A Bridge That Goes Both Ways: Orthodoxy in the South Texas Borderland - St. George’s Orthodox Church
By Elizabeth Perdomo
Location, Location, Location!
In the business world, location is everything. To grasp the vital connection that St. George’s and its various “bridging” ministries provide on behalf of the entire Church, one must first understand where Christ planted this parish. Here on the South Texas border, international river bridge crossings are a vital component to daily life and culture, evening newscasts and the local economy. La frontera in Spanish, this unique region is interlaced with complex national, historical, geographical, linguistic, and spiritual paradox and juxtaposition. Although officially part of the United States of America, in “real life” the region is neither like the rest of the state of Texas and its vast southern ranchlands, nor like the border region of northern Mexico.
Designated the Rio Grande Valley, the region is not a valley at all. Rather, the geographic area is an ancient seabed, long since reshaped by geologic processes into a broad river floodplain. The “Rio Grande Valley,” however, is much more commercially appealing nomenclature than the “Rio Grande Floodplain.” Sometimes roamed by indigenous peoples, alternately claimed by Spain or Mexico, the region has been populated by outlaws and bandidos, Apaches and U.S. cavalrymen, Texas freedom fighters and Mexican troops, well-heeled speculators and early citrus agriculturists, and countless new legal and “illegal” residents who have immigrated from the south. In certain sectors, “real” English and “real” Spanish are actually spoken. However, the most common culture and language is an unofficial and varying blend, dubbed “Spanglish.”
Most of the local population remains Roman Catholic, with some strong Protestant sectors and, as everywhere now, the more radical, door-knocking cults. The Orthodox population in the Valley remains widely varied in its ethnic backgrounds and national origins. There are Greeks, Lebanese, Romanians, Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Ethiopians, Mexicans, and more. About half of the members of St. George’s are converts to Orthodox Christianity. St. George’s Orthodox Church, the only Orthodox church in this region, draws its parishioners from Brownsville, on the Gulf Coast, to Rio Grande City. The Orthodox church nearest St. George’s is in Corpus Christi, a three-hour drive up the coast from the Valley.
Needless to say, St. George’s is isolated from local Orthodox fellowship and support. Despite and perhaps because of this, St. George’s and its affiliated ministries attempt to be a regional bridge for Orthodox Christianity—a bridge that goes both ways—from north to south and de sur a nortÃ©. This vast and challenging frontera region in which God has placed our parish and people is ripe with opportunities for Orthodox witness, outreach, and ministry.
PRO-ORB: Orthodox Rio Bridges ~ Puente del Rio Ortodoxo
The overall description of the many outreach ministry efforts offered through St. George’s parish was officially “named” in the summer of 2005, during the long drive back to Texas from the All-American Council in Toronto. Although St. George’s Food Pantry and Icon Bridges to Mexico began long before that summer, we recognized that these two projects and our additional ministries were all little “bridges.”
Born in the Dominican Republic, St. George’s pastor, Fr. Antonio Perdomo, is a native Spanish speaker. His linguistic and cultural skills, plus the many years and variety of outreach ministry experiences that Fr. Antonio and his family have shared, greatly aid the parish in taking up its cross and being faithful with those people and ministries that Christ has given. Each border bridge ministry is briefly described below. To learn more, see: http://www.stgeorgepantry.org/riobridges.html
Icon Bridge Helps Mexican Missions
Each Theophany season for the past 30- plus years, Archbishop Dmitri, of the OCA’s Diocese of the South and Hierarch of the Exarchate of Mexico visits our OCA Cathedral of the Ascension in Mexico City. For the past several years, accompanied by his older daughters, Fr. Antonio has joined Archbishop Dmitri, Bishop Alejo, Auxiliary Bishop of Mexico and many clergy and laity from the Mexico City area who gather during this annual celebration.
This past year, many new and used icons and some liturgical items were donated to the Church in Mexico by people throughout the United States. These were collected by the Perdomo family, packed up, and hand-delivered to Archbishop Dmitri and Bishop Alejo at the Theophany gathering. Icons were later distributed by Bishop Alejo for use in various mission churches and new missions developing throughout Mexico. Photos of the 2006 icon distribution can be found at: http://www.stgeorgepantry.org/iconbridges.html.
It is far safer collecting items on the U.S. side of the “bridge” and personally hand-delivering these holy items, rather than making some attempt at shipment to Mexico. So, each year the Perdomos will continue this ministry. You can help support this effort by sending new or used icons, vestments, and other liturgical items to St. George’s Orthodox Church, c/o Fr. Antonio Perdomo. (See shipping address at the end of the article. See photos of mission trips to Mexico at: http://www.stgeorgepantry.org/mexicotravels.html.)
St. George’s Food Pantry: A Bridge for Feeding Local Poor
The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the Lord shall praise Him
their hearts shall live forever!
Los pobres comerán y serán satisfechos,
y los que buscan al Señor lo alabaran;
¡Sus corazones vivirán para siempre!
Hidalgo County, Texas, is located on the Rio Grande right on the Texas border with Mexico. It is one of the most financially challenged counties in the entire United States. Fr. Antonio arrived in the Rio Grande Valley to be the pastor of St. George’s Church in January 2002. Soon it became apparent that the need for food and other assistance was very great indeed, as testified by the frequent requests for food from those who came both to the church and to his nearby home. St. George’s Food Pantry was created as an organized response to better serve those who already came to the church hungry and in need. Within a few months, St. George’s Food Pantry grew, primarily by word of mouth. It now shares with more than 50 families each time it is open.
Unlike food ministries elsewhere that primarily serve the needs of the homeless, St. George’s Food Pantry for the most part assists recent immigrants and the unemployed or underemployed people who need some help making ends meet or in starting their new life in this country. Most of our Food Pantry clients speak Spanish and very little English.
Initially, the Pantry was available as a weekly service. However, due to financial constraints, it is now open just twice a month. In addition to food boxes, it has shared warm clothing, blankets, bedding, mattresses, school supplies, toiletries, and house supplies, as well as Christmas goody bags prepared by our own OCA Youth Group for the many young children served by this ministry. During the Nativity Season, PRO-ORB Youth Service Retreat attendees also distributed OCA-provided Christmas Stockings to the children of St. George’s Food Pantry recipients. For more information about St. George’s Food Pantry and to view some wonderful photographs, see:
Most of the food distributed is purchased from the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, whose website is: http://www.foodbankrgv.com, at a cost of only 14 cents per pound. In addition, food gathering and fund-raising is accomplished through St. George’s International Bake Sale’s inclusion of a “Give a Can; Get a Cookie” component for collecting canned foods (see: http://www.stgeorgepantry.org/giveacan.html). Local businesses and residential retiree communities have also been collection sites for canned goods.
However, we long to make this a truly Pan-Orthodox effort! We pray for “partners” within the Orthodox Christian community - parishes, individuals or families, youth and college groups - within the region or on this North American continent. Some current “partners” make regular, monthly donations, deducted directly from their bank accounts. Even $25 a month is extremely helpful! Other donors mail in checks when they can.
Setting up a simple food pantry such as the one at St. George’s is quite easy, taking only a small up-front cash investment and minimal staffing. Few Orthodox missions or parishes in the U.S. have any legitimate reason not to create some sort of food pantry ministry.
An International Orthodox Bridge for Youth and Young Adults
PRO-ORB hosted its first internationally attended Orthodox Winter Youth Service Retreat during the Nativity Season of 2005-06. What an incredible experience for all who attended, both youth and adult chaperones alike! Participants included Orthodox youth from Mexico and the U.S. Youth helped with St. George’s Food Pantry, a trip to Casa Amparo Orphanage in Mexico, and swam at the beach on South Padre Island. It is our hope to host annual “repeat” sessions at Christmastime. Eventually, we would like to become a host site for the Orthodox Christian Fellowship’s “Real Break” activities as well. Our future dream is to sponsor summer vacation mission trips to interior Mexico for older youth and young adults. See and read about what we’ve done so far at:
We can use the help of others, especially bilingual Orthodox Christians, who want to help us continue to create, develop, and host this youth outreach ministry as a long-term service to the Church. Let us know if you have questions or are interested in helping out or in attending a future youth activity.
A Bridge to Orphaned Girls: Visiting Casa Amparo Orphanage in Reynosa, Mexico
(This section written by Michael Price.)
The diminutive nun broke into a welcoming smile on seeing the drivers of the two vehicles arriving unexpectedly in her driveway on January 3, 2006. Mother Navidad, “Mother Navi” to her colleagues and charges at the orphanage, knew the travelers were due sometime soon, but a glitch in cross-border communication prevented her from knowing exactly when. “Feliz Nuevo AÃ±o,” she said, hugging Reader Stephan and Sonia Shepherd, Fr. Antonio Perdomo and his two daughters, Ana and Cristina and Mike Price. “Welcome, welcome.”
Mother Navidad is the Mother Superior of a group of Catholic Sisters of Charity. They operate a girls’orphanage and shelter in Reynosa, Mexico. The orphanage cares for more than 80 girls ranging in age from 4 years or younger to 23. The reason for the visit was to deliver food, clothing, school supplies, sewing materials, and Christmas candy which filled the Perdomos’ truck and the Shepherds’ car. These items and other donations are collected by church members and the local community in Pharr year-round. Donations are delivered whenever enough has been collected to justify the cross-border trip.“We always make at least one trip around Christmastime and another after Pascha ,” Fr. Antonio said.
” We have built and sustained ourselves on the Providence of God,” said Mother Navi. “We depend entirely on the donations of many winter Texans and good people from McAllen and the rest of the United States.”
In addition, some people from Kansas have provided a school bus, sewing machines and the means to pursue construction projects over the years. In fact, many of the buildings in the orphanage’s compound exist only because of donations of labor and materials of winter Texans from the Rio Grande Valley and other volunteers who have given of themselves over time.
The purpose for all this is, of course, to benefit the girls who live at the orphanage. “We try to teach each girl how to take care of herself, give her an education and a trade while she is here so she can have a chance when she leaves us,” said Mother Navidad. So in addition to school, the nuns use the bakery to teach all the girls commercial baking. The products they make are sold to nearby factory workers and others. With the sewing machines, materials, and supplies that have been donated over time, the nuns have set up a large sewing room where the older girls learn how to sew. In addition to clothing projects, the girls design, cut, and sew matching bed covers, pillow shams and other accessories for the dormitories.
A donation of computers from the U.S. allowed the sisters to set up a computer classroom/lab where the girls are becoming computer literate, and lately the nuns have begun teaching some of the girls English. “If they can speak English,” Mother Navidad said, “more doors are opened to them.”
When asked what, besides food, the orphanage most needs does not now have, Mother Navi smiled and motioned to follow her. She led the group into a tiny store on the edge of the property. “We recently opened this second-hand store to serve the neighborhood with an affordable place to buy things and to give us a small income to cover costs that donations don’t,” she said. “I would ask the good people from the Rio Grande Valley for any good, used items they could spare for our little store.” To donate money, food, or items to the orphanage, contact Fr. Perdomo. The 2005 PRO-ORB Winter Youth Retreat included a visit to Casa Amparo. During the retreat visit, youth participants distributed OCA-donated Christmas Stockings. To learn more about Casa Amparo, and to see photographs of trips to the orphanage, please visit:
Bridge to Orthodox Spanish-Language Outreach and Resources
Both in the U.S. and in nations south of our borders, there is a great need for sharing the Orthodox faith in the Spanish language. In recent years, the U.S. has experienced a major increase of primarily Spanish-speaking immigrants. Many inner-city Orthodox churches are now surrounded by neighborhoods of Spanish-speaking people from many nations. In response to this need, PRO-ORB is working in conjunction with the Church in Mexico to make Orthodox brochures, articles, liturgical services and liturgical music already translated into the Spanish language more widely available. This is now done exclusively on and through our website at these links:
The OCA’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in Miami has long kept republishing and making available Orthodox liturgical services that were translated into Spanish for the Exarchate of Mexico back in the 1970s. In addition to this resource, we regularly add internet links and sources for Orthodox services, lives of saints, and connections with various churches and jurisdictions in Mexico, South and Central America, and Spain. In the future, we hope to have both a source bibliography and a steady stock of Spanish-language Orthodox services and materials available for sale and ready for shipment.
We accept donations to help print Orthodox materials in Spanish. We could use website help, from an intern or other volunteer, especially one who can read Spanish. Many more materials need to be translated and published. In future years, we pray to organize and host an international Orthodox Christian conference for those serving in Spanish-language settings and ministries. Let us know if you would like to help or participate!
Hisporto: A Spanish-Language Orthodox Internet Forum Bridge
Created on June 23, 2000, Hisporto is a Pan-Orthodox Christian forum for Orthodox clergy, laity, missionaries, and inquirers who speak Spanish, as well as for those who serve in Spanish-speaking communities. Hisporto has members from throughout the Americas and Europe. The purpose of Hisporto is manifold. Its intent is to be a forum dedicated to the creation of networking, fellowship, and mutual support opportunities for those who serve in or who originate from Spanish-speaking communities throughout the world. It was also created to help advocate Spanish-language resources and outreach throughout the Orthodox Christian world. You are invited to join Hisporto and share this resource with other Spanish-speakers who might benefit from participation in this Orthodox forum. Fr. Antonio is the founder and moderator of the Hisporto Internet Forum. To learn more or to subscribe, go to:
A Bridge to OCA Mexico and Missions
Monterrey is the third-largest city in Mexico. Currently, no Orthodox Church of any jurisdiction exists there, despite the fact that a number of Orthodox Christians of various backgrounds as well as Mexican national inquirers reside in Monterrey. In 2005, Bishop Alejo of Mexico City asked Fr. Antonio to begin forming a new mission in Monterrey. With the blessing of Archbishop Dmitri, in addition to his pastoral responsibilities at St. George’s, Fr. Antonio began this work in late 2005. Monterrey is located in northeastern Mexico, a three-hour drive or bus ride from the Rio Grande Valley. Any clergy serving it from Mexico City would have to travel more than twelve hours to get there! Fr. Antonio now visits Monterrey on an almost monthly basis. He meets with people and teaches about the faith and he has plans to hold liturgical services. If you are interested, or know of others who live in the Monterrey, Mexico, area who might want to participate in this new mission, please contact Fr. Antonio. To learn more, see:
Short- or Long-Term Internships
A mission-minded but small parish with limited financial resources, St. George’s welcomes assistance from short- or long-term internship volunteers. Assistance is needed in all of our various ministries, including continued work on the website, St. George’s Food Pantry, visits to Mexico and much more. An internship of a few weeks, months, or even years, living in the bilingual borderlands, is an excellent experience for a service-minded Orthodox student of Spanish, a seminarian or pre-seminarian student, or a retiree who would like to spend a period of time in full-time or part-time volunteer service to the Church in this region. Unfortunately, there is currently no funding presently for interns. They would have to assume all of their personal expenses.
Winter Texans Wanted: Turn Winter Retiree Vacations Into an Adventure!
Orthodox Retirees—You are invited to turn your winter vacation into a winter adventure… in service to Christ and His Church! You don’t have to join the Peace Corps or travel to a foreign nation to help with the vital missionary and ministry work of the Church. If you are an Orthodox Christian retiree and like to leave the colder parts of Canada and the U.S. for warmer winter regions, consider making your winter holiday a gift of sharing and service to Orthodox parishes and service projects this or any year!
Pack up your motor home, RV, or car and come down to the warmer climate! Give South Texas a tryand also lend a hand to the St. George’s ministries. Come visit us for the winter season or for year-round retirement. We would be happy to help you and others hook up with a place to stay for the winter months. If you’d prefer to winter in another region of the country or in Mexico, we’d be happy to try to connect you with another parish that would offer you a winter church “home” as well as the opportunity to serve others! See our website section at: http://www.stgeorgepantry.org/for.html
and “Winter Texans Wanted” at: http://www.stgeorgepantry.org/wintertexans.html
Contact Information: How Can I Help?