San Diego Association, Tijuana churches partner for ministry

Published Dec 02, 2019

SAN DIEGO — Immigration news reports in the United States frequently focus on processing and detention centers while also attempting to explain policies and positions of politicians, federal judges and advocates on both sides of the issue.

Lost in the coverage, however, is what happens to the tens of thousands who find themselves back across the border in Tijuana after unsuccessfully crossing into what for them is the longed-for “promised land.”

Since the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) — informally called “Remain in Mexico” — began in January migrants crossing the US border seeking asylum have been deported to Mexico to wait for their immigration hearings. Many — men, women, children and infants — are from countries other than Mexico and wind up living on the streets because they have no resources.

While this also is true in other Mexican border towns, Tijuana is particularly hard hit because it is the busiest land-border crossing in the western hemisphere.

Tijuana now faces a humanitarian crisis as some 40,000 people find themselves stranded, according to San Diego Southern Baptist Association, which supports a number of migrant ministries in Mexico.

Across the street from “the Jesus tree” — a large, white-barked tree emblazoned with the blue-painted name of Jesus — is the Movimiento Juventud 2000 (Youth Movement 2000), a mission serving men, women and children in need of shelter and food.

Families living in colorful pup-tents take up every available inch of concrete floor space in an open-air metal warehouse in Tijuana’s Zona Norte just yards from the US border.

The tents are the homes of migrants fleeing Guatemala, Ecuador, Nicaragua and El Salvador as they wait for appointments at the US Immigration Office to apply for visas or asylum.

And while the reasons behind why these particular families traveled to the border are varied, a peek into each tent told a similar story: families traveling as many as 2,000 miles with as many possessions as they could carry; parents doing their best to provide a good life for their children; children smiling and laughing as they played with siblings and new friends.

A few years ago, many of the immigrant refugees were Haitian, mission organizers said. These days they are mostly from Mexico, Central America and South America.

“This used to be a parking lot,” said mission coordinator Yesenia Ardor, gesturing to the pup-tent area. “Everything was out in the open.”

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday breakfast at the shelter is provided by San Diego Association church planter Juvenal Gonzalez and Gamaliel Lopez, pastor of Iglesia Bautista el Calvario, and his wife Mayra.

“We saw the need of the people,” she said. “It’s not easy for them to be here. If there’s no one to feed them, we must.”

The feeding ministry started with the Lopez children.

“My children wanted to start serving others so we started handing out sandwiches at bus stations and on the streets,” Gamaliel said.

Eventually they couldn’t provide enough. As a family they made a decision: “We need to start doing more.”

So he contacted Gonzalez and together they started breakfast at the shelter.

Lopez prepares the food each morning in his church’s kitchen and carries it across the city to the shelter.

Like other faith-based missions, Movimiento Juventud 2000 does not accept money from the Mexican government.

And while it does receive material goods such as food and clothing and some funds from those who can contribute while staying there, Ardor said it’s a stretch to pay the monthly utility bill, which often runs more than $1,000.

Several churches also are helping the hurting while sharing Jesus.

In a courtyard festooned with laundry on clotheslines, 22-year-old Marina Vargas watches over six-month- and five-year-old daughters while her husband works in the city. At night they sleep on a mattress on the floor in a small, windowless room at the El Camino de Salvación mission.

For the Vargas family the quarters are pure luxury.

A few months ago they spent 15 days hitchhiking from Guatemala in an effort to cross the US border and apply for asylum.

The trip through Mexico was dangerous, she said. “This trip has marked my daughter for life. She fears the Mexican police will send her back home.”

The family came into the US illegally. When they were deported from San Diego into Tijuana they slept out in the open for a time. They eventually found their way to the mission and will stay there while waiting for their US immigration court date.

But the wait is not wasted by the people of faith who work to share Jesus with and take care of the migrants.

“I am very grateful for the mission here,” Vargas said. “I have security. We never go hungry. I am encouraged by the church people and grateful for their prayers.”

(Reprinted with permission from The Alabama Baptist.)