Network of Pastors Help a Refugee Mom and Baby Travel 1700 Miles
Stock Photo: credit Pexels.com
By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
A network of United Methodist pastors recently helped a refugee mother and her baby travel from a Texas border detention agency all the way to Maryland. Along the way, every need was met by a United Methodist volunteer. This is the first in a two part series.
Senior Pastor Rob Spencer at FUMC Paris, Texas recently traveled to Brownsville to better understand what was happening at the border. While there, he discovered a refugee from Central America who needed help. On his own, Pastor Spencer didn’t have the time or wherewithal to do all that he wanted. Fortunately, he is tied to a network through the church, and volunteers banded together to make a difference.
“One of our biggest gifts as Methodists – and sometimes most underused gifts – is our connectivity,” Spencer said. “When we use that to help others, it can be really good.”
He joined with 100 pastors on a recent trip to the border. At one point, a number of the clergy went to Mexico to speak directly asylum speakers.
UMNS File Photo
Spencer’s passport was expired, so he headed to a bus station, where refugees had just been released from detention centers. Most were waiting to travel to friends and family in the U.S.
Sitting there, he saw a woman with a baby. “Here’s a single mom, traveling by herself with a child,” he thought.
He introduced himself to “Maria,” learned that she was traveling to Maryland. She carried three bags with her baby. All they had to eat were crackers and water.
Spencer bought her lunch and asked if there was anything else Maria needed. She pulled out a prescription, explaining that her 1-year old had just been released from the hospital and needed the medication.
“Just as she said that, they told her that her bus was ready,” Spencer said.
He took her to the bus. “I walked away, just feeling sick,” he said.
Spencer couldn’t stop thinking of what else he could have done. He wished he had taken a photo of the bus, the prescription, something to help.
Then he had a flashback – to 15 years ago when he was working at a church in Dallas and a woman with her young daughter knocked on his door.
“They were both crying,” he recalled.
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The woman was trying to return to California, fleeing a relationship that had gone awry. Unsure of what to do, Spencer took out some letterhead with the cross and flame on it, and wrote, “Dear Pastor . . .”
He told her story and asked for help getting her home. Then, he told the woman, to stop at any church with a cross and flame and present the letter.
A couple of weeks later, Spencer got a call. “What you said was exactly right,” the woman told him. “Every church I walked into helped me get home.”
Spencer thought he could use a similar idea to help Maria. She wouldn’t be able to stop at churches, since she would be on the bus. Instead, he decided, the church could come to her.
He went to the bus station and learned that the bus Maria took would make its next stop in Houston, around 11:30 p.m. that night.
Spencer started making calls. First, he phoned his friend Rev. Jacob Smith, pastor at FUMC Atlanta, who then led him to Dr. Jeff McDonald, senior pastor at St. Paul’s UMC in Houston. McDonald recommended that Rev. Nataly Negrete, associate pastor at his church who spoke Spanish, meet with Maria.
Negrete said “yes” as soon as McDonald called asking for a favor. “You don’t even know what I’m asking,” she remembers him telling her.
“The answer is still yes,” she insisted.
They ended up heading to the bus station in Houston that night, not even knowing what Maria looked like.
Finally, Negrete found her. “She looked tired; the baby was sick and crying,” Negrete said. “I just hugged her. I know how hard it is.”
Negrete explained that she was a pastor and a network of clergy and volunteers, including nurses to provide care for the baby, would be waiting for her on her trip to Maryland. Along the way, a phone, medicine, clothes, money and food were provided to Maria on her stops.
“We didn’t have much time,” Negrete said.
Still, she learned that Maria was heading north to reunite with her 5-year old daughter, who crossed the border with her father earlier this year. He had cut communication with Maria.
“She couldn’t talk to her daughter anymore, and she was concerned,” Negrete said. “That’s what brought her here. She had been through a lot of trauma and had not eaten for days. She felt relieved to be able to speak to someone. She was surprised and grateful.”
With the phone they provided her, Maria was able to call Negrete along the way. Now, they are still in touch. Maria will need help for the next several months.
Stock Photo: credit Pexels.com
On her final bus stop, Methodist volunteers met with Maria and drove her to her destination. Maria was reunited immediately with her daughter.
“But she doesn’t have anyone to help her,” Negrete said. “She has two kids and doesn’t speak the language or have a place to live. She doesn’t have anything. She doesn’t have papers to get a job and she has to pay back the loans she borrowed to make the trip. Her situation is terrifying.”
Spencer said there are dozens of Methodists who have agreed to continue helping Maria – both pastors and laypeople. They are also looking for ways to help others in similar situations.
“And it just keeps expanding,” Spencer said. “There are a lot of things a lot of us can do to help here. We can help the most vulnerable. The young, single mother – you don’t quit on that one.”
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The need at the border is huge, Spencer continued. “I’ve been really concerned with what’s going on down there,” he said.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed, he encourages Methodists to join with their congregations to help. “The ripple, once it starts, keeps going,” he said.
Negrete often works with immigrants in her Hispanic Ministry at St. Paul’s. “How can we walk with them?” she asks. “How can we create a safe place for those who are in the margins?”
She personally benefitted from the hospitality of others when she came to the U.S., she explained. “I would not be here if not for their care,” she said. “Even today, I’m surrounded. We have to be a support group. That’s our call – to be sisters and brothers.”
Maria brought back Negrete’s own memories of adjusting to a new culture and a different world. She wants to help others who are working to improve their lives.
“By the grace of God, we have been called to step up in this situation,” she said. “This is our privilege.”
Immigrants need support to survive, Negrete added. “It makes a great difference,” she said. “It brings you hope and brings you life. Once you experience that, you have to replicate it, wherever you are. It’s infecting others with hope – and that’s what we need.”