Latino Borderlands Church welcomes Ukrainian refugees

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The wide white canopy of the Promise Church parking lot in Chula Vista, California is designed to receive and dispatch a steady stream of people fleeing war and destruction and migrating to the United States. The name of the church denotes a deep history and a hopeful future.

Pastor Mario Alas remembers the day decades ago when his mother returned from Mexico City to San Salvador, documents in hand, to extricate him from El Salvador’s deadly civil war. A few weeks earlier, he and a companion had been caught in the middle of a firefight. A bullet ended his friend’s life. Now, the documents her mother obtained promised her a scholarship to study law at the famous National Autonomous University of Mexico. These were enough, along with new passports, to ensure exit for his family and entry into Mexico, and then migration to the United States. Alas and his wife, Anna, met and married in Colorado, then were granted refugee status in Canada. Soon they began to work in the resettlement of refugees while being pastors. Since 1990, the couple have been involved in the ministry of the Apostolic Assembly, the denomination to which the Church of Promise belongs.

Today, decades-old memories resurface. In response to a call from the Light of the World Church, a neighboring Slavic Pentecostal church, Alas’ congregation – made up mostly of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans – opened their doors and their hearts to a flood of Ukrainian refugees crossing into California from Tijuana. Just 15 minutes from the border, the church is home to a respite center which offers facilities to help refugees rest, gather their thoughts and prepare for the road ahead.

At a time when the idea of ​​right-wing Pentecostals and charismatics is clearly visible in public opinion and when political strategists are playing games for the Latino evangelical vote, it could be tempting for this congregation to have transmitted this project. But the congregation’s response is consistent with a deep history of hospitality. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, apostolic congregations have modeled solidarity and accompaniment towards those in residence.

Today’s alliance between Ukrainian and Hispanic Pentecostals echoes the church’s beginnings in the 1906 Azusa Street Revival.

Its leaders have asserted that the biblical proof of the new Pentecostal revival lies precisely in the descending demographics of the revival, including African Americans, Native Americans and Mexicans. Historians regard Los Angeles as the birthplace of global Pentecostalism. Spreading the movement from Los Angeles, migrants carried the revival to the agricultural valleys of California, the mining towns of New Mexico, the border regions and the cities of north-central Mexico.

When migration channels have been narrowed or diverted by xenophobia, Pentecostal churches have adapted their tactics but not their mission. For example, American elites and others chose Mexicans as scapegoats for the Great Depression and expelled one-third of the Mexican population of the United States in the 1930s. The believers caught up in the Great Repatriation and sent to Mexico worked to consolidate the weak Protestant presence in their communities of origin, while remaining closely linked to their co-religionists north of the border.

Then, when the U.S. and Mexican governments established the Bracero guest worker program in 1942 to fill the huge agricultural labor deficit created by World War II, the apostolic churches along the border served as trampolines. and hostels for the circulating workforce. Soon the Bracero labor camps were supplying nearby congregations with lonely bodies and souls for fellowship and conversion. The Bracero program has proven to be abusive and porous, often by design, and has allowed the same workers to drift into precarious undocumented status.

When the federal government pretended to “suppress” with harsh enforcement measures such as “Operation Wetback(1954), the congregations ensured the security and anonymity of the administration’s raids. Immigration authorities have largely avoided entering churches. In this anxious time, denominational president Benjamin Cantú reassured the undocumented in his flock: “This is not an immigration office. It is the house of God and the gate of heaven! The statement of Jacob, the famous Hebrew patriarch and refugee of antiquity, certainly resonated in the hearts of persecuted pilgrims.

The church also converted the Christian practice of letters of recommendation, which it issued for believers in transit. This allowed people to transfer their membership between congregations and ensured a warm welcome in new church communities when society as a whole might not have been so welcoming. The letters also softened the blow when members were deported to Mexico, providing people with an easy introduction to the apostolic churches in Mexico.

The church continued to serve the migrants without questioning their paper status. These acts helped create spaces of hospitality and integration for thousands of Central Americans, like Alas, who fled civil wars and US-induced conflicts in the region in the 1980s. The sanctuary movement among the mainline Protestant churches of this period (and its current revival) received considerable scholarly and journalistic attention, the history of Pentecostal Latina/o hospitality remains relatively unknown or unappreciated, though it continues to stir the bowels of compassion.

Both the Church of Promise and the Church of World Light are part of the Oneness Pentecostal movement, which is considered heterodox by most. This shared sectarian identity has allowed for unexpected connections across ethnic and linguistic borders. The movement grew in the Los Angeles area in 1913 and resulted in a branch of Pentecostalism that rejected a Trinitarian notion of divinity. This theological distinction attracted apologists and believers who spanned several ethnic and racial constituencies and people of different national origins. It is important to note that the Oneness churches were the last stand of the wider Pentecostal movement (until the 1930s) against the encroaching shadows of Jim Crow.

The ties that unite radiate throughout the region. The Church Slavonic sublet the facilities of an Apostolic Church in Poway where Helas pastored before his call to the Church of Promise. When the Slavic Church needed facilities near the border and in a more hospitable area, they knew they could trust their brothers and sisters in the faith. The welcome from neighbors and church friends reflects the deep reservoir of goodwill they have dug into the community.

The sight of vans unloading and picking up migrants at a Latina border church is not common. The practice of transporting travelers in the past has often been clandestine, given the historic ministry of apostolics among the undocumented and scapegoating during times such as the Great Repatriation and Operation Wetback. But the expanded legal avenues offered to Ukrainians allowed for renewed and expanded solidarity, this time above ground but consistent with the Church’s historic practice of receiving and loving the stranger.

The saints of the Church of Promise hold to this biblical tradition and believe that by entertaining strangers some may entertain unwitting angels. With increased attention to Latino evangelical electoral potential, the Church of the Promise story represents an opportunity to pressure political leaders of both parties to humanize and welcome Central Americans and other seeking populations. of help and to remind fellow believers that the yearning for a restored Greater America, evident in many political rallies, carries too much weight for the pilgrim route.


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