Migrants arrive at Union Station in Washington, DC April 27 after being sent by bus from Texas. (AP Photo/Luis Magana, file)
The day in April that the first busload of migrants arrived in Washington DC happened to be Maundy Thursday, the day in the Christian calendar that commemorates Jesus washing the feet of his disciples the night before he died.
The gospel story is about service, Sharon Stanley-Rea explained. Stanley-Rea, a Disciples of Christ minister and then director of the denomination’s refugee and immigration department, showed up at a press conference after the arrival of the first bus with a bowl of water and a towel — symbols, she said, of the spirit of welcoming , she felt that the faith community in the country’s capital was called upon to emulate her.
Since then, thousands of migrants have been ferried into the city on buses, many without being told where they were going, while others were told before boarding that after a stopover in Washington they could travel on to other destinations where they could visit family members or families Loved ones got A’s. Not long after, New York, Chicago, and most recently, Philadelphia, began receiving migrants.
The migrants had been sent north from Texas and Arizona, whose Republican governors, Greg Abbott and Doug Ducey, hoped the mayors of Washington, Philadelphia, New York and other cities would fulfill their promise to be a welcoming city for immigrants, so that “overrun and overwhelmed border towns can find relief,” Abbott said in a statement at the time.
The Congregation Action Network, a coalition of more than 70 religious organizations formed in 2017 in response to the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban,” had begun providing social services and food during the COVID-19 pandemic. When migrants began arriving in Washington last spring, the coalition immediately began addressing the most urgent material needs of the new arrivals.
“You have many faith communities and groups that have already provided services to people with insufficient nutrition or shelter that are well positioned to pass some of that support on to these newly arrived migrants,” said Elias Johnson, director of CAN.
A rotation schedule was set up, with local churches, synagogues, mosques or other places of worship being open to migrants on different days of the week. Stanley-Rea estimates that Washington-area faith groups have invested more than half a million dollars in migrant care over the past few months.
The first face many migrants saw as they got off the bus was that of Claudia Tristán, director of immigration policy at MomsRising Together, a 16-year-old grass-roots organization working on behalf of women and children. Tristán greeted migrants at the designated drop-off points and explained the resources available to them. She then transported them to one of the recovery centers where the displaced migrants could get a meal and a change of clothes.
Tristán said volunteers continue to support immigrants who choose to settle in Washington. Volunteer teams organized by the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network introduced the newcomers to the Washington Metro subway system and helped them enroll their children in schools and enroll themselves in English classes.
Tristán says the organizing effort in Washington has become a blueprint for other cities. “Chicago and New York, fortunately they were better prepared because they were able to communicate with the organizers in DC about what to expect and what resources they need to make sure they are on hand,” she said.
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, Maryland, on Washington’s northeast border, began housing immigrants when the buses arrived and continues to serve as a shelter for immigrants arriving by bus or other transportation.
The church, whose parishioners are 80 percent Latino, provides the immigrants with housing, food and clothing for as long as they need. Once a person has found a job and a place to live, the Church pays the first month’s rent whenever possible so that the person can feel supported.
Vidal Rivas, the director of St. Matthew’s, said although the mostly Venezuelan and Nicaraguan immigrants are primarily from Pentecostal communities back home, many have stayed in touch with St. Matthew’s and told Rivas they are close because of the care and support they have want to settle community they have found there.
“A church will be a church when it welcomes the poor and marginalized,” said Rivas. “The only thing that has to motivate us . . . is love. Because they deserve love.”
CAN and other faith-based organizations and advocacy groups have recently campaigned against legislation under review by DC’s City Council that they say would contribute to tensions between the city’s unhoused nonimmigrant population and newly arrived immigrants who are also need accommodation and basic resources.
The Migrant Services and Supports Act of 2022 seeks to codify support for migrants, specifying that anyone awaiting immigration processing at an office outside of DC is not entitled to city resources otherwise available to unaccommodated DC residents are available – but the DC Residents ICE field office is actually in Northern Virginia, and many immigrants who are bused into the city have immigration hearings at that Baltimore office or other out-of-city field office planned.
The city council has already passed emergency legislation to set up a migrant services office, but a public hearing on permanent legislation and CAN, Sanctuary DMV and other groups was held on October 20 outspoken resistance to the draft law in its current form.
“I think faith communities are really well placed to try to fight that and say, ‘Look, these are both populations that we care about, that we serve, that we value, and that we want in our communities . And that’s why you need to expand services overall and not lock these migrants out of services,” Johnson said.
“I think we’re going to continue to see faith communities being able to really speak out from this place and fill in some of the gaps that sometimes exist in this organization and advocacy otherwise,” he added.
Giovana Oaxaca, program director for migration policy at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said the human stories of migrants are all too often missing from the political conversation.
Although her work is on the political side of migrant issues, Oaxaca hosted a family who arrived by bus from Texas and called it a powerful reminder of why she is committed to the immigration issue.
“My apartment was filled with laughter and music. I cooked arepas with my guests. They also told me about their experiences and told me about the hardships they had endured, their determination and of course the disorientation they felt when they arrived in Washington, DC, essentially with the bags to take with them”, she remembered.
“Just meeting this family in person felt like a validation of what politics is trying to get right. If only the experience had been so dehumanizing for her. . . Connecting with them on that individual personal level felt like a return to the values we speak of when we talk about a fairer, more humane immigration system,” she said.
Noting that “our scriptures call us to welcome the vulnerable, to be the balm in Gilead, and to offer healing to the traumatized,” Stanley-Rea said that healing could not come only through the giving of boons. “It has to come through relationships too, it comes through prayers, it comes through sharing hearts and the warmth of friendship,” she said. “And these are all special strengths and gifts that I believe faith communities have to offer.” —Religious Intelligence Service