By the time Isidro “Pepe” Morales pulls into the migrant camp, children are already running toward his car. Screen doors slam on the long white wood frame building where six families live in eight separate units. Calling each child by name, Pastor Pepe laughs with them, tosses a ball around, and then reminds them that Vacation Bible School is tonight, held at Rice Lake Baptist Church in Grant, Mich. He’ll stop by later to pick them up.

We’re visiting at the height of onion season in a place that was once known as the Onion Capitol of the World. Parents will be gone all day, either working in the fields or at the packing plants. Older children will care for younger children until the evening, spending the long summer hours at Campo Blanco.

“I name each camp I visit, sometimes for the farmer’s name, sometimes for the color of the buildings,” Pepe says. This group of residences next to a packing plant won’t show up on any map, though Pepe knows the location of 20 such camps in the Grant area. He tries to visit as many as possible each growing season.

“Without these contacts, the people won’t trust me,” Pepe had told us at lunch an hour earlier. Pastor Dan Fullmer joined us from Rice Lake Baptist, along with Joe Murray, a Spanish-speaking deacon who grew up in Ireland. Ken Floyd, executive ministry director of the Michigan Association of Regular Baptist Churches, grew up at the Rice Lake church and has connected everyone. The food at Oriental Forest Buffet seems to span the globe, as does our conversation.

  • Read the sidebar “A Story Only God Could Write,” about Joe Murray. “We’re conditioned to think that evangelism can only be done by someone who is trained, a seminary graduate,” Joe says. “I may not be able to speak with great philosophy and theology, but I can tell others what God has done for me.”

Pastor Pepe tells us about growing up in Coahuila, a Mexican state just south of the Rio Grande. He was 18, but says, “I never read my Bible. I never saw my father praying to God. I was hungry, feeling empty, searching for my Creator.” His quick salvation testimony is connected to a longer story he wants us to hear.

“Years ago, two Americans like you visited a migrant camp near Lansing. They found a drunk Hispanic man and led him to Christ. When the man returned to Mexico, he shared the gospel with his family, and ended up staying there for the next 30 years, planting 21 Mexican churches.

“All of this time, he was praying, ‘Lord, send someone from here to go back to reach the migrants.’

“I got saved in the last church he planted, in the last service where he spoke. I was sitting in the second pew, and his message was for me.”

Today Pepe recognizes the aimless lives and unfocused eyes of the people around him. “Whenever I see somebody empty, I have compassion for them,” he says, remembering the lonely nights of his former life. With the help of his wife, Rosina, and with the support of Rice Lake Baptist and several sister churches, Pepe is planting La Iglesia Hispana Bautista Biblica de la Gracia.

The braceros began working in the Grant area 70 years ago, the Mexican “strong arms” who put in 12-hour days, followed by those aimless nights. Area churches tried a variety of outreach programs to the growing migrant community, but long-term ministry was complicated by the migrants’ return to Mexico after the growing season ended.

Long before he met Pepe Morales, Joe Murray had been sharing his passion for a migrant church, though not everyone was convinced his idea was viable. But a curious change was happening 20 years ago. Some migrant families stopped going home to Mexico, and instead began living and working in Michigan year-round. Joe was starting to connect with Spanish-speaking families through the Release Time Bible Class that he teaches during the day to children from 15 public schools in west central Michigan. Despite his school connections, he believed the only real way to plant a church was to recruit and support a Mexican-born pastor who was committed to church ministry.

In a leap of faith, Joe took out a $10,000 mortgage to help purchase a mobile home for the new pastor. Pepe Morales arrived and began preaching on “Palabras de Gracia y Vida” (Words of Grace and Life), a Sunday radio program on a Spanish-language station that has since closed. He started traveling from camp to camp, equipped with a van full of folding chairs and a karaoke machine he used for a sound system. These opportunities, along with Joe Murray’s Bible classes, allowed the group to develop stability.

Now there are 15 core families at Grace Hispanic Baptist Bible Church, a mission church that just applied for fellowship in the GARBC. The group purchased 12 acres of land outside Grant and has constructed the outer shell for their new auditorium, assisted by several church mission teams. Mindful of the transient aspects of their ministry—wary of debt—the church has adopted a pay-as-you-go strategy as it finishes the building.

While the initial emphasis was a ministry to migrant workers, Central Michigan’s demographics are changing rapidly. “Amnesty is going to come again, sooner or later,” Joe says, not trying to inject politics into the conversation, just stating a reality. Darrell and I recall similar conversations with bilingual church planters in Arizona and urban church planters in New York City. As churches continue to study societal changes, they inevitably feel the tension between public policy and local church ministry. When this issue was going to press, the Associated Press was debating whether they should use the more pejorative phrase illegal aliens or a warmer sounding alternative, undocumented workers.

Take your pick. The church planters are concerned with a larger issue. The workers, whatever one calls them, are raising a generation of children here in the United States—children who are hearing the gospel for the first time. And bringing their parents to church.

Several churches are working together to assist the Vacation Bible School program run by Grace Hispanic Baptist and hosted at Rice Lake Baptist. As guests arrive, they are welcomed with bilingual greetings and announcements. Later the children hear a Bible account in Joe Murray’s Gaelic-tinged English; then without missing a beat, Joe turns to the parents and speaks in Spanish again.

Several other churches have arranged to help with the VBS week, including Kent City Baptist, Kent City; First Baptist, Fremont; First Baptist, Newaygo; and Blythefield Hills Baptist, Rockford.

Church planters would describe this cooperation as a classic example of a “sister church plant” model, where area churches work together to plant a nearby church. Ken Floyd calls all of this help a CPR ministry—Church Partnering Relationships, part of a formal program he organized as executive ministry director of the Michigan Association of Regular Baptist Churches. He also uses CPR to describe the caring, praying, and resourcing help that churches give each other. It’s an old idea, straight from 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, where Paul commended the Macedonian church for its support of other churches.

“When I speak, I talk about the different opportunities for ministry around the state,” says Ken. “My role is a little bee who pollinates, jumping from flower to flower, suggesting ideas to the churches I visit.”

As a result, other MARBC churches have supported projects to assist the migrant church, including First Baptist, Cedar Springs; Ensley Baptist, Sand Lake; First Baptist, Hart; and Shelby Road Baptist, Shelby.

Pastor Pepe Morales is profoundly grateful for the wide support his young church is receiving.

“When people want to help, I say the key to this ministry is to be humble, be united, and give the glory to God.”

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