Rooted in community connection, churches take up ministry with immigrants and refugees

A year after the election of President Donald Trump, immigrant communities in the United States continue to face a barrage of uncertainty and fear. The pending executive actions and court cases that could affect the status of millions of immigrants and refugees are difficult to navigate, and it is not always easy to discern how a few individuals or a single congregation can help. Several churches in the Diocese of Massachusetts are moving ahead undaunted, though, with resolve and spirit they say extends from the fact that they have grounded their immigrant and refugee ministries in local relationships. 

Whether preparing to sponsor a refugee family, becoming a sanctuary church or taking action in their communities, Episcopal churches in eastern Massachusetts say they are are choosing not to go it alone, instead building ecumenical and interfaith networks that can provide significant and sustainable support for immigrants and refugees.

Refugee resettlement ministry

The continuing global refugee crisis has left more than 60 million people displaced around the world (UNHCR), and in Massachusetts a growing force of Episcopal churches and their faith and community partners are standing ready to help refugees arriving in the United States. But despite the immense need and the waiting infrastructure, some local churches say they’re now in a holding pattern. Due to the current political climate, the flow of refugees into the United States has slowed to a trickle. “We’re ready and just waiting for our call,” said the Rev. Melanie McCarley, Rector of St. Paul’s Church in Dedham.

St. Paul’s is working with St. Susannah’s Catholic Church and the Allin Congregational Church, both of Dedham, to prepare to sponsor a refugee family. They are working closely with Catholic Charities, which will be connecting the churches with the family and providing guidance in the practical ins and outs of getting the family settled. The three churches have gathered a group of 60 volunteers who stand ready to welcome a family.

In Reading, the Church of the Good Shepherd has partnered with Catholic Charities and six Reading churches to welcome a refugee family, in a collaboration they are calling Reading POWR, or People Organized to Welcome Refugees. The group is also working with a mosque in Burlington. The Rev. Pete Jeffrey, deacon at Good Shepherd, said that a group of 75 volunteers is ready to support a refugee family as soon as it arrives.

Churches working to sponsor a family through Catholic Charities do not know where the family will be coming from, how many children there are or what the family's proficiency with English may be. When they are matched with a family, they will have about two to three weeks to find an apartment, furnish it and make many other preparations.

“I can’t imagine arriving here from spending 10 to 17 years in a refugee camp and having to find a place to live,” McCarley said. “This way, they will arrive and they will get to come home.”

In both communities, volunteers will greet the refugee family at the airport, and welcome them to their new home, which will be stocked with household essentials and groceries. Once the family is settled, volunteers will help them get signed up for benefits, register children for school and transport them to doctors’ appointments. They will also show the family how to do things like grocery shop and use public transit.

McCarley said that finding affordable housing has been one of the most challenging pieces of the puzzle. There are many jobs in the area, she said, but the churches know that the family may not be able to live in Dedham. The goal is to find affordable housing along a bus route so that adults in the family can commute to work.

“The idea is to set them up to use all the resources available to them, to provide some guiding and helping to give them the tools they need to succeed,” said McCarley.

Catholic Charities urges sponsoring groups to find housing that families will be able to afford on their own if and when both parents secure minimum wage jobs. The refugee family will be eligible for state and federal benefits, and Catholic Charities has recommended to St. Paul’s that it arrange for a reserve fund of $9,000 to supplement rent and other necessities. The goal is to help the family become as independent as possible, McCarley said. “Catholic Charities does this all the time, and were able to tell us, ‘here’s what you can do, and here’s what’s in danger of being too helpful,'" she said. 

A banner created by Reading POWR. The banner will be brought to the airport when the group welcomes a refugee family. Courtesy A banner created by Reading POWR. The banner will be brought to the airport when the group welcomes a refugee family. 

The Reading POWR group has set a goal of raising $18,000, and has already raised $13,000. St. Paul’s has secured a diocesan Sending Serving matching grant of $1,500, and Jeffrey said that Good Shepherd is in the process of applying for a diocesan matching grant as well.

McCarley and Jeffrey both said that working with other churches in their communities has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. Both said that while the churches have had friendly relationships for a long time, they have never collaborated on a mission project of this scope. “We go to each other’s events, church fairs, that kind of thing, but we have not done anything joint like this,” Jeffrey said of the Reading group. With their pooled resources and volunteers, the churches are able to do much more than they could alone.

“Working together has been really joyful and not a burden at all,” McCarley said. “ It’s so wonderful to see the interest and compassion from parishioners, and also the sense of patriotism:  this is what our country is about, and it’s also exactly what Jesus would want us to do. There’s great pride in that for all three congregations.”

“It’s really working out wonderfully," said Jeffrey. "You have to think the Holy Spirit is in there helping out.”

The sanctuary church movement

Local Episcopal churches are also mobilizing to protect their undocumented neighbors. Episcopal City Mission, Massachusetts Community Action Network (MCAN) and several Episcopal churches announced in January that they would be working to establish sanctuary churches in Massachusetts.

The modern sanctuary movement in the United States first arose in the 1980s, when religious communities offered protection to asylum-seekers fleeing conflict in Central America. The movement is experiencing a resurgence as ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) raids increase in scope and frequency nationwide and immigrants who were formerly protected by measures like DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and TPS (Temporary Protective Status) now find themselves in precarious circumstances. 

In a strictly legal sense, churches are not immune to raids by immigration enforcement, but historically authorities have been hesitant to target houses of worship. In January the Church World Service estimated that about 400 churches nationwide have stepped forward to offer sanctuary if needed.

Two of the Episcopal churches that moved quickly to be involved in the sanctuary movement were St. James’s, Cambridge and St. Mary’s, Dorchester.

St. James's is working with nine other congregations as the Cambridge Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition (CISC). This partnership was made official in June 2017 when the vestry voted to sign the CISC Covenant. This covenant states: "As people of faith and conscience living at a time when the political and social climate of our nation has become increasingly hostile toward minority groups, we are mindful of our sacred calling and moral duty to welcome the stranger, protect the vulnerable and accompany the oppressed."

According to Michelle Holmes, co-chair of St. James’s sanctuary team, joining the CISC means that St. James’s agrees to work in three areas:  community engagement with immigrant and refugee neighbors, advocacy to end unjust deportations and supporting those facing deportation, including providing physical sanctuary if needed.

CISC congregations have been providing sanctuary to a mother facing deportation and her two young children since May 2017, a case that was written about in the Boston Globe. This family is housed at University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square, and all CISC congregations and volunteers participate in 24-hour accompaniment, and the provision of food and other necessities.  St. James's contributes approximately 30 volunteers to the effort, Holmes said.

In Dorchester, St. Mary’s Church does not currently have anyone in sanctuary, but the community is fully prepared to offer it, said the Rev. Edwin Johnson. Volunteers from St. Mary’s and a broad coalition of local churches are ready to provide meals, supplies and accompaniment, and St. Mary’s would provide the physical space of sanctuary.

The work of preparing to be a sanctuary has been its own gift, both within the church and in the wider community, Johnson said. In the work of becoming a sanctuary, St. Mary’s has deepened connections with MCAN, the churches of the Roxbury-Dorchester Mission Hub and other churches in the community, including Bethel AME in Jamaica Plain, which is currently providing sanctuary for an individual.

“Much of the coalition-building and networking we needed to get us off the ground has been done and now it’s kind of ‘hurry up and wait,’” Johnson said. “When we first said we wanted to be a sanctuary church and so many folks said they wanted to be engaged, that really moved me. It’s a real experience of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.”

--Ellen Stuart Kittle

Resources: To learn more about immigrant and refugee ministry, how to get involved and how to apply for a matching grant for refugee resettlement, visit the new Global Mission Refugee Resettlement page.