Mauricio Miranda was comfortable. For 10 years, he had served as pastor of a Pentecostal church in downtown Cúcuta, Colombia. His church was modest but established, and so was his life. Every Monday, he woke up knowing what to expect: Wednesday night service, Sunday service, discipleship groups, sermon prep in between.

“It was a pretty normal, typical church,” Miranda said. “People came to services, I preached, we said goodbye, and people went back home.”

But after 10 years, Miranda was restless. “I felt that we were not doing enough,” he recalled. He just couldn’t articulate exactly what “enough” was.

Cúcuta is Colombia’s sixth-largest municipality and sits on the country’s border with Venezuela. Miranda’s church was about a 20-minute drive from the Simón Bolívar International Bridge, a 315-meter structure that’s one of the busiest border crossings in South America, generating up to $8 billion a year in trade.

At the time, people on both sides crisscrossed the border bridge as breezily as if they were visiting a neighbor. Those who’d grown up in Cúcuta remember sauntering to the other side to get Popsicles on hot afternoons. Children in school uniforms scampered over the bridge to attend classes. Families from Venezuela attended church services in Colombia.

And then in 2015—after a series of violent disputes between the two countries—the border closed. A year later, when the bridge briefly reopened to pedestrians, traffic no longer flowed both ways. By then, Venezuela had collapsed into a full-scale humanitarian crisis. Nearly 200,000 Venezuelans crossed the bridge into Colombia in just a few days. Many of them traveled back and forth to stock up on essential supplies, but as the crisis worsened, more and more Venezuelans stayed in Colombia. In 2015, 31,000 Venezuelans lived there. By 2019, that number was almost 1.8 million.

Mauricio Miranda
Image: Photograph by Ferley Ospina for Christianity Today

Mauricio Miranda

In August 2016, Miranda decided to hit the reset button on his church. Every morning, he shut himself in his son’s bedroom, played some worship music, and prayed, “Lord, what can we do? Where do you want us to go?”

In September, Miranda received his answer. The Colombian and Venezuelan governments had just negotiated a more permanent reopening of the border to foot traffic. A lot of people are going to cross the bridge into Colombia, Miranda heard God tell him. Go, take some bread and beverages to the border, because people are hungry and thirsty. Rent a bus and bring them to church, because they need to hear the Word.

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When Miranda told his wife, Isabelina, what he had heard, she balked. “Where’s the money to buy bread?” she said. “Where’s the money to rent a bus?”

Miranda asked God the same question: “Lord, there are other churches with lots more money and people. Why not send them? Why us?”

They were a small congregation of just 60 people, several months behind on rent. In fact, Miranda was about six months behind on the rent for his own home. The church’s tithes were barely enough to cover the bus rental to the bridge.

But like the widow of Zarephath, who cooked for the prophet Elijah with her last flour and oil during a drought, Miranda prepared a meal. Every Saturday afternoon, he and several church members went to the Simón Bolívar bridge with arms full of pan cascarita (soft bread rolls), bottled water, and packets of Frutiño (a powdered soft drink).

Today, that downtown Cúcuta church no longer exists. Instead, the congregation has moved to a warehouse that’s a five-minute walk from the bridge. They have a new name reflecting their new mission: Iglesia para la Frontera—Church for the Border.

For thousands of migrants who have staggered across the border—some after walking hundreds of miles, their feet bloodied, their cheeks gaunt, their children limp from exhaustion and malnutrition—one of the first sounds greeting them in Colombia has been loud, booming worship music. The warehouse church has a giant roll-up steel door. When the door is open, passersby can see and hear everything. It’s impossible for the migrants to avoid the church—and impossible for the church to avoid them.

A neighborhood street outside of Iglesia para la Frontera in Cúcuta, Colombia.
Image: Photograph by Ferley Ospina for Christianity Today

A neighborhood street outside of Iglesia para la Frontera in Cúcuta, Colombia.

Miranda remembers hollow eyes that looked up at him as he preached. “I felt like I was a pastor to a valley of dry bones,” he said. “They were so hopeless, so full of pain and sadness. It was like they were dead. More than preaching, I felt I needed to physically help them.”

Before they moved closer to the border crossing, Miranda’s church had been insulated from the situation there. Now they interact with about 300 Venezuelan migrants a week, passing out food and water, cutting hair, and baptizing them in an inflatable pool.

In this valley of dry bones, Miranda has seen the gospel take on flesh. His church would be unrecognizable to someone who knew it only before 2016. If the first 10 years of his pastoring were like B-roll, the past seven years of ministry at the border were like “an action film,” Miranda said. “Before, we had a small vision. Now we have a great vision.”

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Since the 1970s, a paradigm shift has been taking place in the evangelical concept of mission. In general, evangelicals—even if they disagree on the particulars—have largely embraced the idea that because God reigns over all of creation, mission should also be holistic, addressing both soul and body.

This idea of holistic mission, often called “integral mission,” is the raison d’être of well-known mission and aid relief organizations such as the Lausanne Movement, World Vision, Tearfund, and Compassion International. “These ideas have tremendous influence on how evangelicals today think about themselves, think about their neighbors, and think about their role in the world,” said David Kirkpatrick, a historian who wrote about the legacy of integral mission in his book A Gospel for the Poor.

Less known is that much of this thinking originated in Latin America. The term integral mission, or misión integral, employs the Spanish word for “comprehensive” or “whole” and was coined by Ecuadorian theologian C. René Padilla. He argued that evangelism and social responsibility are “inseparable” and “essential” to the Christian mission, like “the right wing and left wing of a plane”—a phrase he coined that’s often attributed to John Stott.

The goal of misión integral, in Padilla’s words, is not numbers or wealth or power: “Its purpose is to incarnate the values of the Kingdom of God and to witness to the love and the justice revealed in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit, for the transformation of human life in all its dimensions, both on the individual level and the community level.”

Padilla, who died in 2021, came of age as a migrant in Colombia. In 1935, when he was two, his family moved there seeking work. As evangelicals in a majority-Catholic region, Padilla and his family became part of a persecuted religious minority, escaping fire bombings and assassination attempts as his parents tried to evangelize and plant churches in Colombia. That upbringing shaped Padilla’s theology as a student at Wheaton College and when he returned to Cold War Latin America, which had become a cyclone of civil unrest and poverty. People were crying out for justice. What guidance did the church have for them?

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At the time, a revolutionary spirit was sweeping across Latin America—Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government in 1959, just as Padilla was finishing a master’s degree. Out of this context emerged liberation theology, largely from Catholic circles. Left-wing activism and literature proliferated after bishops at the 1968 Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Medellín, Colombia, issued a document proclaiming the church’s “preferential option for the poor.”

While college students around him searched for justice and purpose in Marxism and liberation theology, Padilla searched Christian bookstores and libraries in Latin America for biblical answers. But he could find only poorly translated, irrelevant pieces from mostly North American sources.

“The only theology we are acquainted with is that which we have inherited from a reflection foreign to our own situation—a collection of concepts little related to the questions that our own world poses to the Christian life,” Padilla wrote in a 1974 essay for CT. In a 1972 letter to theologian and CT founding editor Carl Henry, Padilla wrote, “Young people [ask] questions regarding the Christian attitude towards a Marxist regime, while the pastors [discuss] the length of the skirts that girls are wearing in church. A social ethic—we have none.”

Padilla warned that despite reports of the phenomenal growth of Protestantism in Latin America, second- and third-generation Christians might leave the church when “they begin to consider their responsibility in the face of social injustice, find themselves unable to answer the arguments of their Marxist friends and either compromise with Marxism, or take flight into an individualistic Christianity marked by political conservatism.”

His warnings from nearly 50 years ago were prescient, and not just for Latin America. Church attendance among younger generations is declining worldwide, from the United States to South Korea to Kenya, accompanied by heightened awareness of the world’s injustices. Padilla insisted that a practical, theological response to the “concrete situation” of society is “an essential part of the life and mission of the Church.”

Without it, the church would falter and crash, like a plane with one wing.

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Migration and displacement are perhaps the most universal concrete situations testing societies today. For the first time in recorded history, more than 100 million people have been displaced by conflict and economic crises. Immigration is fracturing politics across North America and Europe. And nations are being warned to prepare for a “century of upheaval,” in the words of British journalist Gaia Vince, as climate change triggers new mass migrations.

Colombia is the epicenter of what the United Nations calls “an unprecedented movement through the Americas.” The UN refugee agency’s operating budget for Colombia is its largest in the region, at $124.8 million. The Americas host 20 percent of the world’s displaced people, and about half of those are in Colombia.

Colombia has received more than 2.4 million migrants from neighboring Venezuela and has granted temporary protection status to about 1.8 million of them. With its porous borders, Colombia is also a channel for hundreds of thousands of people from as far away as China and Nepal, who pass through on their way to attempt the Darién Gap, a thick jungle barrier between Colombia and Panama. Roughly 250,000 migrants crossed into Panama through the Darién Gap in 2022 alone—double the previous year’s figure. The UN expects as many as 400,000 this year.

All this is happening in a country that’s confounded by its own domestic migration crisis. Colombia has the second largest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world—more than 6.7 million since 1985. Last year alone, almost 69,000 people were displaced, mostly due to violence and threats from armed groups.

For many Christians in Colombia, migration and displacement are not distant humanitarian problems. They define ministry there.

Image: Photo-illustration by Mitchell McCleary / Source: Getty / Joe Raedle

“We remember that we have suffered, and that helps in the way we respond,” said Daniel Bravo, director of Fundación Doulos, a nonprofit that connects churches doing grassroots holistic work among migrants in Colombia and Latin America.

Bravo grew up as a pastor’s kid watching his parents serve IDPs. Holistic mission was a natural part of his parents’ ministry; it wasn’t until high school that Bravo read about misión integral. Padilla’s writings gave him the language to define a theology that he already lived and breathed. He has found the same in most churches he works with: “Many people are doing integral mission without even knowing about the term.”

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By and large, those churches are also small, underresourced, and rural.

In San Juan de Urabá, a rural coastal town by the Caribbean Sea, I visited a church that’s currently helping the 2,000 Venezuelan migrants who have settled there. Centro de Restauración Príncipe de Paz is a congregation of about two dozen people who are mostly IDPs. People call it “the church with no walls,” for its open-air building and wide-open arms for sojourners.

Pastor Jose Higinio Licona said helping migrants is instinctive, “Claro que sí.” How could they not? “We are all IDPs,” Licona said. “It’s just a natural thing from our heart. We know what it’s like to be displaced.”

In 1992, a group of about 50 Christian IDPs were trapped in a war zone between guerilla and paramilitary fighters near Licona’s town. Licona begged his municipal authorities for help, but “they said bringing a lot of people to our town would cause a sanitary problem,” Licona recalled. So he and his father used their own money to hire a truck to pick up the group and bring them to San Juan de Urabá—and that’s how he began his ministry as a pastor. “I didn’t start by preaching, but by helping others.”

Licona himself fled violent guerilla groups in his hometown of Mulatico, in northwestern Colombia, in 1984. Forty years later, he still weeps when he talks about the mutilated bodies that dogs and birds picked apart and the gnawing hunger that kept him up at night.

Licona’s family owned more than six acres of farmland, where they milked cows and grew yucca and corn. When strangers in green uniforms started appearing around town, people shut themselves in their houses. One evening, when Licona returned home from church, dozens of uniformed men with guns were waiting at his house, sipping his wife’s lemonade. They invited him to join their forces.

He decided it was time to leave. Licona and his family fled with little but a few cows, which they later sold. Licona remembers climbing a guava tree and throwing fruit to his wife—their only food for the day. They never got their land back.

Almost everyone in Licona’s church has similar stories of loss and grief. So when Venezuelan migrants started showing up in their small town about three years ago, congregants rolled up their sleeves. They butchered two cows and harvested 1,000 pounds of yucca. They helped migrants pay rent and apply for temporary protection status. They hosted special dinners with home-cooked Venezuelan dishes. They offered counseling and a shoulder to cry on. They gave from what little they had.

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For some Venezuelan migrants, this church was their only source of help. Marialejandra Perez told me she was pregnant and had a two-year-old when she arrived in San Juan. When the pandemic hit, her husband lost his job. They might have starved, she said, if the church hadn’t helped her family lease a small plot of land to farm.

Magrey Vielma told me she was displaced twice—first from Venezuela, then from a small town in Colombia where armed groups were fighting. When she came to San Juan, the church helped her get diapers, hot meals, and blankets.

While many Venezuelan migrants travel to other countries such as the United States for better opportunities, one woman told me she never considered that option: “Colombia has been good to us.”

Yuleimar del Carmen Peña, a Venezuelan migrant who has lived in San Juan for two years, told me Licona’s church helped pay for her bus ticket to San Juan. The pastor greeted her at the bus station with a smile. “I am the testimony of what God is doing here,” Peña said as she quoted Matthew 25 word for word. “We can see God through people like the pastor…. They are proof that God has not abandoned us.”

Not every church in Colombia has felt compelled to do migrant ministry. Licona said he tried to convince other pastors in San Juan to help, but so far he feels like his church is working alone. “Sadly, I have to say that other churches have not understood the true gospel,” he said. “They only worry about the spiritual needs of people, not their physical needs.”

In Necoclí, a remote resort town by the Gulf of Urabá, I saw the same lethargy among churches. Necoclí is one of the last stops for migrants passing north through Colombia before reaching the Darién Gap. In 2021, at the peak of the migration crisis, about 10,000 migrants—half the town’s usual population of 20,000—crowded beaches and hostels and slept under coconut trees, waiting to cross the gulf by boat and begin the 60-mile trek through the treacherous jungle that separates Colombia and Panama. The town’s power and water systems crashed, and local authorities declared the situation a “public calamity.” A few NGOs, such as the Red Cross, offered medical assistance. But otherwise, the migrants were on their own.

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Necoclí has 17 evangelical churches, according to Euder Argumedo, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Catedral de la Fe. He says his is one of only three congregations that has been helping migrants. “The local churches are apathetic. They think [the crisis] has nothing to do with them,” he said.

Some Christians in Colombia are trying to change that mentality.

The Seminario Bíblico de Colombia, in Medellín, launched its Faith and Displacement Project in 1996 to mobilize local evangelical churches to minister to IDPs in particular. Drawing on the ideas of integral mission, the program encourages local churches to utilize their own untapped resources to help IDPs thrive spiritually, socially, psychologically, politically, educationally, and economically. Six communities across the country are test-piloting the program’s curriculum.

Project director Christopher Hays said he had expected churches in the capital city of Bogotá—the ones with the best-educated congregations and proximity to resources and power—to be the most effective. Instead, these congregations were more likely to quit the program than small, poor, rural churches. Hays suspects that people in urban areas, accustomed to easier access to government resources, “expect the government to fix things,” whereas people in rural areas have learned not to wait around for outside intervention.

Migrants camp before trekking through the Darién Gap.
Image: Getty / John Moore

Migrants camp before trekking through the Darién Gap.

One immediate challenge the Faith and Displacement Project faced was getting churches to care. Despite being the birthplace of integral mission, the Latin American church has been slower to embrace it than other parts of the world, Hays said. Most evangelicals in Latin America are Pentecostals, with an American-influenced dispensational theology that emphasizes saving souls.

“The challenge is less about helping them see it is a problem,” Hays said. “It’s more about helping them to see that it is a problem the church should care about, because they have a pretty strong evangelical dualistic tendency”—that is, they downplay earthly needs. What these churches need first is a total “paradigm shift” in theology, Hays said.

But theology only goes so far. Integral mission is more than an intellectual framework. It is an incarnation of the gospel that, as modeled in Christ’s life, ministry, and death on the cross, comes at a cost.

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For 10 years, Deiner Espitia pastored a church in a settlement of mostly IDPs on the outskirts of Puerto Libertador, a town in northern Colombia. Through a partnership with Compassion International, his church ran a community center that provided food, health services, and activities for 350 children about three times a week. But he saw resentment and hopelessness in the children’s parents, and he wondered what the church could do for them.

“Forced displacement generates silent mourning,” Espitia said. He would know: He was twice displaced himself when he began the church. IDPs struggle against discrimination, unemployment, cyclical poverty, family dysfunction, and deep trauma, Espitia said. Many pin their hopes on government-promised reparations. If those don’t materialize, IDPs often seem to give up on life.

“You really lose everything. You lose any desire to continue. Hope is dissipated,” Espitia said. IDPs come to church and sing worship songs and even serve, “but they serve while expecting something in exchange. They’re angry. Though they don’t really speak much about it, the first resentment is against God. And the question is always Why? Where were you?

Espitia prayed for God to reveal what the church could do for them. Then he heard about the Faith and Displacement Project. His church began offering classes in 2016.

At first, dozens of families in the community showed up, expecting handouts. But there weren’t any handouts, and many disappeared. Only about 15 families remained and followed through the entire program.

Part of the curriculum is a game called “We Can,” in which participants list their individual skills, experiences, and abilities. The game helps people identify areas where they can serve and ways they could generate income. The goal is to lift them from a spirit of defeat to one of confidence and gratitude. Participants also study the narratives of displacement in the Bible, so they can identify with characters such as Naomi and Ruth, who also faced loss and displacement.

The transformation was astonishing, Espitia said. Within eight months, families in the program had started their own businesses. Some who knew how to fish opened a fish farm. Some who once owned farms procured land and planted rice, yams, and yucca. One family started beekeeping. Another opened a small store.

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“It was very speedy change,” Espitia said. “Their houses changed from plastic to bricks. It was clear that these IDPs had enormous potential. Even as their pastor, I didn’t know what they were capable of.” And they weren’t just freed from physical poverty, Espitia said. In the midst of hostility and loneliness, families found “hope that yes, we can flourish.”

Then, in 2019, Espitia was displaced for the third time.

The first time, he was 10. Guerilla groups murdered his grandparents, uncles, and cousins and kidnapped his father.

The second time he was displaced, Espitia was a 24-year-old store owner. Paramilitary groups tried to extort his business. A neighboring business owner refused to pay them, and they shot him at Espitia’s doorstep. So Espitia fled with his wife and three children.

The third time, however, was the most agonizing.

Espitia’s ministry with IDPs was finally blooming. His wife had found a job as an auxiliary nurse. They were building their dream house. And then he reported a man in the community for sexually abusing a minor. Espitia received death threats. The accused man’s brother, a member of a paramilitary group, sent someone on a motorcycle to threaten Espitia’s children at school with a gun. Espitia could not, in good conscience, withdraw the charge. So, once again, his family fled, leaving behind their church, a half-finished home, and his wife’s new job.

Friends invited the family to stay at the seminary in Medellín. There, for the first time, Espitia was forced to take a break—one that has lasted years. He had been counseling other IDPs through their grief and resentment. Finally he realized he hadn’t fully processed his own. “My heart was full of anger against God,” he said.

After four years, he and his wife are still wrestling with God to find meaning in their struggle. “We were doing so many things for the Lord, for his kingdom,” Espitia said. “Just as we were starting to sing, God closed our mouths.” His three children, now ages 18, 21, and 23, have also struggled to make sense of their faith.

When I met Espitia at the seminary, he was a student there, one semester away from graduating. At the time, he was working on his dissertation about what churches can do for IDPs—not just for those who have settled into communities, but for those who have recently been displaced. What would it look like for these people, too, to truly flourish?

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This time, he was asking not just as a pastor. He was asking as himself.

He’s no longer a hero saving others in the relative comfort of his own ministry. Espitia’s relationship with God has changed. So have his relationships with his wife and children.

So has his mission. It’s more rooted now in his vulnerability and in the person of Christ. Espitia is living out his own subject matter—incarnating it. He has a more holistic understanding of what it means to let the gospel transform human life in all its dimensions and what it looks like to, as he describes it, “flourish in the midst of the desert.”

If Mauricio Miranda, the pastor of the border church in Cúcuta, was comfortable seven years ago, nobody in his church is comfortable now.

Everywhere around Iglesia para la Frontera is chaos. At the front door, people curl up on cardboard mattresses. A block away, motorcycles honk and taxis screech as they cross the bridge—now reopened to vehicle traffic—while young men and women rap on car windows offering manual labor and sex for cash. Armed guerillas and other criminal groups patrol the border and watch the church (it has been robbed multiple times).

When the pandemic hit, the Colombian economy tanked and many Colombians lost their jobs. It was the worst time for a nation to be dealing with millions of migrants streaming across the border.

Miranda used his own money to purchase food and drinks when the church first began handing them out in October 2016. Then church members began chipping in. Then a bakery donated bread, and another store added one box of beverages for every box Miranda bought. A couple from San Antonio helped raise funds to buy the warehouse that became Iglesia para la Frontera.

But Iglesia para la Frontera is more than just a church building—it is a food distribution center, a microenterprise, a school, a medical clinic, and a party hall for quinceañeras. American dollars helped purchase sewing machines to start a sewing and shoemaking enterprise for Venezuelan women. A church in Houston sponsors an education and food program for 80 Venezuelan children who are unable to attend school.

Operation Blessing brought medical teams to treat sick Venezuelan migrants and, after the teams sweated buckets in the poorly ventilated warehouse, the organization helped install air conditioning.

“They installed it within two weeks of us opening the border church,” Miranda said, laughing. “When we were in downtown Cúcuta, it took us 10 years to install an AC unit there. And at this church, it took us two weeks!”

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At first, Miranda kept both the downtown and the border buildings open. But in 2019, the downtown church permanently relocated to the border. Five families—almost half the congregation—left the church in protest. (They eventually came back.)

In the past seven years, Miranda estimates, his church has served more than 70,000 Venezuelan migrants.

Image: Photo-illustration by Mitchell McCleary / Source: Ferley Ospina for Christianity Today; Getty / Guillermo Legaria / Joe Raedle

One of them is Emily, an 18-year-old whom Mauricio and Isabelina Miranda met when she was homeless and sleeping under a tree. Emily was 14 then, thin from malnutrition and caked with dirt. Her mother sold drugs in Venezuela, and an older sister worked as a prostitute in Colombia. The church took her in. When Emily turned 15, Isabelina organized a quinceañera for her, dressing her in a new gown and shoes.

That was the church’s first quinceañera for a migrant girl. Since then, it has celebrated 25 more.

Now Emily is a teacher at the church’s school and the lead singer on the church worship team. You would never know she is painfully shy if you only saw her on stage. She raises her hands and pounds her chest as she worships. She hops and dances and shouts, and her thick curls bounce around her face. If you hear loud, joyful singing at the Simón Bolívar bridge, it’s most likely Emily.

And the young people at Iglesia para la Frontera—the type René Padilla feared the church could lose when he was forging his ideas about misión integral half a century ago—are witness to it all. Diana Martínez, an 18-year-old college student, remembers those early years at the downtown Cúcuta church. She was only about 10 when her father joined Miranda in lugging bread and water to the border crossing.

Over the years, she’s watched people enter the church looking like life has spit them out. She remembers one Venezuelan woman coming to church dirty, disheveled, and downtrodden. The woman collected garbage for a living. Over months and years, Martínez saw the woman transform. She started wearing makeup. She had clean clothes. She no longer needed to rummage through garbage bins to survive. Her countenance changed, too: There was hope. And joy.

“That impacts my faith,” Martínez said. “You see people transform here. I see with my own eyes how God can transform lives when we open our hearts to him, and so I can certainly say that, yes, God does transform lives.”

Her pastor doesn’t need to worry about this college student abandoning her faith or her church, this place where she sees miracles.

“Why would I?” Martínez said. “I want to stay in this church until Jesus comes back.”

Sophia Lee is global staff writer for CT.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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