The story below was submitted to LIRS by a volunteer for Samaritas, an LIRS local network partner. In the past year, there has been a significant backlog at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services of Special Immigrant Juvenile Status cases for undocumented children. This backlog has increased the risk that unaccompanied children will age out of foster care and not get the support they need. Instead of standing by and allowing this to happen, one community in Lansing, Michigan rallied to support these children.
Faith Lutheran Church hosts Wednesday night meals and activities each week. On one Wednesday evening in November, Pastor Ellen was quite upset about some news she received about a challenge Samaritas was facing regarding unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant youth in their care. A few members were in the kitchen serving dinner that night and we listened to Pastor Ellen. The news she relayed sounded unbelievably sad and devastating. Laurie, another church member, and I decided to attend the next Samaritas meeting with her.
There we learned that Samaritas was facing a new situation, one they have not had to deal with ever before in their long history of working with refugee youth. Beginning in January 2018, 18 youth would be aging out of the refugee youth program. Due to new policies our government has in place, Samaritas found out they would only be able to provide services for these undocumented young people until the age of 18. Delays imposed by the current federal administration as our government attempts to rework the immigration process, will place these 18 youth at risk if they do not receive necessary documentation by their birthdays. Unless homes are found for them, they will be moved to jail or will be homeless and tethered for the duration of their immigration proceedings. If they go to jail, they risk deportation to their home country where it is likely that they will face death. The youth are required to report regularly to ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) or immigration court if they are allowed to remain in the community with a family or in a shelter. Because these youth are aging out of the foster care program, they will need a place to live and someone will need to provide support. There will be no financial assistance for them, no clothing, no medical/dental care, and they will not be allowed to work without documentation. They will be able to attend high school and can learn a trade. However, after high school, they will not be allowed to work or continue further education until they receive documentation. The youths’ attorneys have agreed to continue working pro bono with them as they continue the process of seeking legal documentation.
Devastated by this harsh reality, Pastor Ellen, Laurie and I brainstormed possible solutions as we worked through our feelings of despair. How can our country, which accepted these youth in their darkest time of need, now return them to the hands of those that terrorized them? How can political differences and red tape leave a child abandoned and homeless? How much hurt must one human heart suffer? As we worked through this, a sliver of light began to shine through the darkness. Faith Lutheran Church has an old parsonage on its property. It was rumored the house was in disrepair and the place was “unlivable” due to a basement “full of black mold.” A group of church members had been using the house one morning per week for quilting. In the past, the congregation had explored bull-dozing the building or donating it to the local fire department to set it ablaze and practice firefighting skills. The only reason it remained standing was because these options were quite costly.
Neither Pastor Ellen, Laurie nor I had ever set foot inside this house. I asked a skilled carpenter friend to accompany us and take a look around to see how bad it really was. Upon entering, one immediately understood that the house hadn’t been cleaned in a very long time. There was no kitchen sink and there were no appliances. The one and half baths had one working sink, one working toilet and a clogged bathtub. There was a hole through the ceiling of one of the three bedrooms. While the furnace was only three years old, the hot water tank was over 30 years old and it needed to be replaced. There was missing drywall in a doorless bedroom closet. Quilting supplies were in excess as every space had been filled with scraps and miscellaneous church items. It had become an inexpensive storage unit for many random decorations, vacation bible school materials and maintenance supplies. The amount of work needed was overwhelming, but we were determined to find a home for these youth.
Step by step three ordinary women began a journey to create a path forward for these young people. We recruited a few other women to help clear the house of all of the quilting and stored items, and the quilters accepted a new location in the church basement. A home inspector was hired to evaluate the house and we rejoiced when we heard that, although the house required much work, there wasn’t anything preventing the house from becoming livable. Volunteers by the dozens from various faith backgrounds joined in our effort as we cleaned, installed new toilets and a kitchen sink, installed a hot water tank and sump pump, un-clogged plumbing, refurbished the shower, upgraded electrical outlets, repaired walls and ceilings, painted and continued the clean up. The entire congregation rallied to collect needed items for the home. Furniture, beds, linens, a fully stocked kitchen, toiletry items, computers and every possible needed item was donated. The house was transformed into a warm and inviting home with renovated walls, roof and floor. Participation in this transformation was life-changing for Laurie and I. We witnessed in wonder as every obstacle that presented itself was somehow removed and a path forward was made through every challenge. We witnessed a community of ordinary people like ourselves create something extraordinary. We witnessed God’s undeniable presence through the combined efforts of a community of people as we decided to choose hope and possibility, even when things seemed impossible.
Meanwhile, Samaritas worked to determine which youth would be ready for this style of independent living on their eighteenth birthday. Four young men were chosen to come to our house. The first one came on February 8. Samaritas helped to prepare Faith Lutheran Church volunteers so we would better know how to care and provide for the young men. They provided mentor training and cultural training. Laurie and Pastor Ellen met with several local school districts to determine the best fit for the youth as they work to complete their high school education. The first two young men came to visit and enroll in the local high school as they approached their birthdays. As February 8 came closer, we were hopeful the first of our tenants would receive some sort of documentation because all four of the youth with January birthdays had received some documentation. This enabled them to receive continued support through Samaritas. Documentation provides the best opportunity for the youth, enabling them to move forward after high school with continuing education, work, obtain a driver’s license, etc. Unfortunately, the first young man who came to our house did not receive any documentation before his February 8 birthday. The full impact of this journey suddenly became a reality as we looked into the smiling eyes of our first resident when he moved his belongings into our home. A list of “what if’s” repeatedly played through my mind. What if Laurie and I hadn’t joined Pastor Ellen at that meeting with Samaritas back in November? What if we didn’t believe we could transform the parsonage? What if the inspector had found something really awful in the house that would have actually made it unlivable? What if this community had rejected the call to action to furnish this house and make it a home? What if we lived in the place of our doubts instead of the seemingly smaller space of our hope?
This experience has been life-changing for everyone involved. It is a story of incredible hope. It is a story of God’s abundance. It is a story that continues every day to provide the gift of relationship and experience as we interact with the two young men now living in our home. It is a story that breaks down barriers, differences and obstacles and leaves hope shining through the rubble. It is a story I wish to share with every person I meet because together, through sharing our stories, we can live and grow and love in new ways. Please hear this story and have the courage to take a chance in building your own miraculous story. Remember that we are just ordinary people like you who took a chance, supported one another, and believed enough to try.