By Jane Rodgers
BROWNSVILLE, Texas (BP) – For Carlos Navarro, pastor of West Brownsville Baptist Church, the human need seen in migrant caravans moving from Central and South America toward U.S. borders is nothing new. Navarro, once an illegal immigrant himself, has been ministering to migrants in the Texas Rio Grande Valley for a quarter century.
The Southern Baptist TEXAN interviewed Navarro and Diana, his wife of 36 years, in Brownsville this past fall as the couple celebrated 25 years at their church while preparing for what was anticipated as the latest migrant emergency.
Navarro said his biggest needs are not monetary but practical: clothing, toothbrushes, sanitary supplies, and Spanish-language Bibles – preferably 1960 King James versions with black covers.
“In summer, any kind of t-shirts will do,” Navarro said, holding up shirts from a 2014 political campaign as a reminder that people who have nothing are grateful for anything. Hoodies are needed in winter, he added.
Navarro distributes such goods at a local immigration center and sends volunteers with West Brownsville Baptist Church’s own Golan Ministries across the border to offer humanitarian assistance in Matamoros. Golan teams carry backpacks of supplies and clothing into Mexico, careful not to take too much, lest the material be confiscated.
West Brownsville also gives monthly financial assistance to its church plant in Chiapas, Mexico, on the Guatemalan border where migrants have been flocking to the church for help.
Golan Ministries – its name a reminder of the pastor’s support of Israel – “where my Lord and Savior will one day return,” he emphasized – was formed last April after the Mexican Consulate in Brownsville contacted Navarro for assistance with the summer 2018 border crisis.
The consulate’s request for Navarro’s involvement was not surprising.
Certificates of appreciation and photos with dignitaries – including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and President George W. Bush – adorn the walls of his church office, recognition of his years of service among the region’s under-served. Cameron County recently acknowledged the silver anniversary of his ministry in an official ceremony.
When Navarro moved to Brownsville in 1993, a retiring pastor who had taught detainees at a local immigration center asked him to take over the volunteer ministry. Navarro did so until that facility closed, then moved in 2006 to the new Southwest Key Casa Padre Center where he still preaches most Saturday mornings. Although Navarro is not the only faith representative, some 1,500 of the approximately 2,000 young men and boys at Southwest Key choose to attend his weekly Bible study, and he estimates 150-200 people trust Christ each Saturday.
His messages resonate with those from Central America, where evangelicalism is much more widespread than in Mexico, Navarro said.
“The boys know me. The guards know me. I am from Guatemala. I came to the states illegally. I speak their language,” Navarro said of the background he shares with the young detainees.
Necessity brought him to the U.S., he said.
Following a military coup led by General Efrain Rios Montt in 1982, Navarro, a reservist, fled his country to save his life.
“I was 18, with no chance to stay in Guatemala,” he recalled. While friends opted for Australia, Navarro headed for the closer sanctuary city of San Francisco.
He accepted Christ as Savior the day he left Guatemala City, carrying a Bible from his mother, a believer who sent him to evangelical school as a youth for a Christian education, which became real as he left home forever.
“I understood the plan of salvation, the Roman Road, all that,” said Navarro, admitting that he had “hated chapel time” and Bible class at school.
Believing “every single door was shut” and that God had plans for him, Navarro told the Lord, “I am leaving my country. I am leaving my family. I don’t want an easy life. Just give me a chance.”
In San Francisco, he started reading through Scripture, finding this note from his mom: “Read the Bible. You will be amazed what God can do for you.”
“Something inside me told me I needed to worship and to go find a place,” Navarro said. The first church he encountered was Primera Iglesia Bautista de San Francisco.
“It’s a good thing it wasn’t a Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses or a Mormon church,” he mused.
Navarro lived in the church basement for nine months. His application for political asylum was denied and the Reagan administration had yet to issue its amnesty proclamation, so Navarro worked with an immigration attorney for permission to stay. His status changed when he met and married Diana, a San Francisco native. After Reagan’s amnesty proclamation, Navarro went through the long process of becoming a U.S. citizen.
Even though he was in the country illegally for years, he obtained a Social Security card and worked for a major candy company and a department store. He even cleaned bank vaults as a janitor. He attended Golden Gate Seminary.
Then the Navarros traveled to El Salvador, where he completed seminary and the couple served with the IMB (then the Foreign Mission Board) as journeymen missionaries in the early 1990s.
“My mother said we would get killed there,” Diana said, explaining that the El Salvador experience made her empathetic toward those fleeing danger, particularly mothers desiring to protect their sons from recruitment by the notorious MS-13 gang. Diana remembers living amidst rampant criminality and being asked if she preferred to be robbed “with pain or no pain.”
On furlough from El Salvador, the Navarros accepted the call to West Brownsville in 1993. Carlos became the eighth pastor in 10 years of a church averaging 65 in attendance.
Today, with 18 church plants – 11 in the Valley and others in Mexico – some 2,500 attend West Brownsville or an affiliated church each week. The church holds five services each week, including three on Sundays.
Most members are Spanish-speaking from Catholic backgrounds. The congregation is active in soul-winning. The church calendar is filled with ministry opportunities. A monthly outreach at a local flea market typically results in more than 100 commitments to Christ. West Brownsville invites new believers to the church, but encourages them to find any Bible-teaching church.
Other ministries include the Seminario Biblico Bautista de Brownsville, a Bible school founded by Navarro in 1998. The seminary, with extensions in Spain, has graduated 24, 18 of whom are in full-time ministry.
The church supports churches or missionaries in 20 countries. Displays highlighting West Brownsville’s international focus fill its facility, which also features large, colorful graphics of Israel.
Although a November trip to Chiapas convinced Navarro that the caravans headed toward Texas have diminished, there remain significant migrant populations in Matamoros, many from Bangladesh, Cameroon, and Nigeria. Their plight is one Navarro has seen before, starting with Cuban refugees seeking asylum in 1997.
When asked about a solution to the current crisis, Navarro shook his head.
“This is not only a U.S. problem. It is a continental problem. The U.N. may have to do something,” he said.
Meanwhile, Navarro will continue preaching at Southwest Key and sending teams into Matamoros to places they know migrants will be found.
Groups are scheduled to come and assist, such as an entourage of professors and students from the University of San Francisco with an 18-wheeler full of clothing and water bottles. A contact from Navarro’s San Francisco days arranged the group’s help.
A grant from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention facilitated the purchase of 1,500 Spanish Bibles.
Migrant ministry is a “roller coaster,” Navarro said, adding that Golan has just received the opportunity to manage a 40-bed Brownsville shelter, no longer subsidized by the city. The shelter will temporarily house migrants as they enter the U.S. from Matamoros to apply for political asylum.
“I cry when I think of all the Lord has done,” Navarro said. For more information, visit iglesiabautistawb.com.
Jane Rodgers writes for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.