McALLEN, Texas (BP) — A chain-link fence along the sidewalk separated De Dorman and the rest of McAllen, Texas, from the immigrant processing center set up at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
Beyond the fence, khaki-colored tents stood tethered to the asphalt parking lot. Generators ran air conditioning units in each tent, keeping the temperature somewhere near 70 degrees — a stark difference from the humid, near 100 degrees outside and the reason for the cardboard box of fleece blankets Dorman carried.
Though 70 degrees feels normal or perhaps even warm to the average American, it is a shock to the systems of those who had spent the past several days or weeks traveling from Central America and Mexico to the American border, Dorman said.
“Children always freeze in the air conditioning,” she said. “They’re not used to the air conditioning. So we’ve had people sending blankets, and I got a box yesterday. ”
Providing blankets is among the ways a volunteer team from First Baptist Church in McAllen has ministered to children and young mothers crossing the border. The volunteers have washed laundry, cleaned showers and guided whole families through the processing — whatever job needed doing, they’ve done.
And in all of it, they’ve had one goal: point people to the hope found in Christ. The volunteers make a point of saying they have no political motives, reiterating that their only desire is showing compassion and hospitality to those who have landed on the town’s doorstep.
“If we make excuses why we can’t,” Dorman said, “we’ll be accountable for why we don’t.”
The volunteers have worked at the nearby Catholic church in shifts. Dorman, a member of First Baptist and founder of Helping Hands Ministries, has coordinated her church’s involvement. She said she first realized the Lord’s plans for the outreach while stranded in a Chicago airport by bad weather in mid-June. For three days, she slept on an airport-provided cot. As she lay there helpless to change the situation or to resume her travel plans, Dorman began to identify with the plight of those coming into her own city 1,400 miles south.
“The first night I slept on that cot, I thought about the people I saw on television sleeping on cots … and I just was so burdened for them,” Dorman said of the harrowing circumstances they had faced to, now, become strangers in a foreign land. She knew clearly that the Lord was calling her to minister on His behalf and resolved to seek out how she and a team of volunteers could be of service back in Texas.
When she arrived at the Catholic church hosting the processing center, Dorman saw that it was on Chicago Avenue. What to others may have seemed coincidental was a clear confirmation to Dorman that she was following the Lord’s plan.
Dorman organized a team of about 25 people from First Baptist to begin helping the Catholic church care for the constant stream of people. The Catholic volunteers seemed a bit leery at first of the Baptist group coming to help, but they quickly accepted them, weary from trying to do everything on their own.
“I sensed a relief on their part because in the beginning there was such a demand on them. They were exhausted,” Dorman said.
Sister Norma Pimentel, the local Catholic Charities executive director, said as much when she spoke to reporters at the processing center July 19.
“It’s been fantastic,” Pimentel said. “The local Baptist church … has united in effort to respond and work together in whatever we need to do.”
Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, noted in a visit to the border July 22 that the crisis is “not so much a political crisis as a humanitarian one. In the spirit of Matthew 25:40, we pray that Southern Baptists will seek and find opportunities to meet the basic needs, and the spiritual needs, of these who come to our country without food, clothing, shelter and hope.”
And, at a news conference July 22 in conjunction with the visit of several Baptist leaders to a shelter in San Antonio, Richards noted, ” It is our obligation under the Gospel to minister to them and help them, regardless of the circumstances in which they came or their future. Our main concern is to care for the children.”
Dorman said she and her group have sought to be good stewards of the open door given them by the Lord in McAllen, aiming to show respect for the church and for Catholic Charities. Because of the good relationship built between the two churches, Sacred Heart leadership has allowed Dorman and her team to give bilingual Bibles and Gospel-oriented coloring books to the new arrivals along with care packages to take with them for the bus or plane ride to their next destination.
“We tell them wherever you journey, the Lord wants to go with you,” Dorman said. “We do our best, as God opens the doors, to speak to them and to set resources into their hands for that long bus ride.”
Alisia Pina, another woman with the First Baptist team, said she has had several chances to speak with children — many of whom are scared and emotionally raw. She said she explained to them that Jesus is light, and that when things seem dark and scary in life, Jesus can take care of them and that they can call to Him by name.
Dorman said many of those fleeing into the U.S. had relayed to her details from their journey — heartbreaking stories that made it comprehendible why some of them froze at the touch of a hand or why many seemed too traumatized to speak.
“Some of the mothers have been raped in front of their children on the way,” Dorman said. “Some of them have witnessed murders. I would say shock is the word for it.”
One woman expressed her relief at having the hot meal provided by the Salvation Army, saying all the paid smugglers had given her to eat during the journey was an apple. These smugglers, Dorman said, earn up to $5,000 a head to smuggle immigrants through Mexico to the border. The trek is reportedly brutal and often deadly.
Felina Vega, another volunteer with the First Baptist team, has two daughters the same age as many of the children coming through the processing center. She said the whole experience has helped her and her children count their blessings.
“Sometimes we take things for granted, and being there makes us see how easy we have it,” Vega said. “It makes you grateful, because God gives you what you need.”
Dorman said assisting at the center in July reminded her what it feels like to be a stranger. When she and her husband moved to McAllen from Ohio 16 years ago, she recalls the feeling of alienation that has helped her minister to those coming into America.
“I never forgot how that felt,” Dorman said, wiping tears from her cheeks. “They need so much, but their greatest need is not material. Their greatest need is spiritual. I believe with all my heart that when they have the Lord Jesus Christ, He’s going to be the Father to them. But they have to make that connection … that it’s a relationship, not a religion, they need.”
Shannon Talley, First Baptist’s pastor, said he is grateful for the church’s response to the refugees. Like Dorman, Talley said the most important concern is ministering to the people and praying that his church can touch them with the Gospel.
“My political opinion would be I wish the president and the Congress would have made better decisions,” Talley said. “But I’m not a politician; I’m a pastor. And as a pastor I have a heart to reach people, and want to help people. … For me this is not about politics; it’s about people. Ultimately what we’re hoping is that they get to hear the Gospel.”
Sharayah Colter is a staff writer for the Southern Baptist Texan (texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.