Immigrants find refuge in Texas congregations

Sep 17, 2018 by and

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DALLAS and HOUSTON — When her extended family lost their business in Guatemala because of gang extortion, Bony traveled across Mexico to the Rio Grande River with her 3-year-old daughter, Mily.

To evade U.S. border patrols, a smuggler forced Bony — identified here only by her first name to protect her family’s safety — to stand chest-deep in the rushing river. Bony placed Mily on her shoulders and clung to an overhanging branch. After six hours in the cold, muddy water, Bony felt she might lose her grip and be swept away to her death.

Her only other choice: climb the river bank, in full view of the patrol searchlights, and be taken into custody.

Detained at the border, then released without legal asylum or work papers, Bony eventually found her way to Iglesia Men­onita Monte Horeb (Mount Horeb Mennonite Church) in Dallas.

Her harrowing experience gives Pastor Sandra Montes-Martinez yet another story to share about the suffering, resilience, courage and faith of undocumented families who connect with Texas congregations of Mennonite Church USA’s Western District Conference.

Of Monte Horeb’s 35 congregants from seven Latin American countries, 25 are undocumented. In many cases, they are seeking some form of asylum, work permits or citizenship in a lengthy and expensive process, she said in an Aug. 27 interview in Dallas.

While many Anabaptists can watch or read from a comfortable distance the news of family separations at the border, Montes-Martinez has no such choice.

“For us in Texas, these stories are not our evening news,” she said. “They are part of our daily bread, part of the suffering we face every day in the lives of those close to us. . . . Contrary to what some American citizens think, these immigrants don’t come to the United States for adventure or out of greed. Strong needs force them to take these risks with their children and their lives.

“I cannot only say, ‘I am sorry. I will pray for you.’ How can I close the door to someone in need? As a follower of Jesus, I feel called to help these families. I must be Jesus in the flesh to them. . . . We must put aside our political interests and theological viewpoints, because that is what Jesus did. He addressed human needs first before teaching.”

The church ministers to two families separated recently at the border but now reunited, including one whose 4-year-old was separated from her mother and cried constantly for her.

At Monte Horeb, assisting immigrant families is a ministry that tends to the whole person.

“I hold power of attorney to become a legal guardian to five families’ children in case of deportation,” Montes-Martinez said. “I also provide translation and transportation to doctor’s visits and school meetings. I go to hospitals during births because husbands are working long hours. . . . We offer jobs at church such as painting and yard work for compensation, rather than as volunteer labor.”

Uncertainty every day

While leaders strive to quell anxieties, uncertainty and fear still thread through Western District’s 11 churches and three church plants in Texas.

At Iglesia Men­onita Comunidad de Esperanza (Community of Hope Mennonite Church) near downtown Dallas, Pastor Damian Rodri­guez remembers when the road to citizenship was less tortuous. He immigrated to the United States from Honduras and spent eight years undocumented before becoming a citizen. Today, 80 percent of his congregation’s 35 Sunday attenders are undocumented, many from Mexico.

“Ten or 15 years ago, immigrants could come and find work where they were safe,” he said. “Today, immigration officials go to workplaces, doctors’ offices and bus stations to detain people on the spot. . . . People leave their houses early in the morning and don’t know if they will make it back home. This is happening not only down here in Texas but across the country.”

Generational differences

In Houston, the extended family of Alberto and Aurora Parchmont, church planters of Iglesia Menonita Casa del Alfarero (Potter’s House Mennonite Church), reported experiences similar to the Dallas-based pastors. The Parchmonts were undocumented immigrants who became citizens in the 1980s when Reagan-era policies offered amnesty.

Aurora and Alberto Parchmont, church planters in Houston and former undocumented immigrants, help others navigate the complications of efforts to stay in the United States. — Laurie Oswald Robinson for MWR

Aurora and Alberto Parchmont, church planters in Houston and former undocumented immigrants, help others navigate the complications of efforts to stay in the United States. — Laurie Oswald Robinson for MWR

The couple, pastors for 18 years, now help younger generations navigate the complications and costs of their efforts to stay in this country. Legal processes that once cost hundreds of dollars now costs thousands and can take years with no assurance of success.

The Parchmonts’ daughter and son-in-law, Claudia and Jaime Sanchez, lay leaders at Casa del Alfarero, said their faith helped them overcome stress related to immigration status. After getting married, they were required to live in Mexico for three months, uncertain if he could return to the U.S.

“When we were in Mexico, going to church really gave me the feeling that I was among Christian family and that provided a lot of comfort,” Claudia said. “I have always felt that God has a purpose for us, and Jaime eventually getting his papers is part of that purpose.”

Jaime said: “As I have seen God work in my life, I realize that he doesn’t come too early or too late. It was hard when I was waiting for my papers. But now I see God’s timing in it all.”

Transcending fear

It is this kind of resilient faith that helps undocumented members of the 150-member Iglesia Luz del Evangelio (Light of the Gospel Church) reach out to others who are suffering. On Saturday mornings, a group comes to church at 5 a.m. to make 300 burritos and coffee to take to the homeless in downtown Dallas, said pastors Juan and Lupita Limones. About 80 percent of their members are undocumented.

“Our undocumented members head up this ministry,” Lupita Limones said. “They have been through hard times themselves and have the compassion.”

WDC leaders Byron Pellecer, associate conference minister in Texas; Kathy Neufeld Dunn, associate conference minister in Kansas; and Heidi Regier Kreider, conference minister; seek to provide solidarity and support to the congregations directly affected by the immigration crisis.

Working with the WDC Immigration Task Force, they help other congregations engage at whatever levels fit their call, whether it be education, action or direct relationship-building.

Part of that support and resourcing includes managing the tensions created when God’s people strive to remain faithful to kingdom practices in the mire of earthly politics.

“I favor comprehensive immigration reform that allows for background checks but also opens pathways for people to pursue green cards for legal residence that can lead to full citizenship,” Pellecer said. “God’s people need to find ways to both pray and to act, to hold our political leaders accountable for unjust policies and to find grassroots ways to work at this practically.”

This story is part of a special report on immigration concerns in the Sept. 24, 2018 issue of Mennonite World Review. Subscribe to see more stories and photos.


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