“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27
The call came in the afternoon. “Tony, there’s a lady here who doesn’t speak English. Can I put you on speakerphone?” Her name was Lizzy. (Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the family.) She lived in Honduras with her six children surviving in the midst of the violence that plagued her neighborhood. Her church was her shelter. It was her sacred space. A sanctuary in the midst of chaos. A sanctuary from the death and despair all around her. She was reminded daily that her faith would keep her safe. Her faith taught her God would grant victory when everything else spelled defeat. While violence ravaged her town, her faithful prayers were answered. She quietly raised her children and her sister’s children as she eked out a living for almost 14 years.
Everything changed when her nephew turned 13. The local gangs began to court him. At first, they tried to lure him. They offered him drugs and money, but her nephews spent more time in church than anywhere else. They had been trained to resist the vices of this world. Soon gang members began to show up at Lizzy’s house offering her money if her nephews were allowed to “come out and play.” She got scared and kept the children at home, but knew it was no solution. As the gangs became more aggressive, she snuck her sister’s children out of the house and sent them to live with their father in Mexico. Word soon got out that Lizzy’s nephews had left the country and gang members began shouting “Miguelito” outside her house. Miguelito was a 10-year-old classmate of Lizzy’s daughter. His brother had promised to join the gang but got scared and ran away. When it was clear that he wasn’t coming back, Miguelito’s body was found in the middle of the street, stabbed 26 times as a warning to others.
One day Lizzy sent her son Alan to get some groceries when the men from the gang grabbed him and beat him. They told him to get ready to join the gang. He had just turned 12. Lizzy made repeated reports to the police, but it made no difference. It was viewed as individual cases of neighborhood bullying. So she locked her children home to keep them safe.
One day a neighbor came running to Lizzy, “They are coming take Alan!” The word on the street was that the gang had decided to take Alan or kill one of his siblings as a lesson. A desperate Lizzy gathered her documents, prayed with her church one last time and got on a bus with all her children in hopes of a miracle. When she arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, she crossed the bridge by foot with her children and turned herself in to the Border Patrol. She was processed along with all the asylum seekers that have flooded the southern border. They were released on “parole” (even though they had committed no crime) and given one year to secure legal representation to argue their case for asylum before a court. Lizzy was unaware that a miracle had already taken place. She entered the U.S. at the height of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy resulting in family separations, but by some miracle was allowed to enter with her children. Two weeks after Lizzy arrived in the U.S., Trump signed an executive order to stop family separations.
She was released to come to Virginia. That’s where our paths crossed. A local pastor was alerted about the needs of this family and called me because I could speak Spanish. The faithfulness of this family was clear the moment I met them. Her children looked me in the eyes and said, “Buenas tardes, pastor” as they shook my hand. We talked about their new life, their schools and their needs. As with any pastoral call, I offered to pray with them before I left. The children sat up straight and smiled with the relief of a familiar practice. They’d done this before. As soon as I started praying, the children began to follow my prayer under their breath. It’s a very common Pentecostal practice. They were “agreeing” with my prayers. “Sí señor. Amén. Gloria a Dios. Te pedimos Señor. Gracias Jesús.” They prayed with the innocence of a child speaking to a parent. Assuming they would be heard. Believing they are being heard because they’ve asked their father in Heaven for their daily bread in a way that most American Christians have never asked. So they mumbled words of consent as if to help lift up my prayers closer to the ears of God.
Their God is good because they made it to the United States. They are safely away from the gangs that threatened them. They are together as a family. And now they pray for a chance to stay in this country where they need not fear for their lives. Their gratitude was overflowing even while they had such desperate needs. When I was younger, I was taught to pray that God would break my heart with the things that break God’s heart. It’s a dangerous prayer because God answers even after years of not praying it. As I prayed with these children in front of me, I heard in my mind the prayers of the thousands of children separated from their parents at the border, pleading that God would reunite them. I heard the prayers of the thousands of children still living in places ravaged by violence. Even as I have long prayed for these families I had forgotten that there are children also praying. I heard the children’s prayers that God hears constantly.
How will the Body of Christ answer? How is God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven in this instance? There are pockets of churches that have already become literal sanctuaries. They have become a refuge in a ruthless and merciless world. But just like I learned when I was a child, the church is not a building but the people. “What would you have done in Nazi Germany?” is less and less a hypothetical question in America. Beyond offering physical sanctuary in our churches, Christians can create jobs for these immigrants, offer free rides, mentor children, create a hedge of protection around them by creating neighborhoods and communities that will not tolerate the bullying and targeting of immigrants. And we can give sacrificially out of our abundance. The church is the miracles children are praying for all across the United States. Let us be good and faithful servants with what we have been entrusted and become the answer to our own prayers.
Tony Lin is a Presbyterian minister who was born in Taiwan and grew up in Argentina. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is a research scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.