Del Rio ministry serves Africans fleeing persecution

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 A booming-by-necessity immigration ministry in Del Rio, Texas, serves refugees you probably haven’t seen on TV—Christians fleeing persecution in Africa.

“We were one of the last cities on the border that started getting hit” by the waves of immigrants seeking asylum in the United States, said Shon Young, missions pastor of City Church in Del Rio and leader of a coalition of churches that have responded to the immigration crisis.

Del Rio is isolated, even by U.S.-Mexico border standards. It’s about 350 miles from McAllen, Texas, and 425 miles from El Paso. But the flood of immigrants seeking asylum in the larger cities caused U.S. immigration officials to take note of the small port of entry, across from Acuña, Mexico.

“Border Patrol came to the churches,” Young noted. “They said they were going to start bringing immigrants to Del Rio and asked us to prepare. We could help shelter them, or else Border Patrol would drop them off” at a convenience store/gas. “We came together and said, ‘We can handle this.’” 

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The first imported immigrants showed up in early April, and the pace of arrival ramped up quickly. “It went from zero to 60 super-fast,” he said. A daily trickle of 20 immigrants zoomed to as many as 200, when Border Patrol started flying them from McAllen to Del Rio.

A coalition of about 20 churches has participated in Del Rio’s immigrant relief ministry. The congregations’ members help with transportation, serve meals and volunteer at the new immigration center, which processes about 115 people per day and shelters about 45 per night.

According to the Border Patrol, Del Rio qualifies as an immigration distribution center because that convenience store has a Greyhound bus kiosk, providing the refugees a path to another place.

“Our goal is to take care of them and get them from Del Rio to San Antonio,” said Young, who also leads Texas Baptists’ River Ministry in the area. “San Antonio has such better infrastructure—bigger airport and bus terminal, and non-profits with resources to give them more help. In Del Rio, we only get two buses and two flights per day.”

All the asylum seekers are on their way to someplace else, he stressed. The Del Rio coalition helps immigrant families get to where they want and/or need to go. 

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“The Central Americans all have addresses and phone numbers of family and friends who will sponsor them somewhere in the United States,” he noted. “They may say, ‘We’re going to stay with our uncle in Baltimore, Md.’ When they’re released, we help them communicate with their uncle and make sure they can pay for their transportation.”

Besides the Central Americans, the Del Rio coalition helps with refugees whose names and faces aren’t typically associated with the immigration crisis on the border, Young said. They’ve come from Africa, primarily Congo.

“We have processed 300 to 500 Congolese through our center,” he reported. “One day, 116 crossed in our sector. They’re heading to New York and other parts of the Northeast, where there is a strong French-speaking population.” Congo was a French colony, and the population still primarily speaks French. 

The Del Rio coalition has helped not only Congolese, but also refugees from Angola and Cameroon, he said. They tend to have cash, but perhaps not enough to fund a family trip more than halfway across the United States. 

The Africans have wound up in Del Rio for one simple reason—persecution, Young said.

“I met a pastor from the Congo, where the dictator is killing people and putting them in mass graves. The pastor spoke against the government, and they put a price on his head,” he explained. “First, he and his family moved to South Africa, but they realized the price still was on his head, and they had no choice but to flee. 

“They obtained a false visa, which got them into Ecuador. Then they made the five-month walk here. They crossed eight mountain ranges and crossed water in every valley. … He told me: ‘We had to press on, or else I was a dead man, no matter what.’”

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Young asked the Congolese pastor about the faith of his fellow refugees. The pastor said everyone with him—about 50 people—are Christians. “Basically, they’re escaping persecution,” Young said.

The flow of refugees through Del Rio will hold steady—and likely increase—for at least 18 months, he said. “Border Patrol has said this is the status quo. We’re almost to election season, and no politician is going to budge on immigration policy. We’re also coming to the summer season, which notoriously is busy along the border. They’ve told us to expect … a steady incline every month.”

The Del Rio coalition has funded its own ministry so far. “The Salvation Army has helped with feeding the immigrants, and I’m very thankful,” Young said. “Once that’s back on our plate, our money will go quickly. I’m dreading the day they leave.”

To contribute to Fellowship Southwest’s immigration relief ministry, which supports feeding programs and other endeavors along the border, click here.

Jay Pritchard