Immigrants Are Reshaping American Missions

Latino congregations are launching their own international partnerships to support ministries and churches in their homelands.

Originally published by Christianity Today on June 21, 2017.

 

The knocking roused Valentin Salamanca from bed around 4 a.m. He was not sleeping anyway. He feared they would come, and now they had.

Valentin walked a few steps from his bedroom and opened the front door to a man in a black ski mask holding an assault rifle, demanding he come with him. Though the man appeared alone, Valentin could hear other voices in the dark.

The 60-something pastor was overseeing a growing ministry in western El Salvador; he had planted 26 churches with a combined attendance of more than 900 worshipers. The congregation Valentin led personally, a Pentecostal group 130 strong, was finishing a new building and planning another to house a sponsorship program for around 75 local children.

In many ways, he was a victim of his own success, a pastor on the frontlines of a flourishing international partnership between a church of immigrants in the United States and an ambitious mission effort in El Salvador. It had been years in the making.

Valentin had met Jesus after he came to America in 1988 and eventually opened a church in downtown Los Angeles. He worked in construction until an injury took him out of commission. When he returned with his wife to El Salvador in 1995, their son, Mario, took over the Los Angeles church.

In El Salvador, Valentin planted a new church near the city of Santa Ana, setting his sights on the crowds of youth who were being drawn into the violent gangs overtaking his country. Mario and his US congregation began investing heavily in Valentin’s church, pioneers in what missiologists call “transnational ministry.”

By 2010, the father and son had a thriving if humble partnership. “We’re a single body,” Valentin said. The church in Los Angeles, a blue-collar body of immigrants where some tithe from scrap-metal earnings, wired a total of $20,000 for the new church and ministry building in El Salvador. Members also sponsored Salvadoran children for around $20 a month, donations that the church pooled and sent to Valentin to fund the afterschool program.

Valentin and Mario credited God with the ministry’s success—success the gangs had noticed. Valentin had received threats before. The pastors knew the risks of operating in El Salvador. But few ministries were reaching gang members, and the two felt God’s calling to do it.

The 2010 kidnapping lasted roughly seven hours. Blindfolded with a gun to his head, Valentin was led along footpaths snaking through coffee farms and up into the mountains. His captors released him on the side of a highway not far from his home, with orders to deliver $6,000 in 24 hours.

Valentin pawned some of his church’s worship equipment. When the clock ran out, he had only come up with $500 and, in what he can only credit to a miracle, the gang let him live. “Truly God saved me,” he said.

The incident—and another death threat two years later—would lead the pastors to rethink their entire approach to missions. Their experience also offers a glimpse into a growing movement among Latino immigrants in the United States that is redefining missions as it navigates perils at home and abroad.

***

The economic and prayer engine powering Valentin’s ministry is an unmarked storefront where visitors enter through a back door in an industrial alley, the only door with a welcome mat.

Mario’s church, Ministerio a la Luz de la Palabra, is in East Compton, where the paint fades and weeds push unopposed through the sidewalks. The congregation leases, for a steal, a strip-mall theater that had all but burned to the ground before volunteers gutted it in 2008 and remade it into a house of worship.

It’s the sixth location in 20 years for the Assemblies of God church, common for majority-immigrant churches buffeted by Southern California’s atmospheric real estate prices. “We can’t keep one zip code,” Mario said. By his estimate, 90 percent of his 200-member congregation is undocumented, mostly from El Salvador and Mexico. The average household income is $20,000. Four families own homes.

Mario, 44, holds a doctor of ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary and likens his church to the church in Antioch, scattered by persecution but serving neighbors near and far. It has fueled the ministries in El Salvador while simultaneously developing local outreach efforts. The church’s food bank draws a line of beneficiaries stretching down the alley every Saturday. “The weird thing is, we don’t have money,” he said. “If we’re here, it’s because the Lord opened the door for us to be here.”

Public debate has often typecast immigrants in the extremes: either as guardians of the American dream to be aided and protected, or as a Trojan horse to hold at bay. But Mario doesn’t see himself in either narrative. With little outside assistance, he has built a ministry straddling two countries and bent on blessing both.

Missions programs like his have come into their own in the last decade across America, most visibly in cities like Los Angeles, where first-generation immigrants organize around family ties and social networks to spread the gospel and serve the poor back in their countries of origin.

Latino immigrant missions efforts are not new. They date back more than a century and are closely tied to Pentecostalism—birthed, for example, from the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in 1906 and from the growth of New York City’s Puerto Rican population in the early 1900s. Nor are their efforts alone among immigrant missions—to be sure, other communities have their own transnational ministries connecting Chicago to Nigeria, Seattle to Korea, Miami to Haiti.

But missions among Latinos, the country’s largest immigrant group by far, are a category unto itself. Run largely by blue-collar congregations, most of these initiatives are modest and unflashy: small-scale church planting, child sponsorship, and elder-care programs devoid of color brochures or holiday gift catalogs. Their growing footprint has coincided with rising anti-immigrant sentiment in America focused heavily on the Latino community.

To some experts, these immigrant-led efforts look like the future of missions. They are informal and highly relational, operating outside legacy missions structures. They are, to a degree, an extreme version of mainstream evangelical mission projects in wealthier congregations that are also veering from formality.

“Local churches are stopping sending people and money to missions organizations,” said Enoch Wan, a professor of intercultural studies at Western Seminary. “They want to have more direct contact with churches abroad.”

But if immigrant missions are a glimpse into the future, their own prospects feel decidedly uncertain. Such international partnerships face multiple threats: America’s volatile relationship with immigrants, the waning interest of second and third generations who have little memory of their homeland, and the inevitable mistakes that loosely organized, early-stage missionaries make.

Mario had begun to sense some of their mistakes. He didn’t learn about his father’s kidnapping until it was over, when his father finally called him. Perhaps the new buildings had crossed a line. Maybe the trips they made back and forth to America were careless in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates, a place where boys kill men for wearing red tennis shoes. “If they see you have money, if you bring anything to El Salvador, they will collect something,” Mario said. “My country is in a state of destruction.”

This is how it can go after escaping a kidnapping in El Salvador: You feel overwhelming relief, and you forget about it. Then two years later, you wake up to find a note slipped under your door.

In Valentin’s case, the gang’s note demanded $6,000 again—every penny this time. There was no ignoring the threat. There was not even time, Valentin figured, to pack. He rushed his wife into their car and they drove out of town to safety, never again to return to the church or ministry for more than a quick, furtive visit. With Valentin out of the picture, Mario’s congregation stopped sending money and the sponsorship program halted in 2012.

***

Taken as a whole, immigrants form the largest foreign aid force in the United States. They build houses, cover medical bills, put kids through school, and put food on the table for millions back home. The money that immigrants send abroad—called remittances—dwarfs all other international spending by the government, humanitarian groups, and missions organizations. In 2014, US migrants sent more than $108 billion to developing countries, with Mexico topping the list. In contrast, private charities spent around $44 billion in poor countries, and the government $33 billion.

Christian immigrants may be especially involved in helping the poor abroad. A 2009 study by Grand Valley State University found that Protestant migrants in America are more likely than other migrants to send money internationally, and even more so if they attend church frequently.

In some ways, the immigrant missions movement is a sanctification of remittances. Immigrant churches tend to build international aid and outreach efforts through existing family remittance networks, wiring funds from person to person like Juanita Cabrera does with her mom. Cabrera, 53, helps coordinate missions at Templo Bethel, an Assemblies of God church in Ontario, California, about an hour east of Los Angeles. She is also a financial lifeline for her mother back in a village in Guerrero, Mexico. When tropical storms slammed the Mexican coast a few years back, Cabrera watched as foreign tourists were whisked away and locals were left to scramble among the debris. “God, what do you want me to do for my town?” she prayed, and God gave her the story of Esther, “for such a time as this.”

Cabrera couldn’t travel—her documentation status is complicated—but she could send money. She virtually lived in her church’s kitchen for three months, making tamales and other foods with ingredients donated by church members. Some helped her sell the food—inside the church, on the street, to neighbors, to local workers. When a near breakdown forced her to hang up her apron, Cabrera had earned around $3,000. She wired the money and worked through Mexican contacts to distribute the cash to 36 families around her mother that were hardest hit by the storms.

Now she’s preparing to do it again, this time to support seniors in her mother’s community who lost their incomes after their children and grandchildren who were providing for them were deported from America. “It’s devastating,” Cabrera said. “Many of these elderly are crying.” As she sees it, she’s also offering hope to families cut off from the gospel, living in a town controlled by drug cartels and off-limits to foreign missionaries. “There are so many who don’t know Christ,” she said. “There’s no pastor there. There’s just my mom [and] some people we trust, and they do it all in secret.”

International development experts have long scratched their heads over ways to put remittances to better use for poor communities. Sending Grandma a few hundred dollars for medicine is good, but what if a group of people pooled their money to build, say, a new park in an abandoned lot next to grandma’s house to drive out loitering drug dealers?

Immigrants from Catholic countries have often organized themselves around Catholic churches in the Unites States. They form what academics call “hometown associations” to fund larger projects back in their communities of origin—a facelift for the village Catholic church or new pavement at the town entrance or an annual fete for a patron saint.

But similar Protestant projects have received less attention. While no one tracks such things, the rapid growth of immigrants in the US evangelical community is almost certainly buoying participation of Protestant immigrants in missions. Among Latinos, the percentage identifying as evangelical or born-again Christian rose from 12 percent in 2010 to 16 percent in 2013, according to Pew Research Center. Other immigrant groups have seen similar shifts. In a 2012 study, 17 percent of Asian Americans said they were raised Protestant, while 22 percent said they are Protestants today.

The increasing presence of evangelical immigrants on the US missions scene has been led by Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal groups, according to Juan Martínez, a professor of Hispanic studies at Fuller. “It’s a global phenomenon,” Martínez said. “The church is barely beginning to recognize it.” Unlike most Catholic or secular efforts, evangelical immigrants generally design mission projects around evangelism and church-led community outreach.

Many are informal: Venezuelans at a southwest Chicago church rally help for communities in their home country as, about nine miles away, Nigerians discuss how to donate to missionaries through personal bank accounts in Nigeria.

But more formal projects also tend to develop outside denominational missions structures. In the sprawling web of diaspora missions, they intersect and build on one another.

Take Mario Salamanca, for example. In 2008, while he was raising funds for his father’s church in El Salvador, he was also traveling monthly to rural Mexico to help a fellow pastor open a Bible institute.

Mario and Eliud Cortés met in a Bible class in the Los Angeles area. Cortés co-pastors Iglesia Cristiana Peniel, a church in a stretch of Wilmington, California, hunkered beneath the cranes of the Port of Los Angeles. He estimates that 270 of the 300 people in his congregation originate from his hometown of Urequío, a whistle-stop in the central state of Michoacán where the Mexican government counted about 700 residents the last time it tried. “We brought our community and we transplanted it here,” Cortés said. “We’re very united.”

Iglesia Peniel is an extension of the church bearing the same name in Urequío—the only Protestant church in the town. Members grew up together in the Mexican village before coming one by one to the United States. They remember distant days when there were almost no Protestants, when converts had their corn dumped onto the floor at the local mill, told that they weren’t welcome.

Now, evangelicals are the majority in Urequío, with Iglesia Peniel at their center. The church in Wilmington has financed remodeling and repairs at the church in Mexico. It underwrites a local missions program that sends evangelists and house-church planters to surrounding communities. In 2008, when the US economy soured, church leaders felt the time had come to make the Michoacán church planting efforts more self-sufficient by launching a Bible institute in Urequío. They “prepare leaders to impact Michoacán,” Cortés said. “We want people who are equipped to share the gospel and lead.”

That’s when Cortés tapped Mario to help get the institute off the ground. Mario traveled monthly to teach an inaugural crop of 15 students in a two-and-a-half-year program that covers Bible, theology, and leadership. The churches provide books, classroom materials, and the meeting space (in total, the US church sends around $1,500 a month to fund missions and an elder-care program). The institute’s alumni eventually took over teaching its two classes a week so instructors did not have to travel from the United States. “We want them to become independent, with minimal support from us,” Cortés said.

Mario didn’t know it then, but he would someday turn to a similar strategy to save his missions program in El Salvador.

***

At some point in the last five years or so, the diaspora surfaced as a hot topic in American missiology. A switch flipped in the machinery of the academy, and immigrants and refugees became a vehicle for the gospel worthy of their own studies and analytical frameworks.

Once it happened, Wan, the missiologist at Western Seminary, saw his job get a little easier. He has written 10 books on diaspora missiology. The first eight were self-published. Only as recently as two years ago had seminaries around the country collected enough faculty conversant on the subject that they stopped calling him when students wanted to do diaspora research.

“When I first proposed this diaspora missiology paradigm, I received a lot of resistance from scholars using the traditional approach,” the 69-year-old said. That paradigm turns on its head nearly every facet of what Wan calls missions “from the West to the rest.”

Where traditional missions tend to separate ministries of word and ministries of deed, diaspora missions integrate them. Where traditional approaches rest on established organizations sending missionaries from wealthy nations to poor ones, diaspora missions generally bypass the establishment and seem to thrive amid scarce resources. And almost without exception, diaspora missions are “glocal”—national borders are more of a nuisance than a defining trait. “It’s just a totally different way of thinking,” Wan said.

The field is labyrinthine, like global migration itself. The term diaspora harkens to the exile of the Israelites after Babylon and Assyria conquered their land, but diaspora missiology today encompasses every imaginable way people could carry the gospel from country A to country B—as students, refugees, undocumented immigrants, white-collar professionals, backpackers.

Ministry efforts of first-generation immigrant churches generally fit into the category Wan labels “missions by the diaspora,” just one slice of the broader trend. But as America wrestles with rising nationalism and heated public rhetoric around immigration, this particular slice bears special focus.

Interviews with more than two dozen missions leaders revealed a picture of a growing but tenuous movement. In Latino churches in particular, where a vast swath of worshipers are undocumented, the specter of deportation has chilled many outside activities and forced pastors to turn inward to console their congregations. “My job as a pastor is very difficult,” Mario said. “They are afraid, and I constantly preach about it.”

Potentially as consequential as the recent crackdown on immigrants are President Donald Trump’s repeated threats to shut down—or at least tax—immigrant remittances to Mexico and other countries. Nearly every mission program in this story relies heavily on personal money transfers.

“Any time there have been waves of anti-immigrant—and particularly anti-Latino—sentiment, [the movement] has been fragile,” Martínez said. “But it is also fragile because of the nature of the people. They are always moving, always seeking the next opportunity.”

Even if immigrant mission projects can weather the current national zeitgeist, there is no guarantee the next generation will want to carry them forward. Congregations of first-generation immigrants grapple with waning interest among young leaders who will someday grab the missions reins, similar to the “silent exodus” crisis that panicked Korean American churches in the late 1990s.

At Iglesia Peniel in Wilmington, the church is planning its first youth mission trip to the town where its pastors grew up and still regularly visit. “The new generation doesn’t go” to Urequío, Cortés said. He wants to inspire in them a new passion for missions. “The youth now live their comfortable lives, and they don’t realize the poverty there.”

As for the current generation, many missiologists have something to politely get off their chests.

“I would like the church in the North to be attentive to what God is doing elsewhere, and not assume if we don’t show up things don’t happen,” said Fuller’s Martínez. He argues that the fastest growth in missions now is happening among efforts from the poor to the poor, or in his words, from the periphery to the periphery. “Poor Christians around the world never got the memo that you needed money to do missions,” he said.

This, it turns out, is a refrain among diaspora missions thinkers.

“One of the most prevailing misguided narratives is this notion that migrants are coming to our doorsteps, and that because of that we have an opportunity to evangelize or do something for them” when in fact the vast majority of migrants to the US self-identify as Christian, said Matthew Krabill, a Fuller doctoral student.

Krabill grew up in Côte d’Ivoire and serves on the staff of an African church in Pasadena. He has seen his share of immigrant missions programs—a Nigerian church, for example, that funds a shelter for recovering child soldiers in Nigeria and prays for them during worship services streamed over Skype. He thinks too many American Christians—try as they may to see things differently—still act like they have all the power and need to do something to save immigrants. “Most immigrants don’t recognize themselves in the depictions that the majority of evangelicals have,” he said.

Wan puts it like this: If there’s anything North American evangelicals can learn from such academic finger-wagging, it’s that they should “realize what’s happening and embrace it as a divine opportunity.”

In Wan’s view, the immigrant missions movement is embraced anytime a majority-white church remains in a neighborhood despite demographic shifts, anytime a church offers English classes and empowers new immigrants to assume leadership roles.

Krabill works closely with the missions committee of the Pacific Southwest Conference of the Mennonite Church USA, where church demographics have shifted dramatically in recent decades (today, 35 of its 40 churches are first-generation immigrant congregations).

For his part, he wants denominations to find new ways to bring immigrant-led missions efforts under their formal missions umbrellas, which may mean compromising when traditional and grassroots missions strategies conflict. In the case of Mennonites, Krabill said, immigrant churches often have different approaches to peacemaking than old-line congregations. “Something in the denomination has got to make room for those kinds of relationships,” he said.

Or not. Martínez thinks some immigrant missions efforts would be crushed under the weight of bureaucracy and wonders instead what gospel forces would be unleashed if Christian philanthropists snuck into the pews of immigrant churches and quietly slipped checks into the offering plate. “These churches don’t need $1 million; they couldn’t handle it if they got it,” Martínez said. “But with $1,000 they can do a whole lot—they could build a whole house somewhere with a local church.”

Diaspora enthusiasts say the stakes are surprisingly high for a missions movement that remains invisible to most American evangelicals. As many traditional missions organizations merge or fold, immigrant missions efforts may be the best hope of sustaining the next generation of US missions.

“Most church growth around the world will come from informal missionaries” like these, Martínez said.

***

By 2013, Valentin Salamanca had settled in another region of El Salvador where he could build a new church and relaunch the transnational ministry with his son. Mario and the US church began raising funds to purchase a property, but the congregation remained nervous about the safety risks.

Then Mario’s wife, Kenelma, was diagnosed with acute leukemia.

It’s a grueling story involving a global search for a bone-marrow donor and moments they believed she might die within weeks. But it ends well: She got a transplant and, all told, was hospitalized for nearly three months but never spent a single night alone. As woman after woman from their church volunteered to sleep at her bedside, Kenelma had an idea: These women could save their missions.

Maestras del Bien—roughly, “teachers of good”—began as a simple series of classes to empower church women with Bible knowledge, spiritual formation, basic counseling skills, and entrepreneurial vision. They sold pupusas and tamales to fund microloans for a handful of women in the program. One took a $500 loan and began selling inexpensive jewelry in downtown Los Angeles; now she owns her own home.

It is a classically Pentecostal program—a shoestring budget, no pretenses, and requiring no advanced degrees. There are crafts involved. And it has caught like wildfire among the church’s networks. Last year, Maestras del Bien graduated its first class of 20 at a church in El Salvador, replete with a ceremony and regalia, bestowing formality on otherwise informal things. Churches in Tijuana, Mexico, have adopted the program and graduated dozens of women, many of whom never finished high school and now have photos of themselves in caps and gowns.

“I’ve seen so many women just come alive,” said Kenelma, who leads the expanding program alongside another woman in the church. “I don’t think I myself was really alive before this.”

The program is the new backbone of Mario and his father’s plan to rebuild their compassion ministries in El Salvador. This year or next, the church will expand the microloan component into Tijuana and, they hope, into El Salvador. They still intend to build a new church, but instead of building a child sponsorship center, they will run their development program though the growing network of lay women who already know their communities and will be empowered to help. The strategy, designed to escape the gangs’ notice, requires little travel from the United States and is possible only because of the churches’ far-reaching transnational connections.

“We have to rethink how we do our ministry,” Mario said. And in this way, Mario and his father see the kidnapping itself as providence of sorts, forcing another migration that is spurring new ways to spread the gospel. Valentin left behind a vibrant church network in one part of El Salvador and intends to build another. “If we use people locally, if we train them and teach them, they’ll develop a ministry,” Mario said.

William Rodriguez is a friend of Mario’s from Bible college and has been rethinking his ministries, too. Rodriguez, who is also from El Salvador, pastors a majority-immigrant church in a working-class neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles. He started Iglesia Pentecostal Esmirna in an old printing plant, where his flock of 60 laid down extra layers of paint in the sanctuary to cover ink-sooted walls. Today he preaches to more than 300 people a week in a striking mission-style building the congregation rents for extra breathing room.

Like Mario’s, Rodriguez’s church runs a food pantry. It also runs an afterschool program for low-income youth. The pride of its international missions program, however, is a project launched by a couple from the church in the Mexican border town of San Luis Río Colorado. About five years ago, the couple uprooted from Los Angeles and moved to the desert crossroads—the wife’s hometown—to run a church and a child development program.

Rodriguez’s congregation funded the church building in Mexico and built much of it by hand, cramming into an unsinkable white van that has made the five-hour drive roughly 40 times. On a recent Sunday evening, worshipers shouldered bags of donated clothing and food into the sanctuary for an upcoming trip.

The Mexico-side program serves around 50 children a day with food and afterschool activities. It, too, is funded by Rodriguez’s congregation through $20-a-month sponsorships—and naturally, by selling pupusas on the street in front of the church. Rodriguez estimates around 200 people have become Christians through the joint ministries.

But his church has a dependency problem. “If we don’t send the money, the program would not exist,” Rodriguez said. “What happens if something happens to us here and we can no longer help? Then they will suffer.”

This much he accepts: Along the journey of the immigrant missions movement, it will inevitably take some of the same wrong turns that establishment missionaries have and probably some new ones.

A common criticism of immigrant remittances—and by extension, of immigrant foreign aid efforts—is that they create dependency in poor communities and fail to empower. It is also, to be fair, a criticism leveled at US missions efforts ever since Adoniram and Ann Judson, considered by many the first American missionaries, boarded a ship for Burma in 1812.

Rodriguez has been reading lately and even attended some seminars on faith and economics. He’s praying for wisdom to know how his church’s mission projects can help people help themselves. Because if anyone feels the pain and perils of dependency, it is the men and women in his pews. They are the financiers of every dreamer they left behind.

“They think I’m a bank,” one member complained.

“Do they think we collect money from the trees here?” another asked.

But parsing needs is not simple—not for a white short-term missions team from Kansas, nor for those who have every cultural tool and language skill to know better. “They’re telling you they don’t have anything to eat,” Rodriguez said. “What if it’s true and I’m the only one who can help? You feel bad—you’re eating steak over here.”

For now, Rodriguez and many of the pastors in his network are content to improvise their missions approach—as Pentecostals, they have always deferred more to the leading of the Holy Spirit than to formal strategies. But on a recent Sunday evening, Rodriguez preached to his congregation about personal growth. He spoke about vision and making plans to achieve it, plans that make sense for a church of immigrants, a church that sells tamales to save souls.

“Because many come from very poor backgrounds, we see ourselves as the mission field and not the missionary. We’re changing that mentality to ‘We can give. We can do it ourselves,’ ” Rodriguez said. “And we hope to do a lot more in the future.”