Pastoring Undocumented Workers in Civil Unrest
Several years ago, I left Venezuela to plant a Spanish-speaking church in Washington, DC.
If you’ve read international news in the last 10 years, you’re likely aware that I left behind a deeply complex web of socio-economic crises and political struggles. I pastored a church in Venezuela for 14 years in my hometown. We faced intermittent seasons of political riots, marches, and protests. People in my city were often unable to find food and medicine; safety was an everyday concern. Even though I miss my home country and the church I pastored there, I admit I felt some measure of relief when I landed at Reagan National airport.
Yet here I am again: different country, similar protests; different reasons, similar chaos spilling onto the streets; different slangs and slurs, same hate-filled hearts.
A few weeks ago, just a few blocks from my house, I smelled an old, familiar smell: tear gas. And upon seeing wood panels covering storefronts all over the city, I feel an old, familiar feeling: sadness and despair in the public square. Worst of all, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel as both the problem and their solutions are being co-opted for political purposes. As it turns out, my new home is starting to feel a lot like my old one.
SERVING & PASTORING UNDOCUMENTED WORKERS
I don’t pretend to be an experienced revolution survivor, much less a social scientist. I’m a pastor—a servant to the largest non-American minority in the heart of this nation’s capital. Most Hispanics have come here with a singular purpose: to make money. They’ve been mistreated for decades by discrimination and marginalization. Now, in a nation-wide confrontation over racism that has been exasperated by an ominously long pandemic, the people I serve are struggling to find affordable food, steady jobs, prescription medication, and trustworthy immigration processes.
Looking at the neighborhood around me, I serve a population with several fears. Many of these folks are either illegal or undocumented. Christians and pastors have different responses to America’s immigration challenges. I won’t address all the ethical and legal complexities here, but our church’s location gives us plenty of opportunity to think about loving and sharing the gospel with these folks.
The workers in our community are underpaid. Many need to work 60+ hours per week in order to care for their families. They don’t have health insurance, drivers’ licenses, or even bank accounts. They struggle through language barriers. Some of them face xenophobic assaults or episodes of discrimination they cannot report to any authority. Most of them are concerned about being deported. On top of that, businesses continue to shut down and opportunities for work are becoming increasingly rare.
In the midst of all this, our church has sought to help provide our neighbors with food for their bodies and peace for their souls. In the last 20 weeks, with the help of sister churches, we’ve assisted 576 different families. Based on James 2:15–16, we’ve prayed with them, shared the gospel, filled their bellies, and paid some of their bills. Hopefully, they know we love them. Not all of them will come to Christ, but we’re sowing seed and trusting the Lord of the harvest. We’re encouraged.
But we’re also sad. Over the last 20 weeks, we’ve had several heartbreaking conversations with people in our neighborhood:
- JD, a Colombian man, came to my house early one morning because he had an appointment to sign divorce papers. He feared that he was going to be deported immediately: “Pastor, I have nobody else. If I get deported, I want you to keep of my few belongings in this briefcase: my passport, my clothes, my wallet, and my most precious thing—an iPad with a lot of pictures of my little daughter. You’re the only one I can trust. Here’s some cash to mail me this briefcase when I call you from Colombia”.
- DG, a Guatemalan woman, told us that her husband beat her for years. When she finally decided to run away, she went to the police and asked for a restraining order. But one day he tracked her down and beat her severely. When her husband was finally put in prison she told me, “If my husband kills me when he gets out of prison, I want you to take care of my daughter. Please, receive her in your home. You are the only ones I can trust.” That broke our hearts in a thousand pieces.
- MM, a Costa Rican woman who left her family two years ago and overstayed her lawful tourist visa, was devastated when she discovered that her 21-year-old daughter died in a car accident last October. She couldn’t make it home to attend the funeral. After losing her job, she was on the brink of homelessness. Hungry and impoverished, she stood outside a food bank for several hours waiting for a box of groceries. Before she got them, the program was shut down for not complying with social distancing rules. Despairing, she cried out loud to heaven, Why so much humiliation, Lord? What else shall I go through? In that moment, somebody else in the line gave her the contact information for our church. She called us, and we were able to buy her groceries. I prayed for her, and she prayed a touching prayer of faith asking the Lord for mercy. Since that memorable moment, she has consistently joined our online church meetings twice a week with great joy in the Lord.
In all these cases and in many more, we trust the risen and ruling King Jesus to draw many to himself as we imitate his grace and kindness in shepherding undocumented workers amid civil unrest. “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal. 2:10).
If your church is surrounded by undocumented workers, what can you and your congregation do to love them? At some point you will need to discuss what it means to obey the government. In the meantime, maybe think of them as something like the Samaritans of our day, the class of people the establishment despises and ignores. Will you share the gospel with them, even as Christ did? Will you show hospitality?
And so we pray: Come Lord, Jesus!