A sk Pastor Samuel Lopez how he was inspired to transform his little church—a stone’s throw from El Paso, Texas, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico—into an albergue (shelter) for migrants stuck and unhoused at the Mexico–U.S. border, and he won’t mind telling you it didn’t start with him. A member of his little congregation had been taking homeless migrants into her home to feed and shelter them from the nighttime desert cold, and the need soon grew beyond her capacity to help. She went to her pastor, Samuel, and his response was to bring the migrants to the church. This began an unimagined journey—one providentially foretold in the prior naming of the church near the international boundary: Iglesia Frontera de Gracia (Border of Grace Church).
The scene at the border
All along the southern border of the U.S., and especially in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, migrants and asylees—people seeking better living conditions or political asylum—from across Central and South America can be found waiting, hoping, and pleading for a chance to enter the United States. Reasons vary; for some, they had lives they were proud of that were turned upside-down by government threats. For others, nationwide economic crises and instability had so crushed their own lives and families that they were compelled to seek a future elsewhere, tracing arduous journeys through multiple countries and countless traumas. For still others, their fathers, mothers, or spouses made those excruciating decisions, and they are now risking everything—or have nothing to lose—to reunite their families and make up for priceless time lost with the ones they love most.
People from Venezuela wait and hope to enter the United States.
Since early 2019, Frontera de Gracia has housed and aided thousands of migrants and asylees from around a dozen countries from Latin America and beyond, and facilitated a feeding program during the pandemic that sustained countless local and immigrant families alike. The tiny church poignantly blurs the meaning of “sanctuary” as refuge and as a house of worship. During the week, mattresses line the floor of the worship space, creating a makeshift dormitory, and on Sundays, the chairs are returned to welcome congregants and shelter guests alike to gather for worship and hearing of the Word.
A welcoming community in Holland, Michigan
Being a church of immigrants isn’t new to Third Reformed Church, in Holland, Michigan. Founded in 1867 to welcome the ongoing emigration from the Netherlands to the USA, Third Reformed members can reach back in time and recall when English wasn’t the primary language, and “home” was a complicated topic for families starting over, or separated by their emigration process. The church grew and thrived as a deeply Reformed, humbly generous, worshiping body passionate for preaching and supporting the mission of Christ’s gospel.
Over the last century, Third Reformed has been home to many missionary individuals and families, not immigrants per se, but folks who have certainly and indelibly been shaped in the global church and cross-cultural experiences. More recently, in the 1990s, Third Reformed became a host facility for a federally funded daycare for children of migrant farm workers in the area called Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd); volunteers from the church stepped up to help.
In 2017, pastors and members of Third Reformed Church continued to wonder together if God was calling them in new ways to share life, community, and ministry with the Latino community in the surrounding neighborhood. The church leadership invited us (local ministers Rev. Angel Lopez and Rev. Janelle Lopez-Koolhaas) to cultivate bilingual hospitality and discipleship, and to organize support for newly arrived immigrants making their way to Holland. This would grow to be a ministry of Third Reformed called El Encuentro. “El encuentro” means “an encounter”; a meet up, or a reunion, and its verb relative is encontrar, “to find.” Friends use it when they run into each other; Scripture uses it when humans encounter the Lord.
El Encuentro is now a hub of life and worship, offering support and encouragement to newly arrived people, as well as many of the things a newly arrived person seeks, such as connections to services and resources. Most of all, Third Reformed and El Encuentro offer a welcoming community in which to belong, grow, and fellowship, through Sunday worship services in Spanish and mid-week discipleship groups. We like to say, here, you have found another familia, and, no estas solo; you are not alone.
How in the world did Third Reformed Church and El Encuentro come to partner with Iglesia Frontera de Gracia, approximately 1,600 miles away? In God’s own weaving of miraculous, many-chaptered stories, Pastor Samuel and Pastor Angel are brothers. They grew up together in Chiapas, Mexico, learning to know and love Jesus through the faith of their mother and grandparents. Their family was deeply connected to the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico in Chiapas—a connection well-known to the Reformed Church in America (RCA) through a decades-long partnership in mission. Samuel was called to plant churches in the Northern Mexico; Angel would become the first Chiapenco minister ordained in the RCA.
The threads of connection are not limited to these two brothers. As of 2023, several local RCA churches in Holland, Michigan, give support to the work of Frontera de Gracia, and several church members and pastors from the Classis of Holland have visited the border and the shelter on learning trips led by Pastor Angel. In 2021, Frontera de Gracia became an official mission partner of RCA Global Mission. In so many ways, each ministry inspires and informs the other’s serving of a swelling population of global migrants neither safe at home, nor readily welcomed where they’ve journeyed.
The journey to Holland
One day, after getting to know her, I asked Lupe* how she knew she was going to Holland, Michigan, after being released from border detention. She told me, “They gave me a stack of bus tickets for me and my children. I didn’t know the names on the tickets, but after several days on the bus, giving up a ticket at each stop… we came to the last ticket, and it said ‘Holland.’ That is how we knew we had arrived.”
Or, you might ask Sara* how she came to make her way to Holland. The details will necessarily be evasive, but if you put two and two together, her vulnerable age and her need to earn money for her family were preyed on, and her way was “paid.” Through friends and contacts at her job, she heard about El Encuentro, and the stress and risk of her situation were soon noticed. She found a safe community and support to find a new place to live and a new job—God’s answer to her urgent prayers.
In Ciudad Juarez or Holland, as in many other big and small cities around the world, if you ask, “What is being done to receive immigrants and house them and get them connected?” you’ll get anything from a furrowed brow to a shoulder shrug to an exasperated, “We don’t know what to do!” Many agencies and organizations are overwhelmed with cases and arrivals.
Even while working with and within immigration policies, churches can offer friendship and hope, as well as many supportive practices that have great impact, even the ability to comply with daunting requirements. Church members can offer rides to appointments or to consulates to get paperwork in unfamiliar cities. Be a friend who goes to hearings or legal appointments, or a bilingual friend to help get a child registered for school. Help fill out complicated paperwork, or offer up a place to live for a while, if possible.
Reciprocal language classes are another great way to build relationships and develop needed language skills. The caring space of a community where many are going through the same experience and can lean on one another and be valued without regard to status is truly a gift—and a call!—from God.
An intricate story of hope
If you could ask Enrique* what he felt when he saw Pastor Angel’s slideshow at El Encuentro of a recent trip to the border, it might take a minute for him to find the words, for he would also recount the emotion he felt when he saw the same stretch of bridge where he crossed into the United States from Mexico. It was an unplanned moment of recognition, but it made existentially real in worship that day just how closely many of El Encuentro’s members clung to the hope that God was with them and was leading them to a place of safety and refuge. Enrique fled from Nicaragua when he was assaulted by local authorities during a protest against the repressive government. His journey to the border, and to Holland, took months, including a couple of months in a border detention center, a time he prefers not to talk about. His new church in Holland is a refuge for him, thanks be to God. Asylum seekers like him may not be “home”—because home means many complicated, elusive things to one seeking asylum—but God has shown his goodness and love through a church home and community that sees the struggle and shares the hope that is found in Christ.
Another family could tell you about that kind of providence, experienced on the other side of the fence. A young man, newly living in Holland and living with a family from Third Reformed, had a relative arriving in Juarez, seeking to cross into the U.S. The relative had been abandoned and left with small children to care for and was desperately vulnerable to human traffickers. The man in Holland, through his pastors at Third Reformed, was able to reach out to her across the span of a continent, in the big hands of a watchful God, and find resources and safety for her through Iglesia Frontera de Gracia. A week later, her first Sunday in worship turned out to be the day her relative made profession of faith and was baptized. What a joyful day of testimony! As of late, a few more families have been reunited, adding their threads to the story God is weaving, of God’s great mercy and faithfulness.
Listen to just a few of the stories and testimonies of how God is ministering in Juarez and in Holland, and you may never hear some of the most well-known stories in Scripture the same way again. When you re-read the sagas of Abram, called to a foreign land; or of Joseph, who was trafficked into slavery; or of Joseph’s brothers forced to leave home to find food; or of Ruth, making a new home in the margins of a strange land; of Israel in exile; or of Mary and Joseph fleeing with a young Jesus as refugees to Egypt… God’s eye is on the immigrant, the asylee, and the refugee in profound and close ways. God’s Word has always been calling us to learn from these stories, to know God’s own self through them, and to walk closely and generously alongside strangers who will become like family.
Frontera de Gracia: Border of grace. El Encuentro: where God meets you.
In the body of Christ’s call to welcome immigrants, we see God’s grace poured out along the margins and flowing into our own communities to restore and refresh our hope. Our God of mercy sees us all and meets us where we are.
Reflect, pray, and support
- Ask God to lead you in getting to know immigrants and asylum seekers in your community. Ask Jesus how you can know him more through the new friends he brings into your community; pray to receive them in the way you would hope to receive Jesus himself (Matthew 25: 31-40). How might Christ renew your own heart by stepping out in faith and friendship?
- Ask the Holy Spirit how your community or church could begin to receive the arrival of immigrants as a gift, and not just a need to be met? The deepest level of hospitality looks to adjust and adapt our own home-space, not just tell new friends that they are welcome to be with us in our own comfortable ways.
- Do you have privilege, community influence, housing, or other resources that you are called to offer? Reflect on how you might offer genuine friendship and hospitality. Pray that you would be open to receive what is offered to you, even if the language, food or forms feel new to you. Reflect on the ways that Jesus offered his friendship to others— through shared meals, shared walks, and even shared time (and likely shared tasks) of strangers and companions.
- Remember that the appropriateness of questions takes place best inside a mutual friendship. Keep in mind that many immigrants have faced trauma, or may still be at risk, and well-intended questions may not be able to be answered right away. When someone does trust you with their story, be sure to guard their confidence wisely.
- Give: support the work of Frontera de Gracia, a place of refuge and worship for men, women, and children on their migration journey. Your gifts make it possible for Frontera de Gracia to continue their ministry work and serve as the hands and feet of Jesus for migrants in their sojourner process. You can also support Angel’s education and advocacy work in Holland, Michigan, and beyond.
Rev. Angel Lopez
Angel Lopez is an ordained Reformed Church in America minister in Holland, Michigan, and a missionary with RCA Global Mission in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Angel, born in Chiapas, Mexico, resonates deeply with the immigrants he meets, from his own experiences as a child living away from home and parents, navigating multiple languages, and his own immigration story to Canada and the United States. Angel delights in being a father to two amazing daughters and a husband to Janelle.
Rev. Janelle Lopez-Koolhaas
Janelle Lopez-Koolhaas has served as a former missionary in Chiapas, Mexico, and a minister in the Reformed Church in America since 2001. She comes from a Dutch, post-war immigrant family, grew up in a bilingual Dutch congregation in Ontario, and later lived near Vancouver, Canada. She has been fascinated by languages her whole life and is passionate about seeking out meaningful spaces for language and cultural encounters, especially in worship.