As churches and immigration advocates raced to protect undocumented immigrants last week from threatened nationwide raids, one Texas megachurch took a different approach.
Prestonwood Baptist Church’s mission team spent time last week ministering to Border Patrol agents and their families in El Paso ― handing out food, backpacks and other give-aways to show their support for the officers.
“They were so grateful [and] some in tears, telling us that nobody appreciates what they do,” the Southern Baptist church’s executive pastor, Mike Buster, tweeted on Saturday.
Jack Graham, Prestonwood’s lead pastor, dubbed the mission trip “Operation Border Blessing.”
The 42,000-member Plano congregation is known among religious leaders in Texas for its extensive outreach ministries, including its history of donating money and volunteer hours to serving undocumented migrants.
At the same time, Prestonwood’s senior leaders have often been vocal defendants of President Donald Trump and his administration’s immigration policies. Graham has had a close relationship with Trump, serving on the president’s evangelical advisory committee during the 2016 presidential campaign. And both Graham and Buster defended Customs and Border Patrol in June when fellow Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore condemned conditions at the border.
The church’s support for Border Patrol reflects arguments that conservative evangelical leaders have often made about immigration ― that while the Bible calls on individual Christians and churches to care for migrants, it’s the divine responsibility of the government to keep citizens secure.
Today a team from @PrestonwoodEsp heads to El Paso for Operation Border Blessing where they will show appreciation to all of the incredible federal agents & their families - tents, food, water inflatables, school supply filled backpacks, and more! #Prestonwoodonmission #inaction
— Mike Buster (@mikebusterxp) July 12, 2019
@Prestonwood mission team has been at the border this week ministering to border agents n serving the Border Patrol families. We supplied backpacks, inflatables, give-aways.
They were so grateful n some in tears, telling us that nobody appreciates what they do.#prestonwoodcares pic.twitter.com/Ewq9NKpfjD
— Mike Buster (@mikebusterxp) July 14, 2019
Prestonwood’s mission trip occurred during a tense week for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. after Trump administration officials warned of impending nationwide raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Only a handful of arrests were actually carried out this weekend, according to The New York Times, but authorities said more arrests would be likely during the upcoming week.
The mission trip also came during a time when U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency and its officers are under heavy public criticism. Reports from immigration lawyers and the media have described overcrowded, unsanitary and inhumane conditions for migrant adults and children at Border Patrol detention facilities ― accounts the agency’s leaders and the Trump administration dispute. The New York Times reports that Border Patrol agents repeatedly tried to raise concerns about overcrowded detention centers to their superiors, but federal officials failed to act.
Border Patrol agents have also been accused of misconduct. According to ProPublica, members of a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents posted racist jokes about migrant deaths and Hispanic lawmakers. Border Patrol agents have also been accused of dumping water jugs meant to help migrants attempting to cross the desert in the sweltering heat.
Sandra Ovalle, an immigration campaign coordinator at the progressive Christian organization Sojourners, said that Christian supporters of the president are too often quick to embrace the narrative that the crisis at the border cannot be changed or that pouring more money into the CBP will solve the problem.
“I would expect the same churches who are actively supporting Border Patrol agents and their families to publicly condemn the racist and sexist rhetoric used by CBP, citing their behavior as a reason we should be wary of the actions and words condoned behind closed doors,” Ovalle told HuffPost.
Prestonwood did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
In 2018, Prestonwood claimed it had spent $64,000 on “immigration relief,” including clothing, food, and other items for undocumented adults and minors at various shelters in the country. The church’s spending was bolstered by a $50,000 donation from Ivanka Trump.
“It’s part of our DNA as a church, and we consider it a calling to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ to those in need,” Buster said in a blog post on the church’s website. “We will continue to assist immigrants—whether they’re along the border or in our community.”
Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, a statewide interfaith religious advocacy network, told HuffPost there a lot of congregations showing support for Border Patrol.
“Law enforcement at all levels of government are members of many faith traditions, and it’s important that their faith communities provide pastoral care to them,” Moorhead wrote in an email. “It also helps to highlight how the dehumanizing impacts of the Administration’s policies fall on everyone who is caught up in the crisis.”
Ovalle said she believes ministry outreach at the border isn’t just about donating material goods or giving away toys and backpacks to undocumented migrants. She said it’s about ensuring dignity for people seeking asylum at every stage of the immigration process.
“As a nation, it is easier for us to believe that abuse is not happening. We must fully understand how our current immigration system assaults the image of God within those at the border,” she said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.