Embracing Central American families in Laredo

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by Leah Allen — August 12, 2014

LAREDO - As River Ministry Coordinator Mario Garcia drives Central American families back and forth from the Greyhound bus station nearly every day, he cannot help but think of the paralyzed man Jesus healed in Mark 2.

“It’s not that he needed to walk. It’s that he needed salvation,” he said. “The people I’m working with need Christ.”

Garcia, director of missions for Laredo Baptist Association and River Ministry coordinator, is one of many Texas Baptists who have opted to embrace the families that have been seeking refuge from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Cuba.

Maria*, from Honduras, told Garcia she fled her home after her father was killed last year and her husband a few months ago. She thought joining some family members in the United States would be safer for her and her son.

As they enter the United States at the Laredo border, families like Maria and her son go to the Holding Institute Community Center where they receive food, clean clothes, showers and guidance on traveling in the U.S.

Multiple times a week, students from Santa Fe Baptist Church help sort clothes at the Holding Center which have been donated from residents in the community. Though they get little opportunity to interact with the families, Ana Almanza said she’s happy to spend her summer vacation as a volunteer.

“This is a way to show these people God’s love, maybe not directly but anything helps,” she said.

Other Texas Baptist churches near and far have helped through volunteer efforts, Garcia said, including Iglesia Bautista Emanuel, Iglesia Bautista Nuevo Nacimiento and Laredo Cowboy Church.

First Baptist Church in Athens and Primera Iglesia Bautista in Athens planned months ago to take a week to serve needs in the Laredo community through ministries such as painting a house and hosting church in the park. Due to the circumstances, they were able to do much more and help with needs at the Holding Center as well.

“As Texas Baptists, we’re willing to say that we’re going to embrace this issue,” said Scott Shelton, student pastor at First Baptist Church in Athens. “We’re trying to introduce students to this world that’s in need. It’s not just about coming and doing something. It’s an opportunity for us and the church to do incredible things and just build bridges.”

Student Omeka Irigo from Athens said the experience was humbling as she was able to see the needs of the Central American families firsthand. 

“People talk about how it is but they haven’t actually gone through it,” she explained. “Now I can say I’ve actually gone through it, and I know how it is. I’ve seen what people are going through.”

Texas Baptist donations of women’s shoes and money have helped the community center provide necessities for the families. When the influx of families began in May, the Holding Center helped around 175 people a day. Now, they see as little as seven or as much as 50. Though the numbers have dwindled, the community continues to embrace every individual that crosses the border.

Some days are challenging, Garcia said. Many of the stories he hears can be emotionally draining. With a few hours of rest though, he says God renews his strength.

Though the donations have been much appreciated and there is still a need for financial help, Garcia and the volunteers continue to focus their ministry on the greatest need - the gift of the Gospel.

“There are a lot of people coming to my city, and it gives me an opportunity to share my faith,” Garcia said. “It’s all about serving people and not serving yourself.”

Laredo is one of the principal ports of entry from Mexico to the U.S. that family units and unaccompanied minors are coming through. To stay informed on updates for needs in Laredo, McAllen and Brownsville, visit texasbaptists.org/forthechildren.

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