A Baptist minister is confronting pandemic-induced poverty, widespread despair and menacing drug cartels by putting refugees to work baking and selling pizza in Mexico.
Lorenzo Ortiz, who directs three shelters for refugees in communities that border the U.S., has launched Pizzas el Buen Samaritano (Good Samaritan Pizza), according to an article published by Fellowship Southwest, which is underwriting the project.
His first oven began operations Sept. 28 outside his shelter in the Buena Vista neighborhood of Nuevo Laredo, a city located across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, where he leads Iglesia Bautista el Buen Samaritano.
“Of all the cities in Mexico, Nuevo Laredo is by far the most dangerous because of the cartels,” Elket Rodríguez, immigrant and refugee advocate for Fellowship Southwest, told Baptist News Global.
But that is no obstacle for Ortiz, and he doesn’t see it as one for the refugees who will be earning much-needed income by operating the wood-fired brick ovens, Rodríguez said. “He wants the migrants in the shelter to create ties with the community as a means to spread the gospel and at the same time to get to know the community as a way to protect themselves from the cartels.”
Fellowship Southwest reported that Ortiz already has been doing that himself. When the first oven was completed recently, cartel informants were among those served free pizza.
“They’ve stopped by, and we share with them. We give and we sow (the gospel) and they feel good,” Ortiz said. “Those were our first fruits for God and the community.”
Ortiz plans to open a second brick pizza oven this week and a third next week, all located at his shelters and operated by their refugee residents, many of whom are seeking asylum in the United States.
Rodríguez said Ortiz’ undertaking should be viewed as a ministry, not a business.
“He’s not making any money out of this,” he explained. “The income is for migrants who are stuck there because COVID-19 has caused such high unemployment and for some because the (U.S. immigration) courts are closed. He wants them to start using their time to become involved in the community.”
Field Coordinator Marv Knox said Fellowship Southwest has had a longstanding relationship with Ortiz’ ministry to refugees in northeastern Mexico. It has helped provide food, appliances and a passenger van for the shelters. It is now seeking donations to help pay for the $600 brick ovens.
This is a project the organization wants to back because of its holistic impact on the communities, Knox said. “The oven is outside and visible, so it provides a setting for positive interaction with refugees in the shelters and permanent neighbors in the community.”
Providing a means of earning money will help refugees’ emotionally, as well, he added. “This is significant not only for financial stability, but for the refugees’ self-esteem.”
Spiritual well-being is another consideration, he added. “Lorenzo will start Bible studies in connection with the ovens. This will enable him to extend his spiritual care, not only to the refugees, but also to members of the community, including the cartels.”
And Ortiz’ idea of using pizza to build connections between refugees and cartel members shows promise. “By humanizing the refugees and providing an opportunity for them to serve the cartel members, it’s establishing positive relationships,” Knox reported.
Ortiz said the process is an outgrowth of his ministry and his trade. “Since I am a bricklayer, I can do an oven in one day and sell pizzas on that same day.”
His hope is that cartel members will come to see refugees as their neighbors and subsequently “stop hurting and stealing from the immigrants.”
Contributions to support Ortiz’ pizza ministry may be made online.