Pastors Envision an Above Ground Railroad to Help Refugees
By Lindsay Peyton
United Methodist pastors and volunteers are still at work helping a refugee mother and her child. Her journey is far from over – but luckily help pouring in from the crew of volunteers is only growing. This is the second story in our series about “Maria.”
Once asylum seekers are granted permission to stay in the U.S., they often face a whole new set of challenges. Many have little to nothing in their pockets and have spent days or even weeks without food or rest. Most have to borrow money even to take a bus away from the Border Patrol station to their destination.
That was the case for Maria at a Texas border town.
“When I was in the bus station, I was sad, concerned and hungry,” she recalled. “My child was released from the hospital, and I didn’t have money to buy the prescription for him.”
Then, she met Senior Pastor Rob Spencer at FUMC Paris, Texas, who was in Brownsville with faith-based nonprofit Texas Impact. Spencer gave Maria something to eat and funds for travel. He then asked her how else he could help, and Maria explained that she needed help to get the prescription for her son. Without the medicine, he was getting sicker by the minute.
Unfortunately, right at that moment, Maria’s bus arrived. She boarded with her infant, and they took off for Houston, the first stop of many on her journey to the East Coast.
She couldn’t have been more surprised about what happened when she landed. “I was speechless and comforted,” she said.
When the bus pulled in around midnight, Rev. Nataly Negrete, associate pastor at St. Paul’s UMC in Houston, was waiting. And she spoke Spanish.
“I was concerned about my child, I was tired, I didn’t know where I was going, and I did not understand the language,” Maria said. “When I first met Nataly, I immediately connected with her because she treated me like I was her family. She treated me with so much sensitivity, love and respect, and that made me feel secure and free.”
Unbeknownst to Maria, while she was riding the bus, Pastor Spencer had devised a plan, based on what he considers the greatest strengths of the United Methodist Church — its connectional system.
Spencer contacted pastors he knew, as well as lay volunteers and members of other denominations. They banned together to meet Maria at each of her bus stops. Susannah Carr, pastor at Decatur UMC in Mississippi, also recruited key pastors. The United Church of Christ joined the effort.
Along Maria’s journey, volunteers provided a phone, medicine, clothes, money and food. Nurses were also among the crew to help the baby.
“Everyone was so friendly,” Maria said. “My gratitude increased every time I received care from all those waiting for me and my child in the bus stations.”
She felt relieved – and like she was no longer alone. On her last stop, volunteers drove her to her destination – reuniting her with her daughter, which was the reason for her trek.
“It means a lot to me; it is a life-giving support,” Maria said. “Most of all, to be treated as family makes me feel secure. I believe that God is guiding all those who are supporting me. God is acting in inexplicable ways.”
Spencer explained that the network of volunteers has connected Maria with a place to stay for the next several months. Additional funding was given to cover medical expenses and food for her and her two children. His church is also collecting more to continue providing Maria the care she needs.
Negrete said that Maria usually maintains a positive outlook in the face of her trauma. Recently, however, she called, and Maria’s voice had changed.
“She was very sad,” Negrete said. “She has another daughter in her country, who is living with her godparents. She has promised to send money back for her child. Her major concern now is that she is not working.”
Not being able to legally find a job is a major concern for Maria, who is also in debt for her trip to the U.S. “All of the people she owes are pressuring her,” Negrete said.
Negrete explained that Maria came to the East Coast to reunite with her 5-year old daughter, who crossed the border with her father earlier this year. He cut communication with Maria months ago.
“Extreme poverty is what makes people take this risk,” Negrete said.
Envisions an Above Ground Railroad
“How many Marias are sitting, not just at that bus station, but at other bus stations?” Spencer asked. “We can help the most vulnerable. Our connectional system links us together to make a difference.”
Spencer wants to continue helping Maria – and others who are in a similar situation. He envisions a type of above ground railroad of volunteers and pastors helping refugees. “We can help them get to a safe place so they can address other hurdles,” he said. “We can put together a way to help.”
Long-term care for Maria will include legal assistance, transportation and school enrollment for her children. Maria is worried the assistance given to her so far will be temporary.
“I told her, ‘Don’t worry. You are not alone,” Negrete said. “This is something that requires us to act in ways where we remember our Christian identities.”
Having faith is key, she explained. “This is a reminder of what God is all about,” she said. “God is about life. That requires us to be creative, to do things different than the norm, to walk that journey.”
Senior Pastor, Rev, Eric Huffman with St. Luke’s UMC, The Story in Houston discussed the great need at the Border in his recent Maybe God podcast entitled, “Can Loving ‘Illegals’ Save our Souls?”
“Church is Made of Immigrants and Strangers”
He explained that the Bible is clear in its message to embrace immigrants. “You better take care of refugees and strangers, because you have been those things, and I stood with you, that’s God’s message,” Huffman said. “From its beginnings the church has not just been pro-immigrant and hospitable to strangers, but the church is actually made up of immigrants and strangers.”
The refugees he has encountered are almost all evangelical, he added.
“They cling to their faith,” he said. “That’s what keeps them going. They hold onto Jesus more than anything. I think that the American church has a lot to learn from that.”
Huffman is convinced that Christians can learn from immigrants about holding onto faith, regardless of danger, fear and trauma. “Their personal relationships with almighty God is the fuel in their tanks,” he said. “Their faith is what got them here.”
By loving those in need, Huffman added, Christians are able to practice what Jesus preached.
“Christians have to love the people in front of us,” he said. “Your neighbor is whoever is in front of you who is in need. Politics aside, are you going to love them like Jesus told you to do?”
To listen to his powerful podcast, visit maybegodpod.com.bell.net
To find out more about helping Maria, contact Rev. Rob Spencer at or visit the FUMC Paris, Texas page, use the drop down box under Giving and click on Maria. Funds at this time will be used to help provide food and medical needs. Checks may be made out to First Methodist with Maria on the memo line, 322 Lamar Av. Paris TX 75460.
Shannon W. Martin, Texas Annual Conference contributed to this article.