By David F. D’Amico
Baptist missiologist Samuel Escobar, author of The New Global Mission, contends that immigration in the 21st century can become a missions challenge for Christians in the developed world. He suggests that churches in the United States and Western Europe will face a threefold challenge:
• To exhibit Christian compassion and sensitivity to immigrants;
• To take a prophetic stance in the face of injustices in the way in which society treats immigrants; and,
• To consider immigration an avenue for the evangelistic dimension of mission.
In any metropolitan newspaper in the United States, readers will find stories of the immigrants — both legal and illegal — who dot the landscape of our nation.
The decade of the 1970s witnessed a considerable wave of illegal immigration in certain regions of the United States. It led to congressional reform that became law in 1986, under Ronald Reagan’s presidency. During the 1970s, while I was teaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, I experienced some of the challenges outlined by Escobar. I served for a while as interim pastor of the Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana (First Mexican Baptist Church) of Fort Worth. The church had an enthusiastic and zealous leader we called Brother Caceres. He had a habit of getting up during the announcements portion of the service to exhort the congregation to be friendly and welcoming to visitors.
Caceres invited two Mexican illegal aliens to attend the church — a father and his son, a teen. They were befriended by the membership and after a few months they made professions of faith and asked for baptism. It was a joyous occasion when I baptized Don Pedro and Carlos. They worked in construction without legal papers — just like millions do today in the United States. No one in the church objected, and they became part of the family.
One Sunday Brother Caceres came to church and very sadly told me, “La Migra se llevó a Don Pedro y Carlos.” (“The Immigration officers deported Don Pedro and Carlos.”) We all worried about them.
My missiological reaction was: “Well, at least we evangelized these new Christians, who will return to their families and become witnesses for Christ.”
About two or three months later, during the Sunday morning worship service, Brother Caceres came to me with a big smile. “Don Pedro and Carlos are back in Fort Worth,” he said. The church recognized the formerly deported members, and welcomed them back to the flock.
Ever since then, I have kept this story in my heart as a parable of the complexities brought about by illegal immigration. The pattern of being deported to Mexico only to return to the United States is a recurring theme, just as evident today in the political, social and economic landscape of our country.
The day then-President George W. Bush visited Yuma, Ariz., during his effort to promote legislation related to immigration a few years ago, a local farmer was quoted on a National Public Radio broadcast “These people work hard in the fields. I pay them $16 per hour. No National Guard or fences will keep them away,” he said. “I do not have a way to check whether their papers are legal. They come, work, and then spend their earnings in our city to the tune of $400,000 per year.”
I wonder if the churches in San Diego, Yuma, El Paso, Laredo, and other border towns between the United States and Mexico have a mission heart and attitude similar to that of the congregation of the Primera Iglesia Bautista in Fort Worth in the 1970s. In my heart of hearts, I pray that there will be many illegal aliens baptized and sent back to Mexico as evangelists. After Jesus had cast multiple demons out of the man from Gedara in Mark 5, he told the man: “Go home and tell what great things the Lord has done for you.”