A black Lincoln crawls along a divided highway, skirting the sun-baked mountains west of Juarez. Behind the wheel, Pastor Jose Antonio Galvan argues with his phone until it starts streaming a sermon. “And the hand of the Lord set me down in a valley full of bones,” a voice says in Spanish — the pastor’s own voice, recorded in a makeshift studio at his facility 8 miles southwest of the city. He grins, satisfied, and turns his wayfarers back to the road.
At 69, Galvan cuts a striking figure. Black suit coat over a dark sweater and broad shoulders. Silver locks flowing against caramel skin. The recording continues, reading from the Book of Ezekiel: “And he said, make the bones hear the word of the Lord.” Galvan jabs a finger for emphasis, because he serves a congregation of people often left for dead, their minds ruined by drugs, lost to age, or shattered by violence. The pastor feeds them, rehabilitates them and comforts them on their deathbeds at the center he founded, where he’s spent the past 25 years scrambling to provide disadvantaged patients with basic necessities.
With no institutional backing, every aspect of the Vision in Action Rescue Asylum feels like a miracle. Galvan relies on a few kindred spirits, but leans heavily on patients who’ve become nurses, cooks and bookkeepers, or those few he trusts to drive a pickup and run errands. “People call them human garbage,” the pastor often says, “but I call them hidden treasures.”
The Lincoln passes a hillside emblazoned with whitewashed block letters: JUAREZ THE BIBLE IS THE TRUTH READ IT. The city unfolds below, a labyrinth of improvised barrios spreading through ravines, over mesas and across a broad plain toward the Rio Grande. A blue face mask languishes on the console. Galvan survived COVID-19, but his asylum may not. Donations are harder to come by during the pandemic. The phone loses its signal, the sermon cut short. “You’ll have to hear the rest later,” he says, veering off the highway.
Juarez is a mecca for practical religion. People of faith treat the sick, teach the children, shelter the migrant. They build houses and run food banks, daycare centers and rehab facilities, women’s support groups and youth soccer teams, filling gaps in a perpetual humanitarian crisis, fueled by poverty, explosive growth and crime.
Decades of violence have sealed this border town’s reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous cities — an emporium of vice and contraband, where drug cartels rule from the shadows, where gangs and corrupt police act with impunity. That culminated from 2008 to 2012, when nearly 11,000 were reportedly murdered in a city of 1.3 million (now 1.5 million.) Others simply disappeared.
About a third of the city’s residents suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicides doubled from 2010 to 2017, with 33 attempts each day. Dr. Jesus Antonio Moreno Leal, an on-call psychiatrist at Vision in Action, blames the drug war, abusive authorities and crushing poverty. “Imagine all that these families have suffered,” he says. “When you can’t even feed your children, you don’t have a decent place to live, it erodes your mental health.”
Most have nowhere to turn. There are two psychiatric hospitals in Juarez. One is run by the state, with limited capacity despite consistent funding — and it’s temporarily closed for the pandemic. The other is Vision in Action, where cops and rehab centers send the hardest cases.
From a hotel in downtown El Paso, Texas, I watch the lights of a Homeland Security helicopter as it tracks the border, east to west. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell where one city ends and the other begins. Tall buildings give way to smaller ones that fade into a carpet of lights and the darkness beyond, where Galvan’s Vision in Action awaits.
The next morning, the pastor pulls up outside, driving the Lincoln Continental he calls his only luxury. Galvan lives with his wife in modest Sunland Park, just over the New Mexico state line. Several times a week, he drives south.
My seat slides back and we pull away. In about 15 minutes, we drop over the Bridge of the Americas, one of four connecting the two cities, and breeze through customs. They don’t even check our passports.
Across town, we head west on Federal Highway 2, passing shanty towns known only by their position along the highway (Kilómetro 28, Kilómetro 30). As Juarez grows, many newcomers find an empty spot of ground and build shelter with whatever materials they can scavenge from the piles of scrap that dot the landscape. It’s not uncommon to raise a family in a cardboard hovel without electricity or potable water. Only the bus is reliable, passing each morning to carry the fortunate to jobs at the maquilas, factories where they print circuit boards, build headlights or package surgical gloves for $9 a day.
Out past Kilómetro 33, Galvan turns onto a dirt road beside a cellphone tower, into a fenced compound. Two yellow dogs—one long-haired, one short—laze in the shadow of a donated ambulance Galvan wants to convert into a mobile food bank. He pulls the Lincoln into a vaulted carport, facing a small courtyard and a blue and white fountain with no running water.
Inside, he’s instantly engulfed by Vision in Action residents crying out, “Papa” and “El Pastor.” Arms wide, he wraps as many as he can in a group hug. A woman grabs my hand and kisses it over and over, saying “gracias” for no reason. Her worn features and youthful movement make it impossible to guess her age. The pastor smiles over his shoulder.
The center started in an empty shell of a house: four rooms, no roof. Galvan builds whenever he can get funding. Each addition feels stitched on, from the kitchen to the seniors wing for men and women with dementia. Up a clattering metal staircase, trustees live in a row of tiny apartments on a mezzanine. It’s all in a state of transformation.
Nobody wears a mask. Dr. Sergio Cuellar, the on-call physician, says there hasn’t been a single case of COVID-19 among the 110 patients at the center. Good thing. A test costs $200 in Juarez, if you can find one. Hospitals are overrun, turning patients away without ever seeing a thermometer, telling them to take acetaminophen and “come back when it’s critical.”
Galvan respects the virus; he nursed his wife through COVID-19 for six weeks, fearing she’d die. But he worries for people locked in their homes and out of their churches, and he wonders where he’ll find the next donation to keep this place alive. Then again, he’s been through hard times before.
Galvan found religion in a street fight. In 1986, he was drinking in the Plaza de San Lorenzo in El Paso, then a hub for drug dealers. A street preacher shouted at him to repent. Galvan glared back, homeless and drug-addicted, a grimy beard and stray-dog eyes. Heeding a hallucinated voice, he launched his bottle at the preacher’s head, then lunged, punching him repeatedly. Instead of running, the preacher grabbed Galvan by the head, hands like vice grips, and prayed for his attacker. Overcome, Galvan fell to his knees and cried until the police arrived.
That started a long, arduous journey for the former iron worker and undocumented immigrant. He reconciled with his wife, Ester, and their four children, and resolved his pending criminal cases. He preached in the streets of Juarez, recruited for a church and finally became a pastor himself. Several stable years later, he took on the challenge that would define his life.
He started with a soup kitchen downtown and tried his hand at running a rehab, but moved out here in 1995 when the land was donated. He’s run the center ever since. Dr. Cuellar used to see patients at the open-air market in the city center, salvaging what they could from the half-rotten produce the vendors had left behind. That necessity and the pastor’s street smarts have shaped Vision in Action.
New patients are checked by Cuellar and one of two psychiatrists, each dividing time with their own practices. They treat for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, birth defects, drug-induced psychosis or extreme PTSD.
Stabilized patients pitch in. They’ve bundled and sold donated firewood, tended a garden and cared for pigs, ducks, geese, and chickens. They wash the bedding in a large concrete basin, tromping the linens in rubber boots. About 40 of them spread the blankets out to dry over creosote bushes in the desert, then return to gather and fold them in the evening.
“They have a task that gives them some feeling of being useful,” says Morgan Smith, a Santa Fe lawyer who advises Galvan and raises money for several charitable organizations in the borderlands. Smith believes the pastor has stumbled onto something more helpful than sedation and physical enforcement. The work, responsibility and community are healing.
Having found a home, patients might stay for years, even decades, long after their treatment might be considered complete. One, a 24-year-old woman who came in with cartel ties and a violent addiction to crystal methamphetamine, is now a nursing student who runs the yard and metes out medications. Similar successes have filled virtually every position of responsibility. In some cases, patients literally become family; Galvan has performed five marriages between people who met at the center.
Knowing this helps, but nothing lifts the weight from Pastor Galvan’s shoulders. Sitting at his desk, among Aztec kitsch, faux gladiator helmets and unfinished projects, he waves off memories of hard times, when supporters were kidnapped, when patients escaped and did harm, when fire took out the farm animals. He gazes instead at a plaque honoring his son who recently retired from the U.S. Special Forces. And he thinks: If a man like him can raise a Green Beret, anything is possible. Perhaps even his most audacious plan yet.
Back in the Lincoln, Galvan follows a road through a broad ravine where the city meets the mountains. Turning up an arroyo, he parks and starts hiking. The path winds steeply past shacks fenced with pallets and bed springs, past discarded tires keeping the hillside from slipping away. Above the last house, a crew of eight has leveled the hillside, laid a foundation and built the shell of a cinder block hut, 15-feet square with no roof or doors: headquarters of Radio Visión 107.9, the pastor’s brand-new fundraising project.
A thick extension cord brings electricity from the next house down, which gets it from the next, and so on, back to the grid. Water will eventually arrive in the same manner, consistent with local custom if not the law. The pastor points to a decrepit playground he wants to rebuild and a shack where he wants to open a computer lab for students. And of course he has those mouths to feed. He hopes the radio station’s advertising revenue will do the trick, even if he doesn’t yet have a broadcast license.
Further on, Galvan reaches the top of a bluff. “We’ll call this Mount Vision,” he says. From here, he can see the whole plain, dotted with native mulberry and invasive chinaberry trees— árbol del paraíso in Spanish. The tree of paradise. The pastor spreads his arms and thanks his maker. “This is so beautiful,” he says. “This is so cool.”
As the sun sets, the city scrambles home to beat the 7 p.m. curfew now in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. It’s Friday night and the stores are locked down until Tuesday. Bars and restaurants are closed, too, and churches have been shuttered for months. That won’t stop the violence; eight more people will be killed by day’s end. But Galvan’s crew keeps working, wrangling an FM antenna onto a pole.
Holding out his phone, selfie-style, Galvan, always evangelizing, keeps his Facebook followers informed. In another life, he might have been a painter or a musician. He’s been known to borrow a guitar from a beggar on a plaza by the cathedral and start riffing. He’s done radio shows for years, and soon he’ll have his own frequency to send gospel messages and music to people locked in their homes from here to El Paso.
A rooster crows from the barrio below. Dogs bark, a truck engine revs, kids laugh and brakes squeal as a white maquila bus slows down for a speed bump. A neighbor taps a stick against a stone, keeping time in a chaotic symphony. Horns and a Caribbean beat erupt over the speaker, and a man shouts, “We’re transmitting!” Taking the microphone, Galvan announces, “This is the first broadcast of Radio Visión, of the people and for the people.” The crew cheers. Across the plain, the lights of two cities blink and blur as one, then fade into the night.