Child refugees summon ministry, compassion
WASHINGTON (BP) -- The crisis of unaccompanied children and others crossing America's southern border is more than a political problem to Southern Baptist pastor Shannon Talley.
It's "an opportunity to touch a group of people," said Talley, pastor of the First Baptist Church in McAllen, Texas.
McAllen has been a focal point of the crisis, one which has seen more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border with Mexico since Oct. 1 of last year, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Most of the children -- and sometimes children accompanied by a parent or parents -- reportedly are fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which are plagued by violence among gangs involved in drug trafficking in those Central American countries.
For Talley and his church, ministry has taken precedence regardless of their opinion on the government's policies on immigration and the border.
"While politically I think that what has been allowed to happen is incorrect … I'm not a politician. I'm a pastor," Talley has said to his church, he told Baptist Press Monday (July 14). "And whatever laws are written and whatever the government is allowing is not something I can fix. But there are people that are here, and these children especially need our help."
First Baptist Church in McAllen, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC), has responded generously in giving and in time, Talley said. While they have no access to the unaccompanied children, teams of church members are in their third week of going to a nearby processing center to assist and minister to parents and their children. The teams have provided them with bags consisting of food, gospel tracts in Spanish and biblical coloring books.
"Our goal has really just been to try to give a loving touch to them, as well as the Gospel in their hands, because beyond that we were not allowed to do anything else," Talley said.
Other Southern Baptist churches and entities also are involved in seeking to minister during the crisis. At this point, they have the same limitation as First Baptist Church in McAllen -- a lack of access to the unaccompanied children being apprehended.
Southern Baptist Disaster Relief of the North American Mission Board (NAMB) provided care for children in May at Brownsville, Texas, through the SBTC and Texas Baptist Men (TBM). The SBTC reported from May 14-31 its volunteers served more than 1,300 children, prepared about 21,000 meals and washed more than 850 loads of laundry. They also gave away Bibles and tracts and shared the Gospel verbally with adults and children. That Southern Baptist work in response to requests from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Border Patrol concluded when a full-time contractor completed a shelter for the minors, according to NAMB.
The Department of Health and Human Services has since assumed custody of unaccompanied children, permitting only federal authorities and federal contractors to be in contact with them, NAMB reported.
For now at least, most ministry by Southern Baptists will take place through churches to children and adults crossing the border -- services such as laundry, showers, feeding and clothing, according to NAMB. For instance, McAllen's Calvary Baptist Church is washing 300 towels a day, according to the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT). A Hispanic pastor affiliated with the BGCT is conducting worship services for unaccompanied children at a shelter in San Antonio, a BGCT staff member said. Meanwhile, TBM has a laundry unit in McAllen to wash towels, it reported in a June update on its website.
Chris Liebrum, the BGCT's director of disaster recovery, told President Obama in a July 9 meeting in Dallas the mandate of Texas Baptists is the children.
"It is a crisis; it is a disaster; it is a mess; and our concern is helping those children, and we want to do that from a Matthew 25 perspective," Liebrum told the president, citing Jesus' teaching about "the least of these." Liebrum told BP he said in the meeting involving federal officials and faith-based representatives he wants a 4-year-old who is brought to this country from Guatemala to be able to say years later, "Those people treated me in a Christ-like way."
The federal government's Office of Refugee Resettlement contacted the Georgia Baptist Children's Homes (GBCH) in March to inquire about their ability and desire to provide services for unaccompanied minors, the organization said July 10. The ministry provided residential care for hundreds of unaccompanied minors from more than 50 countries from 1998 to 2005, according to the GBCH.
"At this time, we continue to have an open dialogue with State and Federal agencies and stand ready to assist these children in need," GBCH President James Harper said in a written statement.
Southern Baptist leaders have called for compassionate action in response to the crisis.
In a July 11 piece for BP, new SBC President Ronnie Floyd called for love and prayer from Christians, as well as federal reform of the immigration system.
"In this humanitarian crisis on the border of Texas, the children need immediate attention that elevates their health and safety above all," Floyd wrote. "From my point of view, the children must become our number one priority."
He also said, "As followers of Jesus Christ, we must extend compassionate action to all people, pointing them to the hope found only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said the crisis will continue until the U.S. government provides a solution.
In the meantime, he wrote in a July 13 blog post, "As Christians, we don't have to agree on all the details of public policy to agree that our response ought to be, first, one of compassion for those penned up in detention centers on the border."
Moore said, "The Gospel doesn't fill in for us on the details on how we can simultaneously balance border security and respect for human life in this case. But the Gospel does tell us that our instinct ought to be one of compassion toward those in need, not disgust or anger.
"The border crisis will take careful work by government leaders," he wrote. "And it will take a church willing to pray and to love. Our answer to the border crisis cannot be quick and easy. But, for the people of God, our consciences must be informed by a Kingdom much more ancient and more permanent than the United States."
The ERLC is among evangelical organizations that have called for reform that would provide border and workplace security; uphold the rule of law; respect family unity; and establish a path to legal status and citizenship to those who want to live in this country permanently and are willing to pay penalties and meet the requirements. Flaws in both the system and its enforcement have resulted in an estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants living illegally in the United States.
In 2011, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix approved a resolution on immigration reform that called for the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and holding businesses accountable in their hiring. It also requested public officials establish after securing the borders "a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country." It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.
The Senate passed broad reform legislation last year, but the ERLC has said it needs some revision. So far, House of Representatives committees have approved bills dealing with such matters as strengthening border and national security, providing visas for guest workers and requiring employers to use the E-Verify system to check employees' eligibility. The full House has yet to act on those bills, however.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).