The Ernesto Mendoza family

The young woman waving her hand offers an urgent prayer request during Wednesday night prayer meeting.

“Pray for my family back in Mexico. Ten people were killed in drug violence near my home,” Pastor Alberto Marquez translates from Spanish for the English speakers at Faith Baptist Church–Iglesia Bautista la Fe, a bilingual church in Glendale, Ariz.

Sitting near the back of the auditorium, I listen to one tragic request after another, headlines of the daily drug violence and the lack of safety endangering relatives who remain in Mexico.

“For a long time we thought violence only touched people in gangs, but this is no longer something we can be assured of. People live in fear of violence,” says Pastor Marquez. Then the prayer requests continue. More tragedy, more danger. The prayer service has become the nightly news.

What? You haven’t heard reports like this? Neither had I, and there’s a reason.

In the last five years, 66 Mexican journalists have been killed in the surge of drug related violence. The honest journalists, the ones not taking bribes, will inevitably disappear if their reports threaten the drug cartels or the corrupt Federales (Mexican Federal Police). Given the violent oppression of the media, it is no surprise that much information is suppressed.

This undeclared war has claimed more than 30,000 lives in the past five years, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission—the sort of news that most U.S. church members miss unless they are attending prayer meetings such as the one we visited in November. Yes, some Mexicans cross the border to follow the promise of better jobs, better education, and a network of social services. But much of the motivation is more basic: If we stay here, someone in my family will get killed.

Ernesto Mendoza was scared—not for himself, but for his family. During the winter months of 1978, the Mexican Federales had been knocking on the door of his restaurant, demanding that he come out. His wife, Adela, had been reporting the truth. He is not here.

And he wasn’t, but only because he slept in the jungle each night, expecting the visit from the Federales, and knowing that his wife must answer their question honestly. If they had been able to track him down, Federales would have threatened him, taking advantage of their power to get what they wanted: Money. Ernesto’s business and family were at risk. Although not all of the Mexican civil authorities are corrupt, a great percentage are.

So late one night five young children and two parents crammed into a Volkswagen Rabbit and headed north. Crossing the U.S. border with $35 in his pocket, Ernesto Mendoza didn’t stop to ask for permission. He was free. He was safe.

Arriving in Phoenix, Ernesto and his family rented a tiny apartment downtown. Soon they were visited by friendly faces from the Mexican Gospel Mission (now Mission Gospel Ministries International), and began riding the bus to church. The nondenominational mission had Baptist roots, founded by Leonardo Mercado and later led by his son, Richard Sr.

In 1936 Robert Ketcham had invited Leonardo Mercado to visit the GARBC Conference at Belden Avenue Baptist Church in Chicago. Mercado only had five minutes to present his ministry, but that brief report lead to many speaking invitations at GARBC churches. Continuing his father’s ministry, Richard Mercado led the urban Phoenix ministry through a period of growth. Their groundbreaking ministry to immigrants was instrumental in leading Ernesto and Adela Mendoza to Christ, and eventually all of their children.

Lupe Mendoza, one of the boys who had been sleeping in the back of the car, tells me this story 32 years later as we talk at Faith Baptist Church–Iglesia Bautista la Fe, where Lupe is a youth leader. His sister, Adela (named for their mother), attended Bob Jones University and later married Alberto Marquez, who would become pastor of the church.

“The pilgrims on the Mayflower crossed the ocean because they were willing to do anything to gain freedom,” Adela says of her own immigrant experience. “It’s like that with Mexicans today. They’ll do anything to cross that river. Most are not saved when they get here. Most are Roman Catholic. You come here, cross the border, and find Christ.”

“I thank my parents for what they did. My mother never went to school—my father only went to third grade. I honor them for their hard work,” Adela says.

Trading a prosperous but dangerous life in Mexico for an uncertain (but safer) future in the U.S., the Mendoza family went to work, eventually purchasing several properties and businesses in Phoenix. In the ensuing years the family has remained close-knit, and continues to serve faithfully in their churches. Moving to the suburbs, Ernesto and Adela have now built a Mexican hacienda reminiscent of the grand colonial estate architecture of his homeland. As we visit, I can’t help but notice that it is a house made for family gatherings, plenty of space for grandchildren to roam, and a huge kitchen. Retirement would be comfortable, if Ernesto was the sort of man who was considering retirement any time soon.

Just to make something clear—we’re talking about illegal immigration here.  After receiving Christ, the Mendoza family still had to grapple with the problem of their illegal status. Their situation was perfectly described by Ronald Reagan in 1984 during his debate with Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale. “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said, arguing that illegal immigrants were inherently exploited and often abused.

After the election, Reagan signed an immigration reform bill that would eventually grant amnesty to 2.9 million people living illegally in the U.S., including the Mendozas. But as Reagan’s plan continues to be evaluated today, it is important to remember that it was not free. The Mendozas and a million others who eventually became U.S. citizens would go through a long process that involved many fines, government fees, and legal bills. Amnesty was expensive.

Other provisions of the 1986 reform law seem to have been forgotten. Reagan also advocated tighter security at the Mexican border and strict penalties for U.S. businesses that hired undocumented workers (a provision that was mostly stripped from the bill before passage). What was intended as a full reform package became a partial solution, and led to cynicism over its effectiveness.

So how does a church grapple with the complex ethical issues that surround immigration issues today? Pastor Alberto Marquez and the leaders of Faith Baptist Church–Iglesia Bautista la Fe have developed an approach to ministry that addresses the complex issues of immigration that are a way of life in Arizona.

Helping the immigrant population. “Well, we can’t just send them back,” one of the church members tells me when we visit, explaining how church ministry involves a lot of personal visits, relationship building, and pastoral care for the immigrants living near the church. This is the sort of ministry that was thought to be endangered by Arizona SB 1070, the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. (Almost no one uses the long, politically charged title.) Rumors flew rapidly in the Mexican community. Perhaps a pastor could be arrested for transporting illegals in his car, accused of harboring an alien. Arrested for taking them to the grocery? Arrested for bringing them to church? Several parts of the law are still embroiled in legal limbo, but in the meantime, the church does not feel as if its ministry has been compromised. The law remains controversial among religious groups. Arizona Mormons are for it, Roman Catholics and United Methodists are against it, and evangelical groups have expressed a variety of opinions.

Valuing racial diversity. The Glendale church’s innovative plan to offer both Spanish and English language classes is one step to building a racially diverse, bilingual church (see “Building Bridges in Arizona” in the January/February Baptist Bulletin). Other aspects are more practical. Yes, the Sunday service concluded with tortilla chips and big bowls of salsa. But the bowls were carefully marked according to level of heat—with some thoughtfully prepared for the less robust Anglo tastes. “When I came here I had to learn American culture,” says Pastor Marquez, laughing and remembering his first eye-opening visit to the Christian college where he eventually graduated. So it is for the Americans in the congregation, who have committed to learning more about Hispanic and Latino culture. Both groups are learning that the “other” culture often has something of value to offer—even a better way of doing things.

Preaching the gospel to all. Clearly this is a church where anyone is welcome, led by a staff that knocks on all of the doors of the neighborhood. Were any illegals in the auditorium when we visited? Probably. We didn’t ask.

Some workers have seasonal jobs and visit for three to six months, and some of these likely have illegal status, often living in nearby apartments. While the church is eager to hold activities where the gospel is clearly presented, the church leaders also understand that the best way to grow a church is to target the Spanish-speaking people who buy homes. “If they have a 30-year mortgage, they will be around for a while,” says Associate Pastor Enoch Arellano. “But I leave legal matters to the law. I preach the gospel.”

Obeying a nation’s laws. “Some illegals have been here 10 years or more without doing anything to correct the problem,” says Pastor Enoch, who immediately points out the ethical problem. “If I steal your car and keep it for 10 years, it’s still your car.” This is the message preached at the Glendale church—immigrants, like anyone else, must obey U.S. laws. Some of this comes in the form of advice for living within American society. “Put air in your tires. Fix your broken taillight. Don’t speed,” says Pastor Enoch. Later, Pastor Marquez ends the service with a practical benediction: “Go out this week and be good citizens of Heaven!”

Speaking honestly about complex issues. I could not help but be struck by the honest and nuanced position articulated by the leaders of the Glendale church. Coming from the Midwest, where the standard position on immigration sometimes sounds closer to “Send them all home,” the Glendale situation was both refreshing and challenging. Readers are encouraged to study carefully the accompanying article by Mike Stallard (pp. 28–31), which discusses the Biblical ethics of immigration.

We had arrived in Glendale a few months after Mexican President Felipe Calderón had been interviewed by National Public Radio, in which he criticized Americans as ultimately responsible for Mexico’s illegal drug war. In Glendale his comments were seen as less than honest—a refusal to address problems that have plagued Mexico for years. “The government is corrupt. The police are corrupt, and not paid enough. So you pay them with bribes,” says Adela Marquez. “Anything you want to do, you must pay, pay, pay.”

And while church members are encouraged to obey American laws, the zeal for honest speech extends to honest criticism. The immigration system is obviously broken. Since Reagan offered amnesty in 1987, 11 million more illegal immigrants have crossed into the U.S., traversing a border (350 miles long just in Arizona) that is still largely unsecured. This will continue unless some reform action addresses the issue.

Once they arrive, some illegal immigrants will qualify for welfare; most will enroll their children in public schools; some will find jobs with employers who do not require work permits. All will be confronted with a willy-nilly array of federal and state policies, cobbled together with leftover ideas from several attempts at reform.

Those who are unfamiliar with immigration law sometimes assume illegal immigrants could eventually gain legal status if they were willing to process the right paperwork. But according to the November/December 2010 Church Law and Tax Report, “there is nearly nothing that can be done for anyone who entered without inspection after April 30, 2001.” This point is echoed again and again by our hosts.

“We can’t just send them back.”

The path toward legal immigration is not nearly rigorous enough to keep up with the demand from Mexico alone. The current quota system prohibits Mexicans from participating in the infamous green card lottery, but allows them to apply for a family based visa (only to be placed on a lengthy waiting list). Work permit quotas are skewed toward profession skills that Mexicans don’t often have. The path toward legal immigration is very narrow.

“You need a bank account, need to own a home, need to make it past an arbitrary system, or be married to a U.S. citizen for a certain length of time,” says Adela Marquez. And then she adds—“If you have all of this, why would you leave Mexico?”

But there is hope. While policy makers continue to sort out the immigration nightmare, churches like Faith Baptist Church–Iglesia Bautista la Fe continue to minister to everyone in their community.

Adela Marquez suggests a good first step for churches interested in such a ministry, a lesson her family learned during their difficult journey to freedom.

“The first thing you learn to do is love the people. Love is a universal language.”

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Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. Darrell Goemaat is director of photography.