Rose Mary Sánchez-Guzmán continues to build understanding on Mexican border.
Story magazine’s 2010 profile of Rose Mary Sánchez-Guzmán came during a time of struggle for the El Paso,Texas, pastor. Sitting just miles from the Mexican border, her church has long faced immigration-related challenges, and it often has also bordered on financial collapse. But a new threat had emerged: The state was considering following Arizona’s lead in making it illegal to aid undocumented immigrants.
“It was a hard time,” says Sánchez-Guzmán, ’96. “A lot of people left, and organizations in town struggled because it presented a choice: ‘If the law passes, what would I do?’ I thought about how I would be one they could arrest.”
The legislation never came to be, but after more than a dozen years leading Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey, the daughter of two pastors found herself weary. She took sabbatical, gaining needed time to reflect.
“I was burned out,” she says. “Financials here are always a challenge, and I found out that piece was stressing me more than anything—not the ministry itself.”
“We need to continue the conversation on how to work with communities living in poverty.”
Sánchez-Guzmán bounced back, creating community partnerships to make the financial situation more sustainable. It’s no small feat, considering half the congregation is undocumented, only six families make more than $15,000 per year and offerings average $1 per person. The native Bolivian also has taken uphill battles head-on, urging the community to fight stereotypes and working with the ELCA to help it understand how best to assist financially-strapped congregations.
“We need to continue the conversation on how to work with communities living in poverty,” she says.
Meanwhile, the congregation continues to live on the edge as federal legislation hangs in limbo after being challenged by many states. The Supreme Court this year will decide the legality of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which since 2012 has provided temporary work permits and deferred deportation for certain immigrants.
“A lot of our members would’ve benefitted from DACA,” Sánchez-Guzmán says, noting that her congregation helped 150 youth apply. “The immigration situation was OK for some time, but it’s getting worse. Politicians just use the immigrants as a tool for their own benefit. We feel more hate now, and people are living in fear.”
While the immersion program is education-focused and balanced, Sánchez-Guzmán sees no choice but to help those who cross the border.The congregation is doing its part to build understanding. Its weeklong Border Immersion program gives high school, university and seminary students a one-of-a-kind education on the outcomes of what Sánchez-Guzmán calls a broken immigration system. Participants experience bilingual worship alongside immigrants, tour poverty-stricken areas of El Paso, visit legal aid organizations and meet with an immigration lawyer. The program caps with an unforgettable trip to the fence dividing El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, where Border Patrol agents present fromone side and deported Iglesia Luterana members from the other.
“The ones coming are hungry or fleeing violence,” she says. “As a person of faith, my understanding is there’s nothing illegal about looking for a better life for your family. God is a god of mercy and is with the poor and those in need. If we say we are his hands or his feet, we need to follow what we think he would do for those people.”
Sure of her calling, the mother of three is fueled by the work and as motivated as ever.
“People have been saying ‘When are you going to leave? You’ve been here a long time,’” Sánchez-Guzmán says. “As I get older, I see more meaning in what I do. I don’t have a problem being sure of what my call is, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. My spirit gets filled. We can’t save everybody, but if we choose what we can do, we can make a big difference.”
To read our original story about Sánchez-Guzmán’s work in El Paso, visit www.luthersem.edu/story/RoseMary10.