Bridge to Gospel Proclamation
Hundreds have come to Christ as a result of outreaches along the border of Mexico and Texas.It took an act of God to fully straighten out the legal status wrongly placed on Maribel Sedeño’s U.S. immigration papers — a status that kept the Mexican-born Assemblies of God pastor locked 40 days in detention centers of Port Isabel and Taylor, Texas. The mix-up separated Sedeño from her American-born husband, fellow AG pastor Frank Sedeño, and their three daughters, who are U.S. citizens.
About three years passed before the couple understood that her ordeal had prepared the couple for their calling: to identify with the desperate need for Jesus among refugees from a dozen nations gathered well within a cellphone signal from Texas.
Last year, Frank, 36, together with his wife planted Jesucristo Rey de Gloria para las Naciones (Jesus Christ King of Glory for the Nations) on donated land. The Assemblies of God church is located in Weslaco, Texas, 45 miles northwest of Brownsville. Last July, as the Sedeños traveled through Matamoros heading to a missions conference in Mexico’s interior, they saw children playing in the street at midnight.
Matamoros lies across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, in the embattled Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which bears a State Department Level 4 “do not travel” advisory. While living in Matamoros as pastors of the AG church Esperanza Viva (Living Hope), they had been held up three times at gunpoint. Kidnappers had tried to snatch Maribel, 41, and one of their daughters. Criminals sometimes leave mutilated bodies in the streets and the river as reminders of what happens to those who resist.
The Sedeños followed the children to near the Gateway International Bridge, which connects Matamoros to Brownsville. There they found families from a dozen nations huddled without food, water, or shelter, sleeping on the ground in the bushes by the Rio Grande. U.S. immigration officials had deported the would-be immigrants to Matamoros while they await asylum interviews in the United States. They had fled to escape violence, persecution, abduction, death threats, and forcible recruitment into criminal gangs.
The asylum-seekers’ demographics have surprised the couple.
“There are doctors, engineers, teachers, and many well-trained professionals, not just those fleeing poverty,” Maribel says. “They fled for their lives.”
Since then, the number of asylum-seekers has risen above 2,500. At least half are already Christian, the Sedeños say. They have found many who aren't already followers of Christ are receptive to the gospel.
In that first encounter, the couple gave families groceries they had brought with them. Soon they began bringing Bibles, tents, shoes, clothing, bedding, cooking utensils, and personal hygiene supplies donated by U.S. supporters, mainly widows and elderly women.
“Little by little, the people in general started contributing to the cause of the immigrants,” Frank says. “We have walked by faith, knowing that God will provide some way or another.”
Maribel believes the experience confirms a message she heard from God that she would preach to the nations. So far, more than 700 have come to Christ as a result of their outreach.
“Like in the time of Moses, they're in the desert, but the Lord is sustaining them,” says Maribel, who is president of the AG McAllen Women’s Network; Frank is president of the McAllen’s men’s network, both within the Texas Gulf Hispanic District. “People arrive without hope and broken. We pray for them. I tell them God has done a miracle in my life. God can also do it with them.”
Several times each week, the couple travel across the bridge to Matamoros to minister to these men, women, and children. Matamoros pastors join them. After school and on weekends, the couple’s daughters minister as well. Lacking a large gathering space or sound system, meetings are by necessity capped at 200. Interaction takes place in more than 170 small groups, averaging a dozen people each. The seekers receive prayer, Bible instruction, and discipleship, as well as receive food, clothing, and other supplies.
Much of the work involves restoring dignity to those whose lives have been upended, according to Maribel.
“I tell them their identity is in Christ, not in what people, society, or the government system labels them,” she says. That's what God led her to understand on her second day when she herself had been held in a detention center. “I felt broken, but that word lifted me up.”
Many of the small group leaders are themselves Christian asylum-seekers who had been active in churches in their homelands.
“God has guided us to raise leaders from among the immigrants themselves who help us to fulfill part of the work,” Frank says.
In addition to holding Sunday services, the Sedeños offer discipleship classes on Tuesday and youth services on Thursdays. At the end of each service, the couple distribute donated items. They have handed out 1,000 Bibles, plus additional discipleship manuals.
“They have hearts of love and compassion,” Maricela Hernandez, secretary-treasurer for the Texas Gulf Hispanic District, says of the Sedeños. “The tests they've experienced have made them more sensitive to this situation.”
Burned in Maribel’s memory is the instance of being forcibly separated from her daughters as they cried for her, as well as authorities shouting at her.
“While I was in two detention centers, when the lights went off at night, I could hear the weeping of women upon being separated from their children,” she says. “While I listened, I understood their sorrow.”
The Sedeños are fulfilling their divine calling to minister to those who are suffering.
“The Church has a great, unique opportunity to love, extend compassion, not be a respecter of persons, and to draw people to God,” Maribel says.
“Even though we live in a time of so much dilemma and controversy over political issues, we have kept our focus on our Lord Jesus Christ, doing those things that please God,” Frank says.