Jose Antonio Marchas Novela got into some bad trouble with his neighbor in Mexico.
His neighbor — a member of a drug cartel — started telling him that he “wanted” Jose’s pretty, high school-age sister. They got into a fight. The police were called and Jose was detained.
Soon after, that same neighbor was found dead and Novela heard the cartel was looking for him because they thought he had killed the man. He knew he had to run. He took his pregnant wife and their 1-year-old son and fled Mexico.
At one point he was caught and the officer told him he would be deported.
“If you deport me I will kill myself right here, because if I go back they will kill me,” he told the officer. That officer connected him with Christ United Methodist Ministry Center in San Diego.
On this calm August day, Novela and his small family are sitting peacefully in the warm breeze under a portico at the center. They are in the pipeline for seeking asylum.
Novela and his wife and child are just three of more than 6,000 immigrants who have made their way through the open doors of this church since June 2016.
The Rev. Bill Jenkins said the 25,000-square-foot church, built in the 1950s, was never intended to be an immigration center.
“This was a church that had died,” Jenkins said. “Christ United Methodist Church died in 2011.” The California-Pacific Conference voted to close the church and re-open it as a ministry center.
That has proven time and again to be a good decision.
When 5,000 Haitians ended up on the streets of San Diego after being expelled by Brazil in 2016, the church became the heart of a refugee camp.
During a five-month period, at the peak of the surge, the church was sheltering up to 300 Haitians a night, Jenkins said.
“They were sleeping on the pews, under the pews, in the loft,” Jenkins said.
What does the church say?
In its Social Principles, The United Methodist Church recognizes all people, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God and opposes policies that separate family members from each other.
Read more about immigration and the church
“The Haitians were a trial run, God was testing to see if we were serious.”
Jenkins, 70, said he was surprised when the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees told him this center is the only immigrant-welcoming center in Southern California. It is one of nine shelters in the stretch of border from McAllen, Texas, to San Diego.
Recently there has been another surge of immigrants from Central America, but many are still coming from other parts of the world. Jenkins said this shelter has housed one person from every continent except Australia.
The large, rambling structure hosts two medical clinics, a dental clinic, a food ministry and a school for pregnant teens and teen moms, as well as work space for rent in the basement. Jenkins said the space is only open to social entrepreneurs.
Exodus Church meets in the sanctuary on Sundays and has Bible study on Wednesday evenings. Haitian Methodist Ministry of San Diego worships with Exodus.
“You have to think outside the offering plate,” Jenkins said. “This building is a gift from God.”
The one thing the center lacks is enough beds — and beds are a necessity.
“If you don’t have a bed you are in a world of hurt,” he said.
The answer to that problem is the Safe Harbors Network: churches, individuals and organizations that help provide temporary emergency shelters. So far, there are 18 churches of different denominations and more than 40 private homeowners who have signed on to help.
Read more, see photos
View more photos from our trip to the U.S.-Mexico border on our Flickr page
Read the first story in the series: Faith communities provide respite, care for immigrants
Read the second story: Paths collide for immigrants, border agents
Read the third story: Struggling families find shelter in small tents
Read related story: Native Americans pray at child detention center
Jenkins said when the Trump administration announced they would be separating mothers from their babies, people started coming out of the woodwork wanting to help.
“It is the work of the Holy Spirit. I tell people I’m in a dance with the Holy Spirit and that is absolutely true. Miracles happen every day.”
Jenkins said the church is well on its way to welcoming 7,000 immigrants. “I get a call every day from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement telling me I am the last resort.”
Often the person answering ICE calls is Jimmy Marcelin, a native of Haiti who works full time at the shelter.
“My job is hard,” he said, but he laughs when he says that.
Marcelin said many times the family he picks up is a mother with young children. He said last year that it was mostly pregnant women.
“They are a part of my family,” he said. “This is my passion, helping folks.”
Jenkins puts it this way, “Show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels unawares.”
Editor’s note: After this story was written, The United Methodist California-Pacific Conference through the Office of Justice and Compassion bought a bus ticket for Novela and his family to go live with relatives in Spokane, Washington, while they wait for a hearing on their asylum plea.
Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service. Mike DuBose is a photographer for United Methodist News Service. Contact them at 615-742-5470 or [email protected].To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.