Where the church needs to be
by Paul Bailie (2008, M.Div.)
Pastor, Iglesia Luterana San Lucas, Eagle Pass, Texas and Mision Luterana Cristo Rey, Piedras Negras, Mexico
I’m a pastor on the border. On any given Sunday, I preach in the morning in the United States and in the afternoon in Mexico. Waiting in line on the international bridge and going through border checkpoints are a normal part of the ministry at San Lucas, the Spanish-speaking ELCA congregation I serve in Eagle Pass, Texas. Even though San Lucas is very financially dependent on mission support from churchwide, synodical, and mission partner sources, the congregation itself is a mission partner, having founded a mission site, Cristo Rey, across the border in the rural outskirts of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico.
Eagle Pass has a wall. Actually, it’s more like a big metal fence along the shores of the Rio Grande in this city of about 27,000 people. It was built by the United States federal government as a way of combating illegal immigration. When groups from visiting mission partner congregations come for servant trips and stay at San Lucas, I love to take them downtown to see the wall that passes through the city’s golf course. We read from Ephesians about Christ breaking down walls, and we think of all the migrants in the Bible—Abraham, Ruth, Jesus.
Almost all the parishioners of San Lucas are of Mexican descent. Many have family members on both sides of the border. The congregation reflects the demographics of the community. Eagle Pass’ population is about 95 percent Hispanic. More Spanish than English is spoken. Poverty and unemployment permeate life here. Maverick County has been considered one of the poorest counties in the United States. San Lucas responds to this need with a food bank that serves almost two hundred families every month. An added challenge is that many families head northward to places like Minnesota and Wisconsin to find agricultural work several months out of the year.
Although I had learned some Spanish in high school and college, I really started to hone my Spanish language skills while on internship at a bilingual congregation in New York. Now I preach, make pastoral visits, and participate in council meetings in Spanish. My time at LSTC helped me develop sensitivity to issues of cultural diversity in ministry. I remember Professor Linda Thomas reminding me to always be aware of my own social location. Now I’m learning the cultural nuances of being an educated white pastor from Iowa in Mexico and South Texas. It’s humbling for me to preach in a language that is not my native tongue. My Midwestern personal space bubble gets broken with expectation here that I greet people with an embrace and pat kids on the head.
Even with the cross-cultural challenges, the geographic isolation, and the economic uncertainty, I find ministry along the border to be life-giving and Spirit-filled. It is a privilege to live among people who have known struggle and injustice, being invited into their community, sharing life together. On any given Sunday at San Lucas, a quarter or more of our worshippers are children. There’s an energy and enthusiasm that gives me hope. I love the connections we build with the wider church when we host servant groups. Hosting mission groups gives me the chance to encourage San Lucas to be more than just a recipient of mission support, but to be a teaching place for others to learn about poverty and justice issues and to see what Christian community and Spanish-language worship look like along the border.
People often ask me if ministry here is dangerous. It probably is. Our congregation does take safety precautions when we visit Cristo Rey, like avoiding crossing into Mexico alone, after dark, or in personal cars rather than a church van. More than a hundred teenagers have been arrested in the past few years for possession of more than fifty pounds of marijuana each. Almost weekly I hear about another person arrested on the bridge. In past months, I’ve noticed more Mexican soldiers in Piedras Negras. It gets hard bringing supplies to Mexico, like food for the food pantry or Christmas toys and shoes. Yet, in the midst of poverty and violence, that is where the Church needs to be.