Emissaries at the Edge: The ministry of immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico Border
Originally published by NATIONS.
When he was a boy, Hugo Moya floated on his back in the Rio Grande. The river carried his body in slow swirls. Cottonwood trees shaded the water, their shadows rippling across its surface. “It was my Eden,” Hugo says. A few miles away, his home state of Tamaulipas, Mexico met the southern edge of the United States.
When he was a man, Hugo Moya crossed the Rio Grande by bridge, walking over the Eden of his childhood. In his hand he held papers granting him admission into the United States. As he stepped from one country to the next, he traced the same path he and his wife Eunice would take hundreds of times over the coming decades.
The Moyas have called the U.S.-Mexico border home for nearly twenty-five years. It’s where they raised seven kids, where Hugo completed his pastoral training, and where they started a house church, Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive. This migratory landscape is home base for their ministry—serving immigrant families, constructing churches, and equipping pastors—as well as a sending point for their church-building work in Mexico that continues even as violence across the border murders missionaries and silences press.
When Hugo first arrived, life on the border offered little. There were few people and fewer jobs; most immigrants continued north after crossing the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge. After he and Eunice arrived, Hugo asked advice about whether his family should remain. “I asked many people and they told me, ‘No, this is not a good place.’ I asked relatives: ‘No, this is not a good place.’ I asked friends: ‘No, this is not a good place, there’s no work here.’ But I asked God and God told me, ‘Yes, this is a good place.’” So the Moyas stayed.
Pharr, Texas marks the southernmost edge of the United States. Deep in the Rio Grande Valley, the town edges up to the border, beyond which the city of Reynosa, Mexico is a hazy skyline of apartment buildings, churches spires, and satellite dishes. Surveillance drones buzz overhead and warm winds sweep across wide streets. Maybe it was the palms and blue agave, maybe it was the pressing humidity, or maybe it was the scent of gasoline, but when I arrived in Pharr I was reminded, first, of Mexico.
Pharr is both American and Mexican, a town where Starbucks and piñateria party stores occupy the same block. Over 90 percent of the population is Hispanic. The fluidity of cultures is a mark of the border’s porousness: families cross back and forth to visit friends, find better tacos, shop for groceries. Or at least they did, until cartel violence gripped the state of Tamaulipas.
“People don’t cross over anymore,” admits Hugo. “Well, except us.”
Here many things bleed across the border, including fear. Hugo describes the aftermath of cartel activity: husks of bombed cars, bodies, and wreckage from drive-by shootings. While violence never tells the whole story of a place, it’s a central plot point in Tamaulipas, and Reynosa especially. Over the last decade a rush of immigrants fleeing the danger has swollen Pharr’s population and that of Hidalgo County, now one of the fastest growing—and most impoverished—counties nationwide.
While violence never tells the whole story of a place, it’s a central plot point in Tamaulipas, and Reynosa especially.
This region is a holding place for most immigrants, a place to catch their breath before moving further from the threat of violence, which hangs in the air like smoke. But for the Moyas it is home. “We were able to find happiness where no one could find it,” Hugo says. “We found comfort where no one found it, and we found help from God where no one found it.”
When he was seventeen, Hugo’s Eden crumbled. His mother died and with her, the home she had made for her family. He carried his grief to California where he worked in agriculture processing grapes with an uncle. When Hugo returned to Mexico—his childhood home gone, his father now living in the U.S.—he moved in with a friend.
One night he came home to find the front door locked and his friend gone. He knocked and knocked before curling up on the doorstep to sleep.
The next morning, he says, “I awoke to songs.”
The sound lifted him from the stoop and drew him toward a nearby church. He slipped in the back as a pastor began speaking about the home and peace God offered, two things Hugo had lost when his mother died. He stayed there, crying, through all three services.
The next week he returned to receive balm for his grief. He recognized a young woman from work at the church and she told him her father was the pastor. As much as the pastor’s words comforted him, Hugo admitted that he was saddened by Jesus’ death. He had watched a movie about the crucifixion on national television when he was a child and the image of Christ hanging on the cross still haunted him. Eunice laughed. “Yes, Jesus died,” she told him, “but then he rose again!”
“No,” Hugo insisted, “I saw it. He died.” This was an image he had carried for fifteen years, and he was not about to let go of it easily.
“Yes,” Eunice said, this woman who would become his wife and partner in ministry. “But he lives now!”
“Show me. Bring me a Bible and show me where it says this. I need to read it to believe it for myself.”
And she did. And he did.
Since then, Hugo and Eunice have served at each other’s sides. Their partnership makes sense: both are relentlessly other-oriented. They seem self-forgetful, pouring all of their resources into their ministry, their congregation, and their neighbors. Though Hugo speaks more, Eunice is a force. At church she leads the congregation in songs and prayer, punctuating her words with alleluia and gracias a Dios. She feeds her family of nine and an entire church to boot. Hugo, who works by day for the school district, is a teacher, a reader, and a shepherd. He carries a quiet intellect and unabashed love for the God who touched him.
Sunday morning at the Moya house is a flurry of activity. Eunice cooks breakfast for the family and anyone else who happens to stop by—in this case, me and several other visitors. She allows me to chop tomatoes, less for assistance—she’s in control of every pot and knife—and more as a gesture of hospitality. She deposits plates of tamales, fresh pico de gallo, beans, avocado, and tortillas on the table, then turns to stir rice for church lunch.
Hugo emerges having changed from his usual overalls, flannel shirt, and straw hat into a suit. Their youngest son heads outside to complete his Sunday morning chore: moving forty chairs from the garage to the driveway. Hugo tells me the service will begin at 10 a.m., then corrects himself. “That’s Mexican time. Most people show up around 10:30 a.m.”
The Moyas have hosted church in their home for more than two decades. For most of these years, they rented homes and squeezed their congregation—fifteen families on a full Sunday—into living rooms. But eight years ago, they purchased their first home in the U.S. Their first renovation was to clean the garage and hook up a sound system. They hung swaths of fabric on the walls and set up a podium. Inside there’s a drum set and long tables hanging from the walls for the after-service lunch. No one’s getting a car in this space: it is church.
Though the Moyas have spent twenty years constructing and equipping churches across South Texas and Mexico, they’ve never built their own space for worship. Permitting is difficult and their funds seem to continually flow outward, into the hands of others who need them.
“Last year we built a church and the pastor couldn’t understand it,” Hugo says. “He said to me, ‘But Pastor, where is your church? Why are you helping us?’”
Hugo gives a God-only-knows sort of shrug. He and Eunice hope to one day construct a home for Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive, an answer to their decades-long prayer. But in the meantime, construction on other churches continues.
Physical building or no, the Moyas have built something durable and holy here. Around 10:30 a.m., half the chairs in the driveway are occupied, though every seat will be filled before the service is over. Eunice welcomes the congregation: “Let us sing a hymn.” Microphone in hand, she leads worship accompanied by a mustachioed man on the accordion. Women shake tambourines. As the service continues, a boy recites Psalm 23 and people stand to share praises and petitions: for children, grandchildren, friends across the border, sickness, provision. A collective awe of God permeates the space.
Then Hugo preaches, and his sermon is interrupted by the call-and-response of members as they repeat, “Lord, you are worthy.” Under the corrugated roof that shields us from sun but allows a breeze to pass over our heads, people forget themselves and behold God. They worship the One who brought them out of the desert and into a spacious place. Today this spacious place takes the shape of a driveway five miles from the border.
Under the corrugated roof that shields us from sun but allows a breeze to pass over our heads, people forget themselves and behold God. They worship the One who brought them out of the desert and into a spacious place.
Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive is an immigrant church. Services are conducted in Spanish, and its congregants have roots across the border. Their stories, like Hugo’s and Eunice’s, begin in Mexico. “You have to be an immigrant to be able to understand the immigrant,” Hugo says.
Many of the families in Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive are led by single mothers who have lost husbands to divorce or death or a slow separation across two different countries. The government offers support for single mothers in the U.S., Hugo explains, so women immigrate with their children while spouses stay behind.“And when they arrive here they encounter a different reality, because they were promised that the United States would be good to them. They come to this country expecting material things, but what happens is they lose their family and they don’t look for the things of God.”
Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive exists to support those who came to the U.S. looking for hope and wound up disillusioned and despairing. Surprisingly, it’s a gap not many other ministries try to fill. “Many large ministries have come [here], but those large ministries want large churches and resources. It’s almost as if they don’t want to help needy people,” says Hugo. In contrast, the Moyas search for the neediest in Pharr.
“We teach a lot about seeking the spirit of Jesus,” says Hugo. “Jesus first came near to a people who were suffering, who had been exiled from the people of Israel. All the sick, all who had sinned, all who had dysfunctional lives. And Jesus came close to them. So, we teach in the church that each member has the same spirit Jesus had to be able to draw near to these other people.”
He and Eunice see the national climate of animosity toward immigrants as an opportunity for American Christians to embody Jesus’ love for the stranger. “I think that it’s a test that God is giving to the church in this time. How the church postures itself before the stranger, before need, before the person passing through difficult times. … The word of God tells us protect, care for, and help the foreigner who comes into our home. In this case the United States is the home.”
Around noon the church service ends and members greet one another with hugs. Then they pull out tables from the garage and set up one long table, family-style, in the driveway. Plates of rice and mole and chicken are passed down the line and Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive shares a meal. Women trail fragrant pots out of the kitchen, embodying the ministry that streams from the Moya’s home.
“The word of God tells us protect, care for, and help the foreigner who comes into our home. In this case the United States is the home.”
In the early church, Christians took part in a “love feast” each Sunday, a communal meal that preceded teaching and the Eucharist. This meal of chicken and mole, the Texan sun heating our backs as we eat, is reminiscent of the love feast. Hugo nods as we talk. “Yes, God is great. The more we know him, the more…”
Eunice finishes his sentence: “The more we fall in love.”
The state of Tamaulipas has been terrorized by the Gulf and Zeta cartels for nearly a decade. In April 2017, the Mexican government took down the head of the Gulf cartel. Instead of extinguishing the flames of violence, the death fanned them into a wildfire. The cartel split into factions and infighting erupted as members clamored for leadership. The north of Tamaulipas has become a place where not even newspapers will print cartel stories, leaving the reporting to anonymous social media users. Detectives who investigate killings are murdered, with reports of an officer’s head arriving at the doorstep of the Mexican army. Corruption in local government prevents real progress from being made in the fight against terror. As Hugo puts it, “The cartels wear government clothing.”
Nonprofits and development groups have pulled out of the state; churches have cancelled building trips. A pair of missionaries who defied the Gulfs and Zetas by driving in the area were shot, the woman dying 70 miles south of Reynosa.
When Hugo and Eunice first decided to move to the United States, they came for two reasons: first, to provide opportunities for their children, and second, to bring back resources to Mexican churches. While many immigrants leave Mexico never to return, the Moyas moved abroad in order to equip churches in their home country. “We came to the United States, but it was not in the United States where we met God,” Hugo says. “We met God in Mexico and in Mexico we first had experiences with God, we first had that touch of God over our lives.”
Against the odds and common sense, Hugo and Eunice continue crossing the international bridge multiple times every month. To this day they build churches and train pastors in Mexico, even as the work takes them through the line of cartel fire. What keeps them coming back? Why not stay on the U.S. side of the border and serve their church here? I’m stuck on these questions after hearing Hugo describe the violence in Tamaulipas. “How are you able to continue returning to Mexico?” I ask. I wonder if they feel afraid.
To this day they build churches and train pastors in Mexico, even as the work takes them through the line of cartel fire.
“Hermana,” Hugo says, leaning forward. Sister. “Have you had experiences with God?”
“Yes,” I say. “A few.”
“I will tell you a story.”
Early in their marriage, Hugo and Eunice traveled from Ciudad Victoria to Monterrey, Nueva Leon. Hugo fell ill on their trip with a soaring temperature, but since they had already purchased tickets, they boarded their train as scheduled. Eunice guided him to the only available car, one crammed with babies crying, people singing, and the clamor of chickens, cats, dogs, and goats. The train wheels shucked along and Hugo’s head throbbed. “I couldn’t open my eyes. My bones hurt.”
When the train stopped an old man boarded and began to preach. “He began to say that if we believed in God, God was sufficient to heal our lives.”
Hugo turned to Eunice. “Tell him to pray for me.”
Eunice did, and as the old man turned toward him something in Hugo’s body responded. “He began walking toward me and a fire, a flame of fire, entered my feet. I opened my eyes because I thought I was burning, but I didn’t see anything. Yet I still felt heat running through my body, and it left me sweating. The old man came closer and the flames climbed up my body. And when he was in front of me, the old man prayed, asking God to heal me. And when I felt this I also began begging God: ‘Yes God, help me, heal me, forgive me.’
“Then the old man was in front of me and said, ‘I’m going to put my hand on your head.’ Exactly as he placed his hand there, the fire in my body and his hand met. The fire burned in my head and I was soaking wet, but healed. Completely healed. Suddenly nothing hurt and I was new, like a baby. And the train car, all of the animals were silent, all I heard were the wheels of the train, all of the people were silent, and they were watching me.”
Hugo sits back on the couch and looks at me.
“This and many other miraculous experiences are what allows me to return to Mexico. The touch of God is something indescribable.”
Like the first disciples, Hugo and Eunice follow the Jesus of the Gospels who offers no guarantees but only an invitation: Follow me. This invitation is followed by a second, one that feels almost playful: Come and see. This call promises no recognition, resources, or safety. Its way is rarely well-lit or smoothly paved.
At church on Sunday, Hugo reminds his congregation of this. When you encounter obstacles, he says, you’ll want to see God at work in the present, and you’ll want a guarantee for the future. But instead you will have to look to the past and remind yourself of the times God has been faithful. You have to know God’s touch in order to follow him into the darkness.
Hugo continues as though scenes from his life are flicking through his mind in fast-forward: provision when they first arrived in Pharr; a prayer that restored his legs, crippled after a work accident; safety as he and Eunice drove through cartel territory; the touch of an old man like flames on his forehead. Miracles require a response, and for Hugo and Eunice, they are what propelled the couple into an outpoured life.
“If you don’t have experiences with God, there comes a time when your walk with God will be difficult,” he says. “The signs and wonders that God gives us help us continue forward. They give us strength; they help us to hold on. And God is greatly glorified in our lives.”
He could be—he is—teaching the story of his own life. The Moya’s ministry is a grueling one: endless, unglamorous, and dangerous. But they’ve known the hand of God and can’t do anything but follow. They are led forward by the One who touches each us of us and draws us into deep waters, offering only this invitation: Come and see.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Annelise is a San Diego-based journalist and essayist who writes about food, travel, faith, and the terrain between. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing through Seattle Pacific University and her work has appeared in The Millions, Brevity, Hidden Compass, Sojourners, and Civil Eats, among others. She is the Editorial Director at Nations Media. View her work or say hello at annelisejolley.com.