HARLINGEN — It felt like any other Sunday.
A line of congregants filed into church, flipping through hymnbooks and chatting with friends in the pews. On a stage decorated with stars and stripes, a pianist provided musical accompaniment to the congregants' favorite songs: “Amazing Grace,” “His Name is Wonderful,” “God Bless America.”
But in one key respect, the Lighthouse Fellowship Church in Harlingen is no ordinary house of worship.
At a time when faith leaders across the country are condemning the separation of children and parents who entered the U.S. illegally, Lighthouse has an unusual perspective on the conflict. Its chapel is just yards from one of the largest shelters licensed in Texas to house unaccompanied immigrant minors and children taken from their parents under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
After splitting from another local congregation over a personnel dispute 18 months ago, leaders of the nondenominational church started a new religious community in a small red-brick chapel owned by the Valley Baptist Missions Education Center, which also leases an adjacent set of buildings to BCFS Health and Human Services, the company that oversees the immigrant holding facility.
On Sunday, around 40 congregants sang along to popular hymns and dropped spare change into a collection bag. Despite their front-row seat to the immigration conflict, the Harlingen churchgoers, who are predominantly white, seem no more engaged with the political debate over the border than anyone else in the United States. The topic of immigration never came up during the hour-long service, even when one congregant stood up to lament the problems he believes bedevil the country, including political polarization and a lack of respect for the elderly.
However, in interviews before the service, several congregants said they are fervent supporters of President Donald Trump, whose crackdown on illegal immigration led to the recent family separations. And in stark contrast with the criticism that Trump’s immigration policies have received in some corners of the Christian community, a number of parishioners said the president was right to split up families who entered the country illegally.
“If you break the laws, there are consequences,” said church pianist Doug Cox, 66, who led this week’s service while the regular pastor recovered from the flu. “If someone slips into my home uninvited, they are guilty and going to jail.”
“Right now, the government does not have the facilities to hold a family together,” added Bob Knight, 87. “So what can they do?”
In early June, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited a Bible passage to justify the crackdown at the southern border, which caused more than 2,000 children to be separated from their parents before Trump ended the practice a week later. Sessions’ words sparked a backlash from Christian leaders, who said the zero tolerance policy conflicted with their commitment to family values.
In Richardson, the Arapaho United Methodist Church put up a road sign saying, “Please don’t use scripture to justify policies that harm families.” And in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network last month, Rev. Franklin Graham, a son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham, called the family separations “disgraceful” and “terrible.”
But not all religious communities have embraced that view. “One of the things we’re seeing is that lots of different Christian denominations are responding to this in really different ways,” said Sara Ronis, a theology professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. “It’s much more complicated than saying people who are religious feel one way or another.”
Craig Mitchell, a Greyhound bus driver who attended Sunday's Lighthouse service, said he often picks up immigrants wearing ankle monitors at bus stations in Brownsville and McAllen. He compared undocumented parents who object to being separated from their children to someone who robs a 7-Eleven and expects to bring his family with him to prison.
“To see some of the people, you wonder if they’re actually their kids, because the kids look scared,” said Mitchell, 45. “They don’t know their names too well.”
It is not clear whether the Harlingen shelter — the largest of six such facilities that BCFS runs in Texas — houses children who were separated from their parents at the border. The Texas Department of State Health Services keeps track of the number of immigrant minors held at each licensed facility. But those totals do not differentiate between children who crossed the border unaccompanied and minors the government separated from their parents as part of the zero tolerance policy.
Regardless, the number of unaccompanied immigrant children in the Harlingen center has more than doubled since the zero tolerance policy went into effect in early April. In mid-March, the facility housed 277 children. By June 21, the date of the most recent count, that total had risen to 581, making the Harlingen campus the second-largest operation of its kind in Texas, behind Southwest Key’s facility in Brownsville.
Some of the shelters in Texas that house immigrant children are surrounded by fences and security guards. But on Thursday morning, a Texas Tribune reporter initially walked unchallenged into the central administrative building on the BCFS campus, where children with wristbands and water bottles were lined up in the hallway. After two minutes, a BCFS official instructed the reporter to leave, referring questions to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the facilities that house unaccompanied migrant children. An HHS spokesman said the department could provide only the total number of children housed at all its approved facilities across the country, which currently stands at 11,800.
The Texas Tribune's reporting on the Families Divided project is supported by the Pulitzer Center, which will also help bring discussions on this important topic to schools and universities in Texas and across the United States through its K-12 and Campus Consortium networks.
The BCFS shelter in Harlingen has a history of health and safety violations, according to state records. Earlier this year, children at the facility complained of raw and undercooked food. And in 2016, two staff members reported that other employees had struck up “inappropriate relationships” with children in their care.
But the churchgoers at Lighthouse say they have had only positive experiences with their next-door neighbors. One congregant, Peggy Reeves, noting that the shelter building used to house a school, said she has seen children at the facility playing soccer and basketball outside.
“It’s wonderful that they’re taking care of them,” said Dovie Dyer, 84, who has attended services at Lighthouse since its establishment. “It’s a wonderful facility.”
Cox, the pastor for the day, opened his sermon with verses from Philippians and Chronicles, reminding parishioners that as long as they pray, God “will heal their land.” In recent weeks, the Lighthouse congregation has mourned the death of the church’s founder and lead pastor, Rev. Gene Horton, who suffered a heart attack last month. As Cox finished his sermon, he implored the congregants to put their trust in God, even in the face of sorrow.
Then he asked them to pray for their country. “The hate needs to be changed to love,” he said. “You can’t love God and hate your neighbor.”
The service concluded with the morning’s second rendition of “God Bless America.”
Disclosure: St. Mary's University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.