TIJUANA — A curious struggle over the hearts and souls of the poor is being waged in this sprawling Mexican border city.
Members of Protestant groups based in the United States who cross the border to help some of the hundreds of thousands of poor people here are being accused by a monsignor of the Catholic Archdiocese of Tijuana of using food, clothing and housing to buy religious conversions.
Msgr. Sergio De La Cerda also accuses the groups of turning poor people into "social parasites" dependent on charity.
In an attempt to counter the impact of the Protestant organizations, the Catholic Church is stepping up its own evangelical activities in the poverty-plagued city of a million or more people.
"We'll be going home-by-home, just as the Protestants do," De La Cerda said.
Some members of the Tijuana City Council also have expressed concern over the activities of the U.S.-based religious groups and charities, with one council member calling for stricter government regulation of foreign clergy.
In addition, the Tijuana office of the Mexican department of immigration has begun an investigation into the activities of the foreign clergymen who cross the border to preach without government permits. Such religious activity without government permission violates Mexican law, according to Alfredo Alvarez Cardenas, chief of the Tijuana immigration office, who ordered the investigation. Alvarez said that none of the foreign clergymen has registered with his office as required by law.
No one is certain how many U.S.-based religious groups are active in Tijuana. But observers familiar with the activities estimate that there are dozens of them, including some from well-known denominations, such as Methodists and Presbyterians, and some from newly-formed and little-known evangelical faiths.
These groups bring with them a wide range of approaches to the city's poor. Some provide food, clothing and medicine in regular visits. Others build dwellings for the most desperately impoverished, go door-to-door handing out bibles and religious tracts in Spanish, or hold bible study sessions in homes. Others have opened churches in Tijuana where regular services are held.
Two very active Protestant organizations--Amor Ministries, based in Fullerton, and Spectrum Ministries, based in San Diego--acknowledge that religious conversions occur as a result of the activities. They insist, however, that their purpose south of the border is not to convert Catholics into Protestants, but to improve living conditions.
Amor Ministries--Amor is Spanish for love--has indeed improved conditions in one of Tijuana's most abysmal slums by building about 40 simple frame dwellings at a dump site neighborhood called Colonia Panamericana, where families had been living for years in patchwork shacks.
Both Amor and Spectrum Ministries regularly recruit U.S.-based churches of various denominations to join their missions of aid to Tijuana.
Efron Lopez, assistant director of Spectrum, said that some of these churches, in turn, develop their own programs to help Tijuana's poor and make periodic trips south of the border.
Funds Donated for Food
Lopez, a naturalized American citizen, grew up as a nominal Catholic in a Tijuana orphanage, but subsequently became a born-again Protestant.
Spectrum operates out of a Baptist church in San Diego but is nondenominational, Lopez said.
The organization spends between $400 and $700 in donated funds per week on food for the poor in Tijuana and also buys medicine, holds bible study classes and organizes games for poor children, he said.
"We visit orphanages," he said, "and we visit the poor neighborhoods where most people would not go, rough areas. . . . We minister to them with food and, with our Mexican co-workers, we do evangelical work."
Lopez said that Spectrum does not really care what religion a person embraces.
"Our main concern," he said, "is to see a heart change. . . . Most of the people we know are Catholic, but they don't really go to church at all . . . We never push our beliefs on them. We just make them known."
Getting Affluent to Help
Besides helping the poor, Spectrum is interested in getting the relatively affluent North Americans to help less fortunate people, Lopez said.
"We don't take them to Ethiopia because it's far, but we take them to Mexico because it's closer and it gets them off their butts doing something for someone else," he said.
Lopez scoffed at De La Cerda's contention that the poor are being made dependent on groups such as Spectrum. The conditions facing Tijuana's poor are so bad, he said, that the little bit of outside aid provided simply helps people survive.
"There will always be people that will be critical about giving out food," Lopez said, "and mostly I would say they are people who are really doing nothing to help at all."