A late-year surge of immigrant minors crossing the Texas-Mexico border without adult relatives had filled South Texas shelters. Word leaked that hundreds would be housed for three weeks at Lakeview Camp of the North Texas District of the Assemblies of God.
Rumors swarmed. Fear prevailed. Protesters showed up at the district office as the media also began to converge.
One congressman called North Texas Superintendent Rick Dubose demanding to know why was he allowing the undocumented immigrants on the denomination’s property. A county constable advised the public to arm itself.
The international refugee crisis coupled with rising global terrorism seemed to be the perfect storm, with 700 children caught in its North Texas vortex.
Were these terrorists sneaking into the United States, as some claimed? Or were they adolescents desperate to flee persecution and free-for-all violence in their homelands to seek a better life with loved ones awaiting them in America?
Media vehicles from across the Dallas-Fort Worth area filled the district office parking lot in Maypearl, 45 minutes south of metro region. Dubose asked the staff to prepare hospitality for a press conference he convened across the road at the campgrounds.
These weren’t Syrians in disguise, Dubose told journalists. They were children between ages 12 and 17 from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador fleeing poverty, starvation, drug cartels, and criminal gangs.
Each immigrant who would be staying at the camp had been “pre-processed,” meaning they had relatives or other close loved ones ready to receive them in their own homes throughout the US. Workers with the BCFS would supervise them at a ratio of one adult per eight kids. Guards around the campsite would be vigilant at all times.
“If there’s one response the church can do, it‘s to share love and compassion,” Dubose says. “This isn’t a political statement. We’ll let the government deal with policy. If we can share Christ, that’s what we’re here to do.”
The North Texas district’s involvement with housing the refugees began when the BCFS, which holds a contract to assist the U.S. Border Patrol in caring for unaccompanied migrant children, contacted Lakeview Camp Director Jaroy Carpenter on Dec. 8. Could Lakeview house hundreds of kids on short notice?
December is the slowest month of the year for the camp. Lakeview could feed 800 people at a time and provide sleeping accommodations for more than 1,000. Dubose welcomed the immigrants but insisted on one point:
“We said part of the deal is we‘re a Christian camp, and there have to be Christian activities,” Dubose remembers. BCFS welcomed the spiritual activities, which included games and chapel services.
“It became an opportunity to show the love of Christ to hurting, scared kids coming through dangerous situations, believing that America was going to be the hope they were looking for,” Dubose says.
The first busload of children arrived at Lakeview on Dec. 10. The Lakeview staff applauded the immigrants as they got off the bus, a scene that repeated across several days as more arrived. Meanwhile, AG churches and the public sprang into action.
Some television news broadcasts shared the AG district’s phone number for donations to help the young immigrants. Viewers, listeners, and readers responded with offers of goods, money, and volunteering.
Jason Exley, lead pastor of Life Church in Midlothian, Texas, grew up as an AG missionary kid in Argentina. Exley mobilized his church, a half-hour from Lakeview, to help where most needed: fielding phone calls and managing donations and volunteers. Another Life Church member, David Flores, a Dallas-area teacher and former Southwestern Assemblies of God University soccer player whose family immigrated from El Salvador, volunteered to hold soccer workshops similar to those he conducts each July in his homeland.
One boy at Lakeview recognized Flores from having attended two of his summer workshops. The boy, named Cristian, had accepted Jesus as Savior at one of them. Cristian’s mom had come to the United States when her son was 2 and instructed him to come and find her in Los Angeles when he turned 15.
Cristian’s escape from El Salvador was a matter of life and death as he fled gangs.
“You either join or you die,” Flores says. “Most of these kids come from Christian homes. If you try to refuse the gangs, they kill you or your family.”
Indeed, that many of these young immigrants were already Christian became evident by the open Bibles on many beds. Carpenter noted the children’s familiarity with some of the worship songs they sang. Some formed prayer groups in the dormitories.
A public figure who called offering help was Moisés Hernandez, a Guatemalan soccer star playing professionally both for Dallas and his home country’s national team. Hernandez put on a soccer workshop to the children.
Hernandez stressed to the immigrant kids the importance of attending court dates as his own dad had done in his path to legal citizenship 33 years ago. After the workshop, he signed caps for two hours.
On Christmas, Hernandez returned with his wife to the camp when Richard Plunk, senior pastor of Grace Community Assembly of God in Flower Mound, Texas, preached, with Exley translating into Spanish. As a Christmas present, each of the 700 children received a bag with donated socks and caps and a warm jacket purchased with donations.
Exley and fellow North Texas bilingual pastors — including John Cruz, executive pastor of Northplace Church in Sachse, Josh Rivera, senior pastor of Fuego de Dios in DeSoto — presented gospel messages to the immigrant children, including five altar calls in three weeks.
“The influence of God in this camp from within and without was incredible,” Dubose says. ” We can conservatively say over half the kids prayed the prayer of salvation.”
Dubose notes that obeying Jesus’ commands, including caring for orphans, must prevail over politics.
“Our Christianity should always trump whether we’re a Democrat or Republican,” Dubose says. “Our greatest allegiance is to the Lord. If we keep that right, everything else will fall into place.”