Fourteen years ago Juvenal Gonzalez, his wife Maria and their children were living comfortably in North Carolina where Gonzalez served as pastor of Iglesia Bautista Betel (Bethel Baptist Church), Lumberton.
But after attending a Woman’s Missionary Union MissionsFest in Tijuana in 2005 they felt God calling them back there.
“I did not want to come to Tijuana,” Gonzalez said. “I said, ‘No and no and no.’ But when the Lord wants to tell you something He can tell you just like it is. One pastor said to me, ‘If you’re comfortable where you are it’s because you aren’t doing anything.’ And that was me. Living in my comfort zone.”
‘Looking in the mirror’
But this wasn’t Gonzalez’s first, second or even third time in Tijuana. He was an immigrant. He crossed the U.S. border so many times the border patrol officers would tell him, “See you next time.”
“It was like looking myself in the mirror and seeing 30 years back,” he said. “I was there. I needed a glass of water, I needed shelter. If I’m able to help just one person, maybe another Juvenal comes along and for me it finally just clicked in my mind.”
Since the Gonzalezes arrival in Tijuana their family has grown — they now have five children: Sarai, Ismael, Said, Neftali and Jared — and more than 45 churches have been planted in various neighborhoods of the city through Gonzalez’s partnership with the San Diego Southern Baptist Association (SDSBA) and other Baptist churches both in the U.S. and Mexico.
“This is the power of one passionate leader to build relationships and change communities,” said Mike Carlisle, director of missions for SDSBA. “This is what the Church is supposed to look like. We can’t think that people don’t deserve it for whatever reasons. We don’t deserve grace but God gave it to us. We must give the grace we are given.”
For the past three years the Gonzalezes have been working with Baptist churches in Tijuana to shelter migrants coming to the border.
“When you read the Bible you cannot help but think about it,” Gonzalez said.
Before Jesus feeds the 5,000, His disciples tell Him they don’t have enough food to feed the growing crowd. But Jesus tells them to “go and see” what they have (Mark 6:38). And out of what they have — five loaves and two fish — Jesus feeds multitudes. That was all the encouragement Gonzalez needed.
“When we started we thought, ‘Well we can give them shelter but in the morning let’s not just send them straight to the border. We know where the people go and stand in lines to wait for their numbers. Let’s not just send them, let’s give them coffee and sweet bread,’” he said. “It’s just like Jesus said: ‘What do you have?’”
And all he had was Folgers and sweet bread.
“But soon it was like God was pouring it Himself and I got so encouraged because one church called and then another church called and before we knew it we started serving breakfast, lunch and dinner for the migrants.”
Living and serving at the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere provides a unique advantage for gospel work, Gonzalez said.
“I didn’t have to go to Haiti or Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala or Cuba. All these Spanish-speaking people came to our border,” he said. “And I told other pastors here, ‘This is our chance. Not for the Americans but for the Mexicans to preach the gospel because we don’t need a translator. We can say straightforward: ‘Jesús te ama’ (Jesus loves you).”
And thus began the network of churches and ministries Gonzalez coordinates to serve migrants.
“The investment we make in people is powerful. I didn’t know someone was making an investment in me 30 years ago when they preached Jesus to me. Who would’ve thought, ‘We’re helping Juvenal now because he’s going to lead church plants and ministries in Tijuana’? Nobody except God.”
Along with providing shelter and food to the migrant caravan, Gonzalez has been involved in several other ministries, including linking Pastor Gamaliel Lopez and Iglesia Bautista el Calvario (Calvary Baptist Church) to a shelter where they can serve breakfast; supporting Primera Iglesia Bautista de Tijuana (First Baptist Church, Tijuana) and it’s Haitian congregation; and housing volunteers and missions teams in rooms at his home.
‘It’s our moment’
For Gonzalez it’s not about padding his church plant and ministry numbers. It about supporting those serving within the community.
“We want to help the church so the church can help the community,” he said. “Now it’s our moment. We know if the Lord is in it it’s going to multiply.”