For Carlos Navarro, pastor of West Brownsville Baptist Church, the illegal immigrant caravans from Central and South America aiming to trespass across U.S. borders is nothing new. He and his church have been ministering to illegal immigrants in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley for a quarter-century, with programs worthy of emulation.
Navarro doesn’t care about walls, he cares about souls. I caught up with Navarro and Diana, his wife of 36 years, in Brownsville last fall as the couple celebrated 25 years at West Brownsville Baptist with civic recognition and church commemorations while preparing for the latest emergency.
Navarro said he does not need monetary donations to help those seeking new life in the United States. He does need clothing (like T-shirts and hoodies), 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 tees from a 2014 political campaign as a reminder that people who have nothing are grateful for anything.
Navarro distributes the goods at a Brownsville immigration detention center and sends volunteers with the church’s Golan Ministries across the border from Brownsville to offer humanitarian assistance in Matamoros. Golan teams carry backpacks of supplies and clothing into Mexico, careful not to take too much at once, lest the material be confiscated.
A Humanitarian Cause, Not a Political One
Navarro insists the Golan ministry does not promote or enable illegal immigration, but merely distributes the necessities of life across the border.
“We are doing it for the need of the people. We don’t care where they are coming from. You cannot put your head in the sand, conservative or liberal. People need to eat. And they need the gospel,” Navarro said.
West Brownsville also gives regular financial assistance to other partner churches involved in similar ministry, including a congregation in Chiapas, Mexico, on the Guatemalan border. Golan Ministries—its name a reminder of the pastor’s support of Israel—(“Where my Lord and Savior will one day return”) was formed last April after the Mexican Consulate in Brownsville contacted Navarro for assistance with the summer 2018 border crisis.
The consulate’s request was not surprising. Certificates of appreciation and photos of dignitaries—including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and former President George W. Bush—adorn the walls of his church office, recognition of his years of service among the region’s underserved people. Cameron County, which encompasses Brownsville, Harlingen, and South Padre Island, 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 Southwest Key’s Casa Padre Center, where he still teaches 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 Bible study weekly.
His messages resonate with Central Americans, where the percentages of evangelicals vastly outweigh those 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 Here
Following a military coup led by Gen. 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 became a Christian the day he left Guatemala City, carrying a Bible from his mother, who sent him to evangelical school as a child for a Christian education that became much more real as he left home forever.
“I understood the plan of salvation,” Navarro said, admitting that he had hated chapel and Bible class at school. Believing that God had plans for him, Navarro told God, “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 mother: “Read the Bible. You will be amazed what God can do for you.”
Navarro stopped at the first church he found, Primera Iglesia Bautista San Francisco, and lived in its basement for nine months. When his application for political asylum denied, he worked with an immigration attorney for permission to stay. His status changed when he met and married Diana, a San Francisco native. After President 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, Navarro obtained a Social Security card, worked for a major candy company, and worked for a department store. He cleaned bank vaults as a janitor and attended Golden Gate Seminary. Then came El Salvador, where Navarro completed seminary and the couple served as Southern Baptist journeymen missionaries in the early ’90s.
Experiences in El Salvador left Diana sympathetic 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 in El Salvador, asking 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, where Carlos became the eighth pastor in 10 years of a church then averaging 65 in attendance. Now the church holds five services each week, including three on Sundays, all in Spanish. With 18 plants—11 in the Valley, others in Mexico—some 2,500 attend West Brownsville or an affiliated church each week. The church supports pastors and missionaries in 20 countries.
Serving Migrant Populations
Although a November trip to Chiapas convinced Navarro that the caravans headed toward Texas had diminished, there remain significant foreign populations in Matamoros, many from Bangladesh, Cameroon, and Nigeria. Their plight is one Navarro has seen before, starting with Cuban refugees seeking asylum en masse in 1997.
In 2019, most border-crossers are seeking access to the United States via California or Arizona, through Sonora, Navarro said, adding that he had heard that organized crime entrenched in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where Matamoros is located, has forced many to seek refuge elsewhere.
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 to Matamoros to places migrants will be found. Groups assist, such as an entourage of professors and students from the University of San Francisco that arrived in December with an 18-wheeler full of clothing and water bottles. A contact from Navarro’s San Francisco days arranged the group’s help.
While he was grateful for the supplies the university group brought, their tactics—such as demonstrating in front of Casa Padre—did not sit well with him. They will not be invited back. Navarro does not have time for politics: “I am out of the radar of the political stuff. I am a pastor. The church has to do things Jesus’s way. He saw the multitude with compassion.”
“We are not pampering migrants,” Navarro added. “We bring food and clothing. I am in favor of sane, legal immigration. Migrants must go through the right channels. You cannot demand rights. That’s not right. I submitted myself to the process. So must they.”
Along the Mexican border, “good fences” may make “good neighbors,” but the politically conservative Navarro does not care about walls: “The wall is not an issue for me. The main issue is the people have needs.” Rather than talk, Navarro and his church continue to serve the same tangible humanitarian aid they have offered for decades.
This is adapted from articles by the author originally published in the Southern Baptist TEXAN and Baptist Press.