In December 2016, a federal judge in San Antonio, Texas, ordered that hundreds of women and children–most of them refugees from Central America–be released from two south Texas immigration detention facilities. He had deemed the sites unsuitable for holding minors, sending the families into a wet and frigid winter night. Members of the San Antonio Mennonite Church, longtime activists for just immigration, gathered to address the emergency. How could they respond to the crisis? This is part of their story, excerpted from “Neighborhood Church: Transforming Your Congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission.” You can preorder it here.
As officials released women and children from two detention facilities in response to a court order, hundreds of people suddenly needed temporary shelter and support. On Friday, December 2, 2016, SAMC’s leadership offered its guest house as a shelter. When its two floors filled up, they opened their cavernous fellowship hall, and when even that area overflowed, they opened the doors of their main sanctuary, pushing pews to the walls to provide sleeping space.
At the guest house, a big- screen TV hung from the ceiling announcing departure times for women and children bound for destinations around the U.S. Upstairs was a phone bank for calling lawyers and family members, its long line extending into the hallway. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) learned of SAMC’s willingness to shelter the released prisoners and began to bus them directly to the church’s front steps. Their numbers continued to swell.
John Garland, pastor of SAMC, reflects on that experience and how its ripple effects continue to shape the congregation’s ministry.
“It’s easy,” he says, “to quote Old and New Testament mandates to care for the least and the aliens in our midst. But real conversion to our neighbors doesn’t begin by declaring ourselves a welcoming space for the homeless or a sanctuary for refugees. It always begins in real, face-to-face relationships. This is the essence of incarnational ministry.”
Garland, like most of SAMC’s members, was at the eye of that human hurricane for a number of days. The experience reaffirmed many of the congregation’s cherished beliefs. For instance, Mennonites strive to live simply, believing God will provide more than we need as we walk the path of faithfulness. This trust in abundance proved warranted during the refugee crisis in a number of ways.
Hundreds of surrounding neighbors rose up to provide support in the way of food, water, and backpacks for the traveling women. Many of them openly said, “I don’t believe in God, but I’m glad you are here and I support what you are doing.”
When the fire marshal got wind of the church’s overcrowded conditions, he threatened to shut everything down. This evoked responses from the mayor, the city council, even a congressional representative, all of them wrangling over what to do. But it was the neighborhood fire station that provided the solution. Its firemen, even after working long shifts, volunteered to patrol the perimeter of the church, providing the emergency coverage necessary to make everything legal.
Not everyone, however, was approving of SAMC’s work. Online threats were frequent, some of them warning of violence, and though Pastor Garland never read the specifics, he was aware of potential danger. So, when a jacked-up truck with a Confederate flag on its rear window rumbled into the parking lot, he was understandably concerned. A burly man stepped down from the cab.
“Is this the place that’s helping the illegals?” he asked in a gruff voice.
“Yes, it is,” said Garland.
“Good,” said the man, “because I have some food in the back I’d like to donate to the cause.”
Garland sees this not only as an example of the abundant response of others, but of the unlikely conversion of one neighbor to another in our midst.
There is another incident dear to his heart. During that onslaught of need, SAMC discovered a child separated from his mother. In all the hubbub, some volunteers had taken the mother to the hospital. Until they located her, Garland took the child home and let him snuggle between his two young daughters, a lasting lesson for him and his girls about the need to protect and love our neighbors no matter how they come to us.
He sums up so much of what he learned in a succinct anecdote.
“On the fullest night of that crisis, with the church packed, I tried to sleep in my office. The building was a cacophony of two primary noises. There was the beeping of the ankle monitors each detainee was required to wear, and the coughing! Most of the women had caught a respiratory bug in the detention facilities, and the coughing was nonstop. Between those signs of sickness and the incessant beeping, I thought I was going to lose my mind.
“Then a beautiful voice rose above the din. It was a mother singing a lullaby to her child. That song had a clear message to me. ‘Sorry, white boy, if you are struggling this evening, but I’m trying to put my child to sleep.’
“I realized right then that none of us responding to this crisis were the heroes in this passion play. It was these women who had left everything—their homes, their countries of origin—to protect their children.”
The overcrowded conditions eventually subsided, but not the regular and ongoing need. Today, SAMC and its partners continue to minister to the women and children who come to them from the detention facilities—these neighbors in a global family—but now their service echoes with an even deeper connection born of those days in December 2016.
UPDATE: SAMC continues to shelter stranded asylum seekers in La Casa de Maria y Marta. They also offer Peacebuilder classes, training people how to respond to those experiencing trauma because of their refugee status.