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San Antonio Mennonites lead interfaith response to influx of refugees

12.9. 2016 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr 2,783 Times read

Photo: Hundreds of women and children were released from Texas detention centers and dropped off in San Antonio, Texas, via bus this week. RAICES photo.

This week, Mennonites in San Antonio, Texas, found themselves at the center of interfaith efforts to respond to a citywide crisis that began Monday, Dec. 5, when ICE (United States Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) began to release hundreds of Central American asylum seekers, all women and children, who had been held at detention centers across south Texas.

Since 2014, members of San Antonio Mennonite Church have partnered with the citywide Interfaith Welcome Coalition, a group of people who came together to try to respond to reports of hundreds of Central American women and children being detained in Texas. Through this group, SAMC also worked with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) to turn a guest house owned by SAMC into a day shelter and holding space for recently released women and children. Most days, a bus pulls into the church parking lot, and a volunteer is on hand to take women and children to La Casa, where they can find food, a place to rest, clean clothes, a place to shower, and time and space to figure out what comes next. RAICES staff members are at the house to help the women and children access a variety of services, whether they are looking for legal advice, medical or counseling services, transportation or a way to communicate with family and friends.

Most days, the house provides shelter for 20-50 people. But these numbers are on the rise, and the congregation has seen an influx of 500 women and children in this week alone.

According to John Garland, SAMC pastor, on Saturday, Dec. 3, the congregation received a call from ICE

The San Antonio Mennonite Church sanctuary filled with sleeping bags and air mattresses, ready to receive mothers and children. Photo provided.

The San Antonio Mennonite Church sanctuary filled with sleeping bags and air mattresses, ready to receive mothers and children. Photo provided.

informing them they would be receiving a bus bearing 100 women and children that afternoon. At this point, the La Casa house was already full, so the congregation began to turn its church building into an emergency shelter: accepting donations of food and filling Sunday school rooms and the fellowship hall with air mattresses and sleeping bags.

On Saturday alone, three busloads of people arrived at the church, some coming in the middle of the night, and 160 people were sheltered in the church building. Since then, Garland estimates that the church has received at least 340 more individuals, enough people to fill the church fellowship hall, sanctuary and every spare room available.

“We moved pews and tore down our gorgeous Advent display and Nativity scene. And our sanctuary became a real portrait of the biblical flight to Egypt scene,” said Garland in a Dec. 8 interview.

RAICES staff came to the church and turned the church library into an intake center to greet the women and children and help get them settled at the church. Garland’s office was turned into a call center. People across the city donated prepaid cell phones, and volunteers helped women make calls to connect with friends and family across the country and make travel plans to get them to their final destination.

At one point, the San Antonio fire marshal and a health department official arrived at the church and expressed deep concerns about the church feeding people from a kitchen that was not commercial and up to city codes, as well as the church building being filled beyond capacity.

“I looked at the fire marshal and said, ‘Brother, we both want the exact same thing. We want to keep these women safe. Turning them out on the street is inviting the human traffickers,’” said Garland.

The city officials agreed and made calls. To address concerns about potential fire hazards, the local fire

The SAMC sanctuary filled to capacity. Photo provided.

The SAMC sanctuary filled to capacity. Photo provided.

department stationed a permanent unit of firefighters on site, who patrolled the property and also helped volunteers distribute food and supplies. In addition, city health officials worked, both on duty and off, to help the church follow sanitation guidelines and to get the kitchen in better shape.

Garland acknowledged their church building is not used to this kind of day-to-day wear and tear. Recently, the building’s HVAC system quit working, and due to the large number of people on site this week, the building’s plumbing showed signs of wear and tear.

With no heat in the church and temperatures in San Antonio moving below freezing near the end of the week and the volume of ICE dropoffs showing no signs of slowing, church members were concerned about their ability to continue to house asylum seekers over the next few weeks. With the support of several city council members, the congregation and RAICES approached another local congregation, Travis Park Methodist Church, about offering its building, and the congregation agreed.

Garland hopes this reprieve from hosting people will give the congregation a chance to regroup and re-equip themselves for the work ahead.

“Christ calls us to use what we’ve been given, and we have a beautiful old building. God gave it to us for a purpose, and God help us if we bury it. God also put us in this neighborhood and in the center of this city full of people who want to help, and God help us if we’re not a vehicle and a gathering place for all those people who want to reach out and love and serve,” said Garland.

No one is quite clear on why the numbers of women and children being released has risen so drastically, but many theories abound. Many believe the releases are connected to a Dec. 2 ruling by Austin, Texas, judge Karin Crump that prevented detention centers from considering themselves acceptable childcare centers.

“We can only hope this is a sign the Obama Administration is finally deciding to end this failed experiment in family detention,” said Jonathan Ryan, RAICES director, in an organizational press release.

Whatever the reason for the influx, Garland is clear that the church will continue to be involved in supporting women and children who come to the city.

“At this time of year, we’re getting ready to celebrate Christmas. We’re also remembering that at about two years of age, Jesus, this precious little boy, was surrounded by horrific violence and mass murder and his parents took him and fled into a foreign land seeking safety and asylum,” he said. “We’re serving children who are fleeing for their life with the faith that we are also serving Christ.

To support San Antonio Mennonite Church in this work, you can make a donation on their website or send a check, addressed to San Antonio Mennonite Church, to 1443 S. St. Mary’s San Antonio, TX 78210.

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