“Because I can set up some cots in the sanctuary…” Part 2: A Working Church

Continuing in our 3-part series on our family’s recent road trip to Las Cruces, NM, where we spent a couple of days working with the El Calvario UMC “Resiliency” justice mission, supporting migrant and refugee families.

A “Working” Church

On our first evening in Las Cruces, just a few minutes after leaving the church to head to our hotel, one of the shelter coordinators called me apologizing: 

“I’m sorry I didn’t ask when you were here earlier – does your family have somewhere to stay tonight? Because I can set up some cots in the sanctuary and you all would be very welcome to stay here at the church.” 

Honestly, as a pastor who has worked with a number of congregations in various sanctuary spaces, I was a little stunned. 

“Y’all put the cots in the sanctuary?” I asked when I was at the church again the next day. The coordinator took me into the sanctuary to show me, “Yes, you see we can easily slide the pews all back against the back wall and that gives us space to set up 14-16 cots here towards the front.”

I’m not sure why I was so confused. I’d seen “working” churches like this in Europe, but never before had I seen one in the U.S. “So, you guys do have worship services in here, right?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” she answered. “Our pastor leads us in a worship service every week. We just set the pews back in place for Sunday mornings.”

The El Calvario UMC “Working” Sanctuary.

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The Resiliency justice mission was established by El Calvario UMC in Las Cruces, NM for the purpose of receiving and supporting migrant/asylum-seeking families on a short-term (generally 3-4 days) basis. The services Resiliency generally provides these migrating families include temporary shelter in the church, meals, “new” clothes from their 2nd hand clothing closet, shower and laundry facilities, assistance connecting with family members located in other parts of the U.S., local transportation, and if needed, consultation with a local nurse and an immigration attorney.

In the early years, the vast majority of Resiliency’s clients were Mexican and Central American, migrating into the U.S. to find safety and work. But as circumstances have become consistently more difficult and dangerous in so many international regions, the makeup of Resiliency’s clientele has shifted as they have begun to receive folks from South America, the Caribbean Islands, Western Africa, and Asia.

Additionally, the services that Resiliency offers have also expanded through the years, as they have started offering long-term assistance and support for asylum-seeking families who choose to settle in the Las Cruces area (most recently opening their services to families evacuated from Afghanistan in 2021). Resiliency also provides long-term support programs to assist local families in English-language and culture learning, and also engages in justice-oriented, systemic-level advocacy to see these issues addressed at the roots. The Resiliency team is supported both by El Calvario UMC donations as well as some grant funds from the organization, “Save the Children.” 

The Facilities

The El Calvario UMC church building is a fairly typical, small to medium size UMC space. It has a sanctuary (approx 80-100 person capacity), a fellowship hall (approx. 50 person capacity), a kitchen, 4 “classrooms,” and an office space. They have also brought in 2 small pre-fab buildings, one of which houses supplies and a clothing closet, while the other contains 2 shower stalls (they are working on plans to build a laundry room and a few more shower stalls).

The offices and storage space for Resiliency is in a building about a block away from the church, but the church building itself acts as a makeshift shelter and community center for migrants/asylum seekers and others who are among the most vulnerable in the community. 

Along with hosting their Sunday worship service, the church building serves multiple purposes through the week. One of the class rooms is often used as a makeshift “clinic” when migrant families are present. Another smaller class room has been converted into a walk-in cooler, which is used not only by the El Calvario and Resiliency staff, but is also used by local clients of the “commercial kitchen incubator.”

The “incubator” provides local entrepreneurs a 24/7 accessible, free/low cost commercial kitchen in which they can develop and expand their food business. When we were there, 2 local families were using the church’s commercial kitchen a few hours a week to prepare dishes and preserves, which they sell locally to support their families.

Resiliency is also making plans for the development of a community garden on the corner of their lot, in order to provide a space for local, low-income families to begin to grow their own produce.

_______

The Team

Under the support of the El Calvario pastor (acting director) and staff, the Resiliency team includes:

  • A program director for incoming families,
  • A shelter director,
  • A person committed to serving the children of incoming migrant families, 
  • A kitchen coordinator committed to making meals for the families, 
  • A volunteer coordinator (includes ensuring all volunteers have completed a background check as well as safety (ie “safe sanctuary”) training around serving with vulnerable people), 
  • A donations/supplies coordinator,
  • A “commercial kitchen incubator” coordinator.

There is also both a local nurse and immigration lawyer who are available to come to the church/shelter to provide assistance as needed.

______

Of course, we know that this program wasn’t built overnight. At some point, there was a first step. Maybe it was the first time a member of the congregation offered a cup of coffee to a group of migrant men resting near the church building. Maybe it was a meal, or a bag of groceries, offered to an asylum-seeking family that one of the members saw stranded in a local grocery story parking lot.

In fact, it is very likely that there were several “first” steps forward in this mission, and that there have also been several discouraging steps backwards. I can only imagine the battles that likely ensued when someone in the church first rose the idea of allowing migrant families to sleep in the sanctuary: “We have no room in the sanctuary…” “We can’t let them sleep on our pews!” “What if they take something?” “We don’t have showers or facilities to support people sleeping here…”

In truth, we don’t know the precise details around when and where each step was taken through this community towards the development of the Resiliency mission, which is serving and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ so well there today. But what we do know, without a doubt, is that at some point, somebody in that church allowed the Holy Spirit to soften their heart, to open their eyes, and to let go of their idols in the church building and its resources, so that they could begin again to see people. The least of these. Children of the living God.

Our Lord never told us to go out and build Him a bunch of beautiful buildings. But:

Whoever welcomes this little child in My name welcomes Me; and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the One who sent Me,” He said.

Come, you who are blessed by My Father… for I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited Me in, I needed clothes and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you came to visit Me,” He said.

Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” He said.

More underlying questions to ponder:

  • “How many days each week does my church sit empty?”
  • “Am I so focused on preserving the facilities and the structures of the church building that I do not see the hunger and thirst and nakedness of God’s own children, all around me?”
  • “What does a “first step” look like at a my church?

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