Latino border country church that receives Ukrainian refugees

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The wide white canopy in the parking lot of Chula Vista’s Promise Church in California is set up to receive and send a gentle stream of people fleeing war and destruction and migrating to the United States. The name of the Church signifies a deep history and hopeful future.

Pastor Mario Alas remembers the day decades ago when his mother returned from Mexico City to San Salvador with documents in hand to pull him out of El Salvador’s deadly civil war. Weeks earlier, he and a companion had been caught in the middle of a firefight. A bullet ended his friend’s life. Now the documents his mother secured promised him a scholarship to study law at the famous National Autonomous University of Mexico. These, along with new passports, were sufficient to secure an exit for his family and access to Mexico and then migration to the United States. Ak and his wife, Anna, met and married in Colorado, and then secured refugee status in Canada. Soon they began working on the resettlement of refugees while they were pastors. Since 1990, the couple has been involved in the service of the Apostolic Church, the denomination to which the Promised Church belongs.

Today, those decades-old memories flow back. In response to an appeal from Light of the World Church, a nearby Slavic Pentecostal church, Alas’ congregation – made up mainly of Mexicans and Mexican Americans – has opened its doors and hearts to a stream of Ukrainian refugees crossing California from Tijuana. Just 15 minutes from the border, the church hosts a relief center that provides facilities to help refugees rest, gather their thoughts and prepare for the road ahead.

At a time when the idea of ​​right-wing Pentecostals and charismatics is quite visible in public, and where political strategists are making a play for the Latino evangelical vote, it might be tempting for this congregation to have passed this project on. But the congregation’s response is consistent with a deep history of hospitality. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, apostolic congregations have been models for solidarity and accompaniment toward foreigners.

Today’s alliance between Ukrainian and Latin American Pentecostals echoes the church’s beginnings in the 1906 Azusa Street Revival.

Its leaders claimed that the biblical proof of the new Pentecostal revival lay precisely in the scaled-down demographics of the revival, including African Americans, Indians, and Mexicans. Historians consider Los Angeles to be the cradle of global Pentecostalism. By spreading the movement from LA, migrants brought the revival to agricultural valleys in California, mining towns in New Mexico, border regions, and cities in northern Mexico.

When migration routes were narrowed or redirected by xenophobia, the Pentecostal churches adapted their tactics, but not their mission. For example, American elites and others settled on Mexicans as scapegoats for the Great Depression, expelling a third of the American Mexican population in the 1930s. Believers trapped in the great repatriation and sent to Mexico began to support the weak Protestant presence in their community of origin while remaining closely associated with their believers north of the border.

When the U.S. and Mexican governments established the Bracero Visitor Work Program in 1942 to fill the huge labor gap in agriculture created by World War II, apostolic churches along the border served as trampolines and hostels for the circulating workforce. Soon, Bracero labor camps provided nearby congregations with solitary bodies and souls for fellowship and repentance. The Bracero program proved to be abusive and porous, often by design, allowing the same workers to slip into uncertain undocumented status.

When the federal government proved to “strike down” through harsh enforcement measures such as “Operation Wetback” (1954), the congregations ensured the security and anonymity of the officials’ raids. Immigration authorities largely avoided entering churches. During the troubled period, Confessional President Benjamin Cantú reassured undocumented members of his flock: “This is not an immigration office. It is the house of God and the doorway to heaven!” The declaration of Jacob, a Hebrew patriarch and one of the famous refugees of antiquity, certainly resonated in the hearts of persecuted pilgrims.

The church also converted the Christian practice with letters of recommendation, which it issued to believers in transit. This allowed people to transfer membership between congregations and ensured a welcoming reception in new church communities when the large community might not be so accepting. The letters also mitigated the battle when members were deported to Mexico, giving people a clear introduction to apostolic churches in Mexico.

The church continued to serve migrants without questioning their documentation status. These actions helped create space for hospitality and integration for thousands of Central Americans, such as Ak, who fled U.S.-induced civil wars and conflicts in the region in the 1980s. While the Sanctuary movement among Protestant main churches during that period (and its current revival) has received considerable scientific and journalistic attention, the story of Latina / o Pentecostal hospitality remains relatively unknown or unappreciated, though it continues to move guts of compassion.

Both the Promise Church and the Light of the World Church are part of the Oneness Pentecostal movement, which is considered by most to be heterodox. This shared sectarian identity has allowed for unexpected ties across ethnic and linguistic boundaries. The movement developed in the Los Angeles area in 1913 and resulted in a branch of the Pentecostal movement that rejected a trinity notion of the deity. This theological distinctiveness attracted apologists and believers who spanned several ethnic and racial constituencies and peoples of different national origins. Importantly, Oneness Churches were the last team of the wider Pentecostal movement (until the 1930s) against the penetrating shadows of Jim Crow.

The bonds that bind radiate beyond the region. The Slavic Church sublets facilities from an apostolic church in Poway, where Alas was pastor before his calling to the Promise Church. When the Slavic Church needed facilities near the border and in a more hospitable area, they knew they could trust brothers and sisters in the faith. The welcome from the church’s neighbors and friends reflects the deep reservoir of goodwill they have dug up in the community.

The sight of vans loading and picking up migrants at a Latina church in the border country is not common. The practice of ferrying foreigners in the past has often been secret, given the apostolic ministry’s historic service among the undocumented and scapegoats in periods like the Great Repatriation and Operation Wetback. But the expanded legal channels that Ukrainians have been given have enabled a renewed and expanded solidarity, this time above ground, but in accordance with the Church’s historical practice of receiving and loving the stranger.

The Saints in the Church of the SubGenius adhere to the biblical tradition and believe that when they receive strangers, some may entertain angels ignorantly. With the growing awareness of Latino evangelical choices, the history of Promise Church represents an opportunity to pressure political leaders from both sides to humanize and welcome Central Americans and other peoples seeking help, and to remind fellow believers that the longing for a restored Great America, evident in many political rallies, weighs too much for the pilgrimage route.

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