” And Ponce directs them back to God’s Word: “No, this is humanity. This is part of living in a fallen world. Let us look to God. Didn’t He promise to be with us, to strengthen and guard us? Trust in God to carry us through this.”
The parents, momentarily encouraged, nod their heads and respond, “Amen, amen.” But whenever they watch the news or count the few pesos they have left, their hearts fail them again. That’s when their children turn to remind them, “Remember what the pastor said? We need to look to God!”
I was reminded of Matthew 18:1-5, when the disciples asked Jesus, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus called a child into His arms and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” At a time when society dismissed children, Jesus uplifted them in front of all and publicly recognized their innocence and purity as something to be valued and celebrated.
Ponce said when she first began her ministry, she cried out to God, “How will I know that I’m doing Your will?” And she said God answered, “Look at the faces of My children. When you see them smiling, that’s Me smiling.”
What a simple yet profound way to test and do God’s will. Let us never grow too old and too sophisticated to become like little children in God’s eyes.