A modern-day “sleigh” of sorts — a new Chevrolet van stocked with gifts for needy children— recently delivered its cargo from Austin to a church in El Cenizo, one of the nation’s poorest communities, near Laredo.
As part of an annual tradition, members of St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in downtown Austin had purchased and wrapped gifts bound for Mision Luterana Agua Viva in the border colonia of El Cenizo.
But this year, there was an unexpected — and extra-special — surprise: the van itself, courtesy of an anonymous St. Martin’s donor.
The gleaming white van, delivered with a large bow on its hood, will be used by Mision Luterana Agua Viva to distribute food and other items to thousands of people living in the multitude of impoverished border towns that the church’s ministry serves.
The Rev. Mariana Mendez is Agua Viva’s pastor. Her husband, the Rev. Moises Mendez, is director of the Latin American Lutheran Mission in Laredo, an independent Lutheran mission.
The Mendezes were overcome with emotion upon seeing the van, said Bonnie Newkirk, a member of St. Martin’s who for six years has organized the Austin church’s gift-giving event for children served by Agua Viva.
Newkirk and fellow congregation member Bob Daemmrich, an Austin photographer, caravanned to El Cenizo to deliver the gift-loaded van on a recent Saturday, making the round trip in one day.
“She was awestruck,” Newkirk said of Mariana Mendez’s reaction. “We could have pulled up in an (older-model), banged-up vehicle, and if was functioning she would have been as happy as a peach.”
Mariana Mendez said the food distribution program has grown each year, “bringing food and hope to the most vulnerable communities” at the Texas border. The van will replace an overworked truck, she said, “enabling us to transport goods protected from the elements — this is important as we deliver fresh food, bread and meat from freezers.”
Together with sister churches, Agua Viva this year delivered food, clothing and other goods to 50 Christian ministries, Mendez said.
“Each Tuesday these ministries come to the Latin American Lutheran Mission border station to pick up their allotments and distribute it to 1,720 families,” Mendez said. “An average of 8,600 people benefit from this program. We continue to grow because of the continued support of donors.”
Mendez said the new van will allow Agua Viva “to become more efficient and economize while mobilizing the food distribution quicker to the many colonias we serve in the greater Laredo area.”
Newkirk said El Cenizo is one of the poorest communities in the country, with a median household income of less than $15,000 a year.
Newkirk said the wrapped gifts from the St. Martin’s congregation will be distributed to needy children in the area.
“They didn’t have their future written for them, and now we’re helping them write a better future,” Newkirk said. “I don’t want to think of any kid not having a Christmas. These are God’s children, and they don’t deserve any less than you or I.”
Newkirk said Agua Viva “is not looking for a handout,” but rather seeks to be self-sustaining. The church serves a community with “the poorest of the poor,” she said, but “they’re not looking at themselves as the downtrodden.”
She said Agua Viva, which has an after-school program that provides warm meals for children, receives support from other Lutheran churches in Texas, in addition to St. Martin’s.
Newkirk said the people who are served by the Mendezes’ ministries “are no less hardworking than you or I; they just didn’t happen to get born where we did.”
She said seeing “the love and the joy” in the Mendezes upon delivering the gift-stocked van “was truly a gift in and of itself.”
“They carry such a load every day of helping people who are in need” that to be able to help them out “validates that what they’re doing is the right thing, that the need is real and that others recognize the need,” Newkirk said. “There’s nothing not to love about Mariana and Moises. It’s an inspiration to work with and for them.”