The news has been filled with reports of busloads of migrants from Texas, Florida and Arizona being “shipped” to politically blue areas like New York City, Washington and Chicago. We have seen the images of buses arriving at Port Authority – let alone the planeload of recent arrivals that ended up in Martha’s Vineyard. Frankly, it’s all very sad and unconscionable, and reflects the deep divisions in our country. One can even wonder how any elected official can be so cynical as to play politics with human beings who are trying to escape poverty and violence in search of a better a life.
Since May, over 11,000 migrants have arrived at the city’s doorstep. Many are from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua – a different set of countries than what is known as the Northern Triangle trio of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador where many previous migrants sought refuge from unbearable conditions. These asylum seekers (people from other countries have a right under international law to apply for asylum) have flooded the city’s shelters and strained our social services system. The mayor and other city officials have been scrambling to figure out what to do with all these arrivals, especially in a city such as ours that has a history of welcoming all and a legal obligation to house anyone seeking shelter.
Despite the volatility of the asylum issue, efforts are being made right here in the West Side neighborhood to help those who have landed in our midst. St. Paul and St. Andrew, the United Methodist Church on West 86th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue, has become a sanctuary for these recent arrivals.
This is not the first time the church has risen to the occasion. During the Trump administration, when the fear of random deportations amongst the undocumented was at its height and U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided certain neighborhoods, the church led an effort to create a sanctuary neighborhood that provided a physical sanctuary as well as a place where others could learn about their rights as immigrants. The church sheltered a family during this period and became part of a larger sanctuary movement amongst the faith-based community.
The Rev. K Karpen, the church’s senior pastor, said it wasn’t even a question that the church would help out this time. “It took 20 seconds to get permission from the church vestry to do this,” he said. “But we knew what to do from our prior experience and had the volunteers ready to help. I was in Cape Town, South Africa at the time and told Lea [The Rev. Lea Matthews, associate pastor] to go ahead and handle this.”
Matthews went to work right away and organized quickly. She soon had a cadre of dedicated volunteers, and also relied on other mutual support networks that exist within the immigrant service community. “It’s remarkable how communities of caring individuals and mutual interest can literally make things happen within hours, where there was nothing imagined beforehand,” she said. “It hurts to see that the city with all of its resources doesn’t have the foresight to respond in a coordinated way. It’s hard to live through that but, on the other hand, it is so heartening to witness how this community has mobilized.”
One of those leading the effort is Stephanie Douglas, a middle school teacher and active church member. Douglas said that there was a strong volunteer base at St. Paul & St. Andrew along with volunteers from the nearby synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun.
“The church’s commitment to social justice and action made this an easy decision,” Douglas said. “We knew we had to get involved. These were people who had many immediate needs and had found their way to the church. We also had the systems in place from our previous sanctuary work and couldn’t turn these individuals away so we decided to open our doors,” she added.
Douglas indicated that there were nearly 250 volunteers who have signed up to help. They bring enough meals to provide breakfast several times a week and dinner every night, have created an Amazon wish list where volunteers order everything from belts, wallets, backpacks, and clothes for job interviews to cellphones.
She stressed that there is also a great need for legal help with the filing of the requisite government documents the migrants will need as their cases wend their way through the complicated and disorganized immigration system.
“To begin to address these issues, we have organized a rapid response teams– a group of nearly 25 volunteers who do everything from accompaniments to immigration appointments to help with change of address forms,” Douglas said.
The church is currently housing five individuals from Venezuela who had no idea where they would end up when they were put on a bus at the Texas border.
I recently met with four of them – Jose, Junior, Yorma, and Raul (their last names have been withheld to protect their privacy). They told harrowing stories of traveling in Colombia, surviving the trek through the infamously dangerous Darien Gap, a 60-mile stretch of nearly impassable jungle in Panama, and miraculously making their way to Mexico where they crossed into the United States and eventually surrendered to immigration authorities. They represent merely a handful of the million or so people who have gained entry into the country over the last two years seeking to improve their economic situations and find a safe haven.
“It’s very difficult to leave your family behind knowing that they need you,” Jose said. “It takes a toll on you psychologically. You have a child who is hungry, and you have to decide between buying a notebook and shoes so he can go to school, or buying food so your child can eat,” he added. “That is why we came – to find work so we are better able to support our families. I am grateful to the church for all they are doing to help us.”
Karpen said that other individuals, some who ended up in shelters or on the street, have also been coming by asking for help. “Word has gotten out that we are here. We had a Venezuelan family, for instance, a very sweet man and woman with three kids who came by and were very distraught. The guy had been sleeping on the street because he wasn’t technically married to the woman and the city wouldn’t let him stay in the family shelter with the family. So, what did we do? We raised the funds for the marriage license and did the wedding here. They are now together in a family shelter.”
I asked Karpen, why the church was doing this? He was somewhat taken back by the question. “Everyone should be involved in this effort,” he exclaimed. “These people are our neighbors, our brothers and our sisters. It’s just the kind of thing you do in an emergency. It’s got to be done!”
If you are interested in being part of this sanctuary effort, go to the St. Paul and St. Andrew website, https://stpaulandstandrew.org/
“It’s remarkable how communities of caring individuals and mutual interest can literally make things happen within hours, where there was nothing imagined beforehand.” The Rev. Lea Matthews