Oklahoma City First Church Sends Team to Minister on the Border
On January 2, 2019, a team of seven pastors and lay members from Oklahoma First Church of the Nazarene packed up their cars and drove south to minister and serve on the border between the United States and Mexico. Tyler Stark, a staff pastor at OKC 1st, describes the prayer that fueled the trip to learn about and care for asylum seekers: “Jesus, break our heart for what breaks yours and move us with the compassion to do something about it.”
The group arrived at Rio Valley Church of the Nazarene in McAllen, Texas, ready to observe, reach out with compassion, and share Christ’s love with those they would encounter. Pastor Tyler shares, “That next morning, we headed off with Pastor Eric Buell, one of the pastors at RVC, to volunteer with the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen.”
This particular center serves as a place for asylum seekers who have been processed at the US border in McAllen to find clothing, get a shower, and receive food and assistance as they begin their wait for an appearance in immigration court. Many will just stop in for a few hours, others, a day or two, before they board buses to travel to family members who will host them during their wait.
Pastor Tyler described the scene they encountered: “Once there, we were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of asylum seekers. Some of them were wandering the halls, others are sleeping on mats or gathering their necessities, as they all prepared for their bus departures. 347 seekers had stayed at the center that night. The numbers can range anywhere from 20 to 350. We were given a tour of the facilities which included the rooms that are used to outfit the asylum seekers with necessities once they arrive, a room designated to charging ankle monitoring device batteries, a registration room, and dining room. Then our work started.”
The group assisted with sorting and distributing clothing and other tasks for the respite center. They observed and connected with people ranging from 4-day-old infants to older adults. Many were suffering from exhaustion and illness. The group was powerfully impacted by the asylum seekers’ appreciation and grateful spirits as they interacted with the volunteers in the center, even as they were obviously suffering from a variety of needs.
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘What was the most heartbreaking part of your trip?’”, says Pastor Tyler.
“I sat and contemplated which story I would tell. Maybe the one about the Honduran mother who carried her nine-year-old son with cerebral palsy hundreds of miles so he would be safe from the gangs who physically tortured him. Or maybe the one about the young lady who gave birth while in custody at the border. Or the 18-year-old boy who was fleeing police brutality in his home country—his mom finally told him that if he was going to survive he had no choice but to leave. The list goes on and on, and we only heard a small number of the stories.”
After several days serving at the respite center, the group moved down the border to Brownsville, Texas, where they joined up with Pastor Mark Redwine, pastor at the Brownsville Lost and Found Church of the Nazarene.
“On our last day at the southern border we continued on to Brownsville,” Pastor Tyler reports. “Pastor Mark works regularly with a group of volunteers to take warm meals to asylum seekers living on a bridge on the Mexico side of the port of entry. These Seekers, who are tired and weary from travel, have set up a camp on the bridge while they wait for permission to apply for asylum, and volunteers in Brownsville have brought tarps and cots and blankets to furnish the area. We took them a meal on a cold Saturday night and sat with them as we learned their stories and heard their heartbreak. Many of them had tried to apply daily for up to six weeks to be allowed to finish crossing the bridge to seek asylum. One young man was unable to speak, which initially we thought would be a road block to communicating with him. But, he told story after story using a combination of home signs, sign language from his home country, and pictures. We laughed together and we mourned together.”
The group from Oklahoma City returned home feeling filled with joy after seeing so many in Texas providing care for asylum seekers. Their time in the respite center opened their eyes to the needs of those who are looking for safety, and connecting with the local Nazarene pastors in the area helped them to see how every church can either serve asylum seekers directly, or support a church that is already serving them directly.
Moving forward, the church is planning a larger response. A second team has assembled and is going back in March, and they’re hoping to continue to plan trips every quarter. They are collecting belts and shoelaces to donate to the respite center, as those are confiscated from asylum seekers during the initial processing stage.
Locally, the church members are establishing relationships with local immigration advocacy groups to support immigrant families in the Oklahoma City area.
We are grateful for volunteers like the team from Oklahoma City First church who sacrificially gave of their time to be the compassionate hands and feet of Christ in a time of need.
Several churches on the US/Mexico border are reaching out to care for asylum seekers. One such ministry has recently been launched at El Paso First Church of the Nazarene in El Paso, Texas. The church is preparing to become a host site for asylum seekers as they are released from custody and traveling to their relatives to await immigration hearings. To learn more about this ministry, visit epfirstnaz.org/refugees.