Alum Grows Unique Ministry in Immigrant Community
by Andy Behrendt, '10, M.Div.
Rose Mary Sánchez-Guzmán lives on the border—in more ways than one.
As pastor of Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey in El Paso, Texas, less than 10 minutes from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, she has centered herself on the physical border that separates two nations. But, in ministering to a congregation plagued by issues of immigration and poverty, she deals with another type of boundary.
"Before, I was black and white, but I am all gray now," says Sánchez-Guzmán, '96. "I am struggling between the law of men and the grace of God. He cares for people. We need to preach the gospel to them, too. They are children of God, as well."
The daughter of two World Gospel Mission pastors, Sánchez-Guzmán first knew she wanted to be a pastor or a missionary as a 13-year-old in Bolivia. She also knew she wanted to study in the United States, and, after beginning at Bolivian Evangelical University, she attended college at the Lutheran Bible Institute in California. In her final year, she became a Lutheran and received a scholarship to attend Luther Seminary. It was in those years of study that she had the life-changing experience of coming to know a God of grace—the God she now proclaims to the people of Cristo Rey.
She arrived at the border community in 1997 in what began as an interim role, evaluating whether the ELCA mission church, started in 1992, should close or organize as a congregation. She was shocked by its poverty. Families making $7,000 a year were living with as many as six children in one room. Meanwhile, she faced her own challenges as pastor to an unfamiliar culture.
"When I came out of seminary, I thought, 'I know a lot of things. I'm an expert.' I was no expert at working with this community ... It took them a long time to trust me, actually. They're living here
in fear. They really are not sure if people are good or bad to them."
She determined the ministry was viable and, after 13 years, the congregation has made progress. It now has 138 members. With the help of the Rocky Mountain Synod, the congregation bought its building in 2007 and completed its first renovation in 2009. At the same time, it called both a lay pastor to assist Sánchez-Guzmán and a missionary doctor who already had a successful partnership with Cristo Rey offering medical care to the poorest folks in Juárez and helping 100 students attend school through a scholarship program.
But enormous challenges remain. Only a handful of Cristo Rey's families are making the $17,500 a year needed to fulfill the basic needs of rent, utilities and food.
And between 15 and 25 members a year are being deported. That often brings Sánchez-Guzmán to counsel members from across the fence as border guards look on.
It's here that the flexibility, the methods of pastoral care and the theology of grace that Sánchez-Guzmán learned at Luther have been so crucial.
"As a church, we have to show the grace and the mercy of God," she says. "The Bible doesn't tell me to feed the hungry of only those with a Social Security number."
At Cristo Rey, when people call the church their family, they mean it in a literal sense.
"It's a place where they can cry and everybody cries with them," she says. "And it's a place where they can celebrate, have their parties and dance. It's funny to see people that are living in despair like that, but who are also able to celebrate."
Indeed, along with her own family—her husband, Fernando, and their daughters, Ariella and Mariella Sharon—the family of Cristo Rey has sustained Sánchez-Guzmán through one of the most complex cross-cultural ministries a pastor could ever imagine.
"I have been able to find a community, and, even in churches, it's hard to find a genuine community that cares for you. And so it's part of me," she says. "I give a lot, but I also receive a lot from them and from being together. They have taught me to believe in the providence of God. And that feeds my spirit."
To learn more about Cristo Rey and its Border Immersion program, visit borderimmersion.webs.com and http://iglesiacristorey.wixsite.com/borderimmersion, or find Pastor Rose Mary on Facebook.