Church draws on border natives in immigration crisis

The Rev. Javier Leyva was only three weeks into a new appointment in New Braunfels, Texas, near San Antonio, when he got sent back to where he’d just come from: the Rio Grande Valley.

Bishop James Dorff, leader of the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Annual (regional) Conferences, felt he needed someone to oversee humanitarian response to the summer surge of Central American youths and families crossing through Mexico and into South Texas.

So in mid-July he created a new position director of United Methodist immigration ministries in South Texas and appointed Leyva.

Now Levya, 61, and his wife are living in a garage apartment in McAllen, with most of their belongings in storage. He’s using borrowed office space, and driving the heavily patrolled highways between three key border cities: McAllen, Brownsville and Laredo.

He’s not complaining.

“I was happy that they’d asked me,” Leyva said. “This is right down my alley.”

Leyva joins Susan Hellums and Cindy Andrade Johnson as Rio Grande Valley natives in the thick of the United Methodist relief effort for immigrants there.

They have local knowledge, and contacts. They’re part of a longstanding ecumenical and interfaith effort to respond when there’s an emergency in the Rio Grande Valley.

“These folks have been networking down here for years,” Dorff said in McAllen, during a recent immigration fact-finding and strategizing meeting of United Methodist leaders.

`God works on us’

Hellums, 60, helped with logistics for that meeting, organized by Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference.

When the group visited Anzalduas, Park, where many immigrants try to cross the Rio Grande River, Hellums and Leyva both fielded questions. They noted that Central Americans have tended to surrender to U.S. Border Patrol, hoping for an immigration court hearing.

Mexicans, more likely to face expedited deportation, usually do not.

“They’re the ones that try to go on themselves,” Hellums said at the river gathering. “And they’re the ones who die in the ranchlands.”

Hellums and Carcaño are the same age and both grew up in Edinburg, Texas, just north of McAllen, attending different United Methodist churches there.

Hellums went away to college, and with her husband would live in Wyoming, Colorado and elsewhere in Texas. But she’s been back in the Rio Grande Valley for three decades. She’s had a long career as a border area mission coordinator, a staff position she currently holds for First United Methodist Church of McAllen and the McAllen District of the Southwest Texas Conference.

She’s also a leader of the Methodist Border Friendship Commission, a United Methodist Board of Global Ministries project that promotes fellowship, evangelism and mission on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. And she was an early board member of Faith Communities for Disaster Recovery, which formed in the Rio Grande Valley in 2003, after severe flooding.

When the immigration surge began this summer, Hellums called Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. They agreed the disaster recovery group needed to be involved. Thus began meetings that have helped coordinate the faith-based response.

Hellums also has been a liaison for United Methodist church groups that have wanted to donate or volunteer, just as she has long placed such groups in the colonias, or substandard housing areas, of the Rio Grande Valley, one of the nation’s poorest communities.

“God works on us,” Hellums said. “And I get to work with a lot of wonderful, passionate people.”

Tipped off by stories 

Johnson, 51, retired as a public school teacher in Brownsville last year, a move that let her quicken her already considerable pace as a social activist and volunteer.

It was in volunteering at Brownsville’s Ozanam Center, which assists the homeless as well as refugees, that she noticed something happening with immigration by Central Americans.

“From conversations and stories, that’s where I could see that clearly it was going up,” she said.

Johnson grew up in Brownsville, in a faithful United Methodist family. Her younger sister is the Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith, known to many in the United Methodist Church for living on the streets, in solidarity with the homeless.

Smith encouraged Johnson to consider becoming a United Methodist deaconess. Johnson took that step in 2009. Recently, she’s been serving as an immigration consultant to United Methodist Women. She’s also a board member of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

This summer she has been working with, and cheering on, both her church, El Buen Pastor United Methodist, and First United Methodist Church of Brownsville, as they’ve helped meet immigrants’ needs. She and her husband are board members of Brownsville’s Good Neighbor Settlement House, a United Methodist Women National Mission Institution which has seen increased demand for its services, including meals and showers.

“United Methodists have stepped up,” Johnson said. “I’ve had three calls today, asking, ʿHow can we help?’ ”

Persisting factors

In the first two weeks in his new job, Leyva put 800 miles on his car, touching base with United Methodists and other faith groups across the Rio Grande Valley.

Johnson, an old friend, was among those glad to have him coordinating the United Methodist response.

“Brownsville tends to get lost in the shuffle, but he’s been on it,” she said.

Leyva grew up Catholic in Laredo. He married into a United Methodist family, and about five years later joined the denomination.

But he worked many years in other fields, including in quality control at Lockheed Martin, before going into fulltime United Methodist ministry 18 years ago. He’s been a pastor, a starter of Bible studies and other ministries in the colonias, and coordinator of disaster relief for the Rio Grande Conference.

Leyva was leading El Divino Redentor United Methodist Church in McAllen when Dorff appointed him to a new position as consultant for Hispanic Ministries for the Rio Texas Conference, a merger of the Rio Grande and Southwest Conferences that takes effect Jan. 1.

“I was going to start a new church, and teach how to start new churches,” he said.

Then the summer immigration crisis hit, and Dorff sent him back to the Rio Grande Valley. The appointment is for six months, after which they’ll reassess.

The numbers of families and unaccompanied minors detained at the border has dropped in recent weeks. But the triggering factors of poverty and violence persist in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

“It’s not over,” Leyva said.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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