(RNS) — Every week the smiling faces pop up on Zoom. Everyone is greeted by name. There’s joking as we all log in. Someone says, “Sorry that I don’t have my video on but I’m in the car and I didn’t want to miss it!” A woman with short silver hair gets serious, saying, “Alright everybody, we have a lot on the agenda and not a lot of time, so let’s get going.”
Quickly, everyone reintroduces themselves: a woman from a church on the South Side of Chicago with extra room in their parsonage, a synagogue in the nearby suburbs involved in immigration reform, a resettlement nonprofit stretched thin with asylum-seeker cases, a married couple with a spare bedroom. The purpose? To house newly arrived migrants without delay.
This summer I was hired by the collective organizations in this meeting to lead a research project. The group informally call themselves the Sanctuary Working Group (SWG), and they are an interfaith network made up of both organizations and individuals, aging leftists and social workers, immigration lawyers and nuns. They are a seemingly tireless bunch of movers and shakers, all of them committed to immigration justice because of their personal religious values, although the meaning of those values may vary between belief systems.
Some have been doing it since the last Sanctuary movement in the 1980s, and some of them are immigrants themselves. As a master of divinity student at the University of Chicago, and as a life-long Chicagoan with experience working with young immigrant women, I was asked to conduct sensitive fieldwork on what long-term migrant shelters (1 month+) exist in the United States.
Spoiler alert: There are not enough to meet the current need.
Across the country, I encountered other similar networks of individuals, shelters and houses of worship trying to connect migrants to housing and basic resources. It is not unlike what churches and volunteers recently did at Martha’s Vineyard for 50 asylum seekers. Networks like SWG do it every week and utilize a more bricolage membership.
An average weekly agenda at any one of them might look like this: a member of the meeting brings an asylum seeker’s case to the group. They speak of a woman from Venezuela with two children who has been bused to Chicago where she knows no one. She is currently staying at the Salvation Army shelter, but would X church have room for her in their rectory? Yes, the family from Guatemala staying there is actually ready to move out. Someone volunteers to reach out to a resettlement organization to find a case manager. Also, the gentleman from Haiti has been moved to an affordable apartment but needs rental assistance for the first month. Can we help him out?
The group votes on it; they only have so much cash in their communal funding. But the vote is unanimous. This is what the funds are for. Then an update on the family staying at A & B’s home. They are doing great, they love to cook. Kids will start going to school this week. Can the group wrangle some winter boots for them? At network meetings geared more for shelter staff, the conversation consists of how many people arrived that week or any legal questions that can be addressed for the good of the group. And of course, the evergreen question: anyone got a room?
I was not asked to do this research arbitrarily. There is a historic surge of migrants at the southern border, mostly due to chronic poverty, drought or violence in countries the world over. Interfaith networks like the SWG have felt that uptick in their work this past year. Grassroots groups lately have a list of 10–15 persons seeking immediate shelter.
The recent political moves from the governors of Texas, Arizona and Florida to relocate asylum seekers from the southern border to blue states reminds us again that immigration needs trauma-informed policy reform centered on human dignity. And what the described weekly agenda tells us is this: Religiously minded networks are currently working together to fill in the gaps of our nation’s skeleton immigration policy. They do it for reasons of personal conviction and faith, and they often do it for little to no money.
Religious institutions have long been involved in the safe asylum movement. Many religious leaders make public statements about human dignity, both through their theology and their actions — although the two do not always align. Many leaders have recently spoken out against inhumane treatment of families fleeing violence or poverty. And yet some religious communities remain silent. Often I found it was these smaller interfaith networks that forthrightly told me their faith was the motivating factor in their work, even as multiple faiths were represented and even as they try to fly under the political radar.
The soulless performance art from the aforementioned governors is reportedly to assist migrants in getting to sanctuary cities where there are more resources. They are correct that metropolitan sanctuary cities sometimes have more infrastructure for immigrants, although border communities have a specialized experience due in part to their geography. But virtually no infrastructure in any state — from the border community of Brownsville, Texas, to the 15-bedroom communal shelter home in Chicago where I worked — has the capacity to respond to the current surge.
Here is an example of why interfaith networks have been so crucial. As a byproduct of their communication, shelter staff in these networks were among the first to see there is a growing need for long-term shelters in immigrant infrastructure.
They hear firsthand how newly arrived migrant families do not have the usual relatives to stay with in the United States. Their first asylum trial may be more than two years after they are “processed,” and there is no place to live in the meantime. But they come anyway. This is a new-ish trend.
Even now in September 2022, I scan the headlines for an echo of shelter staffs’ intel and can find almost nothing. All I see is the word “crisis.”
It is true that those on the religious right have always had the loudest voice promoting fear and misinformation that migrants negatively affect the economy and crime. Voices on the religious left are less likely to be in the spotlight. They have less headline-catching things to say, often repeating Matthew 25:35 from the New Testament, which calls us to welcome the “stranger” (often translated as “foreigner” in the ancient Greek).
After my work this summer interviewing religious migrant organizations around the country, I have a hunch that one reason for their tentative voices is simply because they are too busy.
They are trying to co-create with migrants some semblance of a path through the migratory muck, and it takes all their energy. They don’t have time for a quippy comeback when Trump’s pastor cites a “biblical responsibility to protect our borders.” They often don’t want to speak to the press because they do not want their names in the papers.
It is not uncommon for migrants to show up on their doorstep having mysteriously been given the organization’s address on a piece of paper, and even to have consequently carried it for months through jungles and deserts. These days, shelter organizations are consistently full; but they also can’t bear to turn away even one individual. They are in this because of their values, after all.
Yet shelter staff continued to invite me into their conversations. The invisible networks began to show themselves. I attended informal Zoom meetings for shelters in the Midwest, the Southwest, a cluster around San Antonio and California. I sat in on national webinars to hear about re-housing in DC after the latest “busing” drop-off.
Once, I somehow ended up in a wonderfully thoughtful working group with Episcopal leadership on how the church should respond to immigration policy, where I heard discussed in small groups everything from practical political suggestions to immigration theology.
It was not unusual for me to meet individual people who, when there is no room at the proverbial inn, welcome people just out of detention to stay with them for months at a time. This is even how one of the older shelters told me they were founded.
Often when I speak to liberal-leaning folks about my work, there is a knowing nod of agreement. Immigration reform is a necessity, we all know. When I say I work with religious groups — mostly Judeo-Christian groups, and lately a lot of Catholic sisters — there is some hesitancy. Some assume religious work is usually conservative, that its purpose is evangelizing above all else, and that the “dangers” involved with religious affiliations are not worth it.
I am here to tell you that while some on the Christian right continue to be swayed by xenophobia, at this very moment religious organizations are doing some of the most grassroots, radical, hard work there is to welcome the afflicted. They do it with grace and grit, they work across political and religious differences, and they have been doing it for decades.
My hope is that we acknowledge their work, fund their efforts without fear and help nuance the narrative about religion’s place in our nation.
(Charlotte Long is a master of divinity student at the University of Chicago. She has worked with migrant shelters, led a research project to map out migrant shelters in the US and taught on the theology of global service in the Episcopal Church. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)