With a screwdriver in one hand and a flashlight in the other, Jennifer Moya peers into a web of wires. The rusty forklift will not start, leaving several tons of bell peppers, apples and lychee languishing in the sun. She is unbothered, humming a soothing hymn as she resets the old circuit breaker. Dust dances around her as the warm Texas wind sweeps through, carrying the sound of her voice past the loading dock and out into the cabbage fields. The minutes pass as Jennifer continues to hum, as if gently coaxing the old forklift to life. Then, a low mechanical roar fills the air.
“There we go!” she shouts triumphantly, tossing her long brown hair behind her shoulders. Her cheeks lift into a big, satisfied smile. Her jeans and flannel shirt are worn and speckled in dirt. You would never guess that this time last year, Jennifer was in a fitted suit and working a nine-to-five office job.
With the forklift back in action, Jennifer and a small group of volunteers finish moving the towering pallets of produce away from the heat and into the cold protection of a walk-in refrigerator. From there, they sort the vegetables and fruit into boxes to be given to families in Hidalgo County, many of whom are new migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. “Food insecurity is a big need in South Texas,” says Jennifer.
Every Sunday, Jennifer and her mother, Eunice Moya, open the doors of Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive Food Pantry to migrant families. The San Juan distribution center, an extension of Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive Church and located in Haven of Hope Camp, provides groceries to anyone, no questions asked. Boxes of canned tomatoes, peanut butter jars, bags of rice and pinto beans, and fresh vegetables and fruit are handed to families in need.
Their food distributions help address the severe food insecurity experienced by many people living in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a region spanning the border of Texas and Mexico. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, food insecurity more than doubled as a result of the economic fallout, affecting 23% of households across the nation. In Hidalgo County at the center of the valley, more than 80% of the colonia—a low-income community along the Mexico-United States border—lacks reliable and consistent access to healthy, nourishing food. For many immigrant and refugee families living in this area, food scarcity is a daily struggle further exacerbated by fears of immigration enforcement.
Pre-pandemic, the Moya family served 50 families a week. Mid-pandemic, that number ballooned to 1,000 in the fall.
For Jennifer, the work she does with her family goes beyond providing food assistance; each box she hands over continues her father’s legacy of bringing families together. In 1992, her father, Pastor Hugo Moya, was determined to set roots in the valley despite friends urging him to continue moving north. Many warned Hugo and Eunice that the area had little economic opportunity. Yet, Hugo believed God wanted him to stay. Steadfast in his vision, the Moyas rented a house 10 minutes from the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station and started a church from their living room.
For more than two decades, the Moyas held service in their home, sometimes fitting more than a dozen families into their living room, most of them immigrants and asylum seekers. In 2004, they bought their first home in the U.S. and moved the congregation to the garage, equipping the space with a sound system and adorning the walls with colorful sheaths of fabric to cover the boiler and electric panels. Rows of plastic lawn chairs spilled onto the driveway and Hugo preached to the small group, his wife leading worship and hymns beside him.
At the end of service, around noon, Hugo, Eunice and their children invited members to break bread with them. As Eunice and other women in the congregation simmered aromatic pots of nopales, beans and rice in the kitchen, the older kids carried full plates to the families gathered at the long plastic table. “For my dad, it was about unity, especially during mealtime,” says Jennifer.
In 2020, Hugo and Eunice realized their dream of finding a permanent home for their church—an abandoned building tucked inside a quiet and modest neighborhood in San Juan. Neglected for nearly two decades, the exterior corrugated metal was torn, the windows shattered, and the insulation hung from the roof and inner walls like stalactites. Neighbors told them it was “a dark place.” Yet Hugo saw the building as a home for light and revival. The Moyas purchased the land and began to transform the space for those seeking refuge and community.
By then, most of their children had moved away. Jennifer, who was living in Dallas at the time, was the state director of service extension for the Salvation Army and lived in a high-rise building overlooking the glittering lights of the city. Although she would often get calls from her father asking her to return to the valley, Jennifer was not ready. “For the last year, my dad would call and say, ‘It’s time to come back home,’” recalls Jennifer. “I’m like, ‘No, Dad. Give me one more year. South Texas is not for me. There’s nothing there.’”
Then on April 10, 2021, Pastor Hugo Moya died during an accident while repairing the new church. His loss devastated the family and the community they built together. For the first time in almost 30 years, Hugo’s lifelong work was at a standstill.
After his death, all seven of the Moya children returned home to the valley. They gathered in their mother’s living room, a familiar place that now felt empty, and discussed how they would continue their father’s work. Hugo was a man who did a hundred things. During the day, he worked for the local school district as a maintenance man, and every spare moment he had he dedicated to his family and ministry work. He was the one Eunice and their children leaned on for words of encouragement and advice. He was the one who taught them strength, independence and empathy. “It hurts that my husband is not here, because we were always working together,” says Eunice. “It is not the same.”
Realizing what needed to be done, Jennifer told her family that she was coming home. “I trusted that my dad had been calling me,” Jennifer remembers. “I said, ‘Okay, God. I guess I’m going to do it.’”
That month, Jennifer broke her apartment lease and put in her two weeks notice at work. She sold every dish and piece of furniture she owned. Leaving a life of comfort, Jennifer packed her life into a small trailer and drove toward South Texas. As she passed Austin and its sprawling highways, she wondered when she would return to Dallas.
For four hours, the dry woods and cotton fields stretched for miles, and the road ahead felt endless. Then, as she drew closer to the valley, she began to pass palm trees swaying in the breeze, welcoming her back. As the warm, humid air pressed against her skin, Jennifer knew she was home.
Now, Jennifer, who is 32 years old, lives in a small room with her mother, who she supports in the ministry work her father used to lead. The $7.2 million department budget and 42-person team she managed at the Salvation Army has been replaced with a different type of service work. Today, she coordinates donations from local food banks and manages a small team of eager volunteers, several of whom are immigrants and family friends she grew up with as a child.
Her weeks are filled with strategizing how to feed the 250 families who come to the food pantry for support—sorting thousands of grocery items into boxes and bags for distribution. And with her father no longer there to lead the construction, she assists her older brother, Yonathan Moya, in measuring doorways, windows and walls to be built in the new church. “I have learned things that I never in my life thought I was going to do, like drive a forklift,” says Jennifer, who also learned how to play guitar to accompany her mother’s hymns during worship.
“You’re actually getting pretty good,” chuckles Yonathan, nudging his sister’s elbow when the subject comes up. Jennifer grins and tilts her head, “I’m not bad.”
On Sundays at 10 a.m., Iglesia Misionera Cristo Vive Food Pantry begins service in the dining room of the camp. A small group of newly arrived migrants and immigrant families take a seat in front of Jennifer and her mother. Eunice stands in front of the congregation and begins worship in Spanish, sharing stories of hope and strength through the words of God. Jennifer, her fingers still a little unsteady, strums a simple hymn on the guitar and the room begins to sing in unison. Music and prayer fill the space, as those gathered find respite from the world outside.
When church ends at noon, there is a low hum of engines outside. Cars and trucks snake along the usually quiet roads and the line stretches into the horizon. Many vehicles have two to three families waiting in the back seat.
Jennifer, Yonathan and the volunteers wait with hundreds of cardboard boxes filled with fresh produce and non-perishables. As the cars drive by to pick up a box per family, Jennifer and Yonathan wave hello to the families they recognize and ask how they are doing. Occasionally, they pause to pray with a family, something their father would do for those seeking solace. For many of the families who are new migrants, the boxes will be their main source of nutrition for the week.
In the kitchen, Eunice and many of the women from the house church cook beans, nopales, salsa and torta de malanga, fried patties made from shredded taro. Jennifer takes a rare break and sits at the kitchen counter, watching her mother and the volunteers she calls family preparing food at the stove.
“I was living very luxuriously compared to how my parents were living in South Texas,” she says. “I was able to eat at the most expensive restaurants and buy whatever I wanted. I don’t have the luxuries that I did before.”
“It’s different,” Jennifer continues. “You know, the most rewarding thing is I have people that have shared our life for so long. And that’s what I love that I didn’t have in Dallas. I didn’t have community.”
When the pots begin to release the smell of cumin, onion and red pepper, Eunice turns off the heat. With the distribution wrapping up, families are invited for a late lunch inside the camp dining room.
Following her mother’s instructions, Jennifer and the volunteers pass fragrant plates of food to those sitting at the tables. After everyone has a plate, Jennifer, Yonathan and Eunice take a seat and share a meal.
Once again, like their father did nearly 30 years ago, the Moyas break bread at the border.