I never imagined I would utter, much less think, these words: “I am proud to be a Baptist.” But it happened.
I don’t need to recount the long laundry list of problems with our denomination or with the church in America for you to understand why this seems so implausible. There are so many ways in which we, the church, have gotten things wrong, wounded each other and prevented others from truly seeing and experiencing the love of Christ.
Yet, despite all this, God has been at work in very hidden pockets, and I caught a glimpse of it.
Our small church in Central Texas began the journey, many years ago, of learning about the immigrant experience and understanding the challenges of life in Central America, the kind that would lead someone to flee that land. After several years of intentional prayer and walking alongside a family seeking asylum and befriending a Mennonite church that is extending themselves on behalf of the asylum seekers in our state, we began to sense a nudging to do the same.
“We listened and felt a growing desire to extend hospitality and to heed the call of the early church, to welcome all as if they are Christ.”
We prayed, listened, learned and began a process of discernment. We asked, “What particular thing is God calling us to do in the midst of the massive humanitarian needs of asylum seekers in our state?” As the people of God in this place, what is our spiritual work to do? We listened and felt a growing desire to extend hospitality and to heed the call of the early church, to welcome all as if they are Christ.
About a month ago, we finally opened a hospitality house for those seeking asylum, and we received our first family. This is where we saw God at work.
Through connections with Fellowship Southwest and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I received a call from a pastor at a Spanish-speaking Baptist church on the Texas border. Like many of the Spanish-speaking Baptist churches on the border, this church operates a shelter for migrants and asylum seekers, providing them with clothing, shoes, food and rest. These are short-term stops as they prepare for the next legs of their arduous journey.
A woman encountered a family on the streets in this border town who needed help, and she took this worn family to the church. The family spoke no English. They had not intended to come to the United States, they had not learned English, and they certainly were not coming for nefarious reasons. They had run for their lives, escaping persecution and horrific violence at the hands of authorities.
They searched for other places to seek refuge and there were none to be found. They truly needed safety and a place to begin a lifetime of healing. This family was ushered in to the doors of a Baptist church on the border, where they were cared for, and that is when the pastor called me. He told me part of their story and said they seemed to be the perfect fit for our new Naomi House.
“The widow … found a way to call her Baptist pastor back in Central America to tell him that after two years, including four months of walking through the desert, she and her children were safe with a Baptist church in Central Texas.”
As Naomi took in Ruth and brought her to her home community, so we have opened our home to bring in a widow and her family who need the healing love of God in particular ways. Members from our church made the eight-hour drive to the church on the border and picked up this family and brought them back to our community. Upon the widow’s arrival at the safety of the Naomi House, she found a way to call her Baptist pastor back in Central America to tell him that after two years, including four months of walking through the desert, she and her children were safe with a Baptist church in Central Texas.
She fled with the prayers of her Baptist church, which carried her for two years until she hit the United States border. Upon arriving at the border, someone told her, “No one will help you here.” But the people of God, in the form of a Spanish-speaking Baptist church, opened their homes and their hearts to this family, as they do thousands of families each week, sharing a cold cup of living water in the name of Christ.
In Central Texas, multiple churches, including many fellow Baptist churches, have helped us prepare our Naomi House for this family. These Baptist churches spanning 2,400 miles and multiple countries are each ministering in the name of Christ to the least of these. This is the church of God in action and a proud moment for me as a Baptist minister to see the faithfulness of small churches along this path.
For all their shortcomings, Baptists do have a strong thread of ministering and serving the felt needs of hurting people — from the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta to Clarence Jordan at Koinoinia Farms, to Fannie Lou Hamer and countless others.
We do well not to forget the Baptist heritage of tangible care for those in need. Thanks be to God for these sustained acts of faithfulness.
As pastor John Garland at San Antonio Mennonite Church says: “The pilgrim church is coming our way, to save the American church. Are we ready to receive them?”
Answering the call of asylum seekers on the border may be the very thing God is using to invigorate and reorient the North American church. This reorientation will open our eyes to see anew the profound ways God is at work. The question is, do we want to be reoriented?
Tiffani Harris serves as associate pastor of community life at DaySpring Baptist Church in Waco, Texas.
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