The COVID-19 pandemic has forced River Ministry Missionaries to do things differently, but it has not shut them down, and it certainly has not slowed the work of God along the Texas/Mexico border. Currently, 17 missionaries serve along both sides of the border, connecting local churches with training, resources and support for Gospel-centered ministries in their communities.
Vanessa Quintanilla-Lerma, who serves as a River Ministry missionary in the Rio Grande Valley, says the need is even greater than usual.
A traditional food pantry is not currently an option due to the pandemic, so churches have responded with drive-by food ministries, where people can come by and have a volunteer load a box of food in their trunk.
Mission teams had to cancel their summer River Ministry trips, which usually have a massive impact in the community, but Quintanilla-Lerma was happy to share that local churches have stepped up to meet the need, with six opening their own drive-by food ministries.
“Sometimes the people who come to pick up food will lower their window and want to talk, so there are opportunities to share the Gospel,” Quintanilla-Lerma said. “Lots of families are grieving because they have lost loved ones.”
River Ministry typically hosts large gatherings, clinics and an annual back-to-school bash. Everything looks different right now, yet, as Quintanilla-Lerma puts it, “the changes have also brought a lot of good.”
“Families with school children often feel isolated and discouraged. If their kids have to do school remotely, they might have trouble accessing their classes, have poor internet connections or the parents can’t help them because they don’t speak English or don’t understand technology,” she explained.
River Ministry responded by creating care packages that include a craft, a Bible story, snacks and a family devotional, which families receive during a personal house call. So far, 300 care packages and backpacks have been delivered in the Valley.
The care packages were made possible by donations, which include a $250 gift from an anonymous donor.“
Many families are eager to tell us that the current situation has made them more sensitive to the Word and the Lord, and we can see how God is working in them,” Quintanilla-Lerma said. “And the visits have given us the opportunity to tell them that we care about them and love them and that God loves them.”
In addition, the visits have facilitated a community assessment, so they can learn more about the specific needs of the people served.
“The church is not the church building,” Quintanilla-Lerma said. “We are the church and this season has allowed us to demonstrate that. As we love the community we continue to be the church. It just looks a little different.”
Since Quintanilla-Lerma has not been able to offer traditional training, she has made Zoom conferences available to help churches share ideas about ministering during the pandemic and to offer tips on how to phase back into normal church life.
Things also look drastically different right now on the Mexican side of the border. Dr. Gloria De La Pena, who serves as a River Ministry missionary in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, had to cancel all medical clinics this summer. The clinics serve large groups of people who may not otherwise have access to medical and dental care.
Some church groups have sent gifts of medicine in lieu of their visit, which were donated to the Red Cross and the local government-run hospital, the hospital used by those with minimal resources.
De La Pena normally takes a team of 8-10 dentists and hygienists into a women’s prison where she also distributes toiletry kits and shares the Word of God. This year, the coronavirus has caused visitor restrictions, so she decided to drop-off toiletry kits for prison staff to distribute to inmates.
Thankfully, God opened the door for five prisoners who were in dire need to receive dental care in a local dentist’s private clinic. The dentist offered her service free of charge.
Another change since the pandemic is in the way that Bible study programs like Awana are being offered to children. The same anonymous donor who gave to Quintanilla-Lerma’s ministry, also made a gift that is providing weekly boxed lunches to 30 children who participate in Awana digitally and answer the respective Bible study questions.
“The gift has been a big blessing because it has gotten the parents involved in helping their children complete the assignment, which has given them a chance to hear the Gospel,” De La Pena said.
Churches are invited to prepare toiletry kits for River Ministry missionaries to distribute in different regions along the border.
To learn more about Texas Baptists River Ministry, txb.org/riverministry.