Blessed by Foreign Input
In Guatemala, little stops violent criminal gangs that demand young men either join them or die. After many of Bernal’s* friends were killed, last year the 21-year-old construction worker who never wanted to leave his homeland had to flee for his life, leaving behind his wife and infant son. Criminals also extort his loved ones; if Bernal doesn’t send thousands of dollars to pay them, his family will die.
This scenario repeats itself in other Central American countries where there’s no safe haven from violent bedlam that besets the region. In 2015, the North Texas District of the Assemblies of God hosted hundreds of adolescent immigrants at its Lakeview Camp. Many of these unaccompanied minors were Christians as revealed by open Bibles on kids’ beds and their familiarity with worship songs sung at services during their three-week stay. In addition, at five altar calls, more than half of the group prayed to accept Jesus as Savior.
“They come here out of desperation because they don’t have any money, and they have no food,” Loy says. “They’re so afraid of the cartel. Their lives are in danger.”
Following Bernal’s perilous journey north, in the tiny apartment where he’s living with several relatives, he shared his story with Loy. Bernal’s aunt and uncle came to salvation in Christ through First Assembly, which offers an 11:30 a.m. Sunday service featuring a translator who provides the message in Spanish through headphones. The church also has a Mandarin translator for Chinese congregants.
North Little Rock First AG is among AG congregations with spiritual burdens to help immigrants. Each week a ministry team visits the homes of immigrants, bringing each family a laundry basket full of groceries and an invitation to attend the church.
“I have prayed, Lord, bring us the people no one else wants,” Loy says. “We know the issue of immigration is politically explosive. We’re not taking a political stand. We’re just being the Church.”
In response to the Executive Order on Immigration issued in January by President Donald Trump, Assemblies of God General Superintendent George O. Wood affirmed a need to obey government leaders — and to help aliens.
“We are not to swerve from our fundamental responsibility to bear true witness to Jesus so that lost people can find salvation in Christ,” Wood wrote. “We are to have a heart for the poor, the marginalized, the abused, the needy, and the stranger.”
Wood noted that for more than a century, the 103-year-old Fellowship has commissioned missionaries worldwide.
“In the sovereign purposes of God, the mission field has now come to us,” he wrote. “The very spiritual awakening we have been praying for could be on the brink of happening with the immigrants and refugees leading the way. As Assemblies of God people, let’s not get so involved in the politics of immigration and refugees that we fail to reach the people the Lord has brought right to our neighborhoods.”
Bernal is attending First Assembly North Little Rock’s monthly Amistad (friendship) Spanish-language services, which began eight years ago. More than 500 Spanish-speakers are now part of that church in some capacity, with attendance at a given service around 200, as many work three and four jobs to support themselves and their families.
David and Cheryl Richards pastor Amistad. They’re unlikely leaders of this outreach; while the couple served in U.S. churches and on the mission field all their adult lives, neither speaks Spanish.
“We are doing our dream,” says David Richards, 72. “We’re doing missions work, but not what we thought.”
The couple helps immigrants needing assistance with food, clothing, and household items. They pray for those in their flock. They share the gospel with them.
“Everybody is fearful what is going to happen to them,” Richards says. On home visits to connect with Spanish-speaking congregants, “We always let them know how blessed we are to have them as part of the church.”
First Assembly North Little Rock is adding a new facet of legal services to its immigrant outreach that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) launched in 2013 called The Immigration Alliance. This national collaborative effort equips churches to provide critical immigration legal services to under-resourced immigrants. Currently, 17 church-based organizations and denominations, including 30,000 congregations, participate. The Assemblies of God was a founding member of the alliance.
David and Cheryl Richards and seven volunteers are receiving training as immigrant advocates, who then will be able to help recent arrivals obtain proper paperwork and offer them legal advice. Once certified as advocates, these volunteers can accompany immigrants to court.
It’s one more way the Church can meet a huge need to protect immigrants from fraud by providing trustworthy legal services. Immigrants are often targeted by unauthorized legal practitioners who prey on their vulnerability, typically making sweeping promises and charging excessively, but providing scant results. With training and support through the credentialing process, local churches can help to meet this tangible need in immigrant communities.
“These are people we do life with,” Loy says. “Our kids worship together with them, and we worship and serve together. When we hear undocumented immigrant, we don’t think about the political issue. We think about our friends.”
* Bernal is a pseudonym.