As the need for community sponsorship and Sponsor Circles increases, organizations and faith communities are stepping up to answer the call in their own ways. A recent Episcopal Migration Ministries’ “HomeTown” podcast explores how two parishes are doing just that.
St. Andrew’s Pentecost Episcopal Church and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, both in Evanston, Illinois, have partnered with RefugeeOne, the largest resettlement agency in Chicago, to do the critical work of welcome within their communities, embracing the opportunity to assist asylum seekers and refugees alike in the journey to start new lives in the U.S.
RefugeeOne has long partnered with Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM), including as a former local affiliate agency for EMM, which serves as one of nine national resettlement agencies in the U.S.
Mission: ‘Building community in a complicated world’
The partnership between St. Andrew’s Pentecost and St. Matthew’s began in 2017, with a goal to host shared events and study, often around prominent social justice issues. As a partnership, they dedicated themselves to standing in support of immigrants, asylees, and refugees, and communicating with leaders within The Episcopal Church who advocate for refugee and immigration policy, as well as local humanitarian organizations. Their work of education, advocacy, and action in support of refugees and asylum seekers also includes fundraising for sponsorship funds for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals applications.
In 2019, Episcopal Migration Ministries provided training and advocacy to more than 150 people in the community over two days.
An evolving mission: ‘Welcoming all in community, joyfully doing God’s work in the world’
The St. Andrew’s Pentecost/St. Matthew’s partnership includes a dedication to the mission of welcome through co-sponsorship, made possible by teaming up with RefugeeOne. Cynthia Doucet, member and organizer at St. Matthew’s, said initially they were uncertain about community sponsorship. The church had sponsored four or five people in the past, but it was decades ago, she said.
“We thought in the beginning that we might not have critical mass to actually sponsor a family,” she said. “And then we learned about the opportunity with RefugeeOne, and the idea of a co-sponsorship was just perfect for us.”
RefugeeOne handles many responsibilities that may be beyond the capacity of a faith organization, such as legal services, so that the sponsorship group can focus on its mission and evolution in this work. For the St. Matthew’s and St. Andrews Pentecost Partnership Committee, that meant also reimagining and growing into its new mission: welcoming all in community, joyfully doing God’s work in the world.
‘You are not alone’: The support of RefugeeOne
Kelli Wendt, RefugeeOne’s community engagement coordinator, noted, “It takes a strong partnership between a resettlement agency and community members” to help resettle individuals and families who have experienced significant trauma in their lives.
“Resettlement to a third country is sometimes a decade’s prolonged process for folks,” she said.
It takes many community members and agencies within a city to support families in multiple ways. From helping new neighbors learn a new language, to helping them enroll in a new school system and health care system, community support plays a crucial part. That is why RefugeeOne works so closely with co-sponsor teams, to assist them in a holistic way through programmatic and service-based support with employment and English classes and wellness services.
Families of welcome
The most rewarding part for members of the St. Andrew’s Pentecost/St. Matthew’s partnership is connecting with families. Team members build relationships with new arrivals, helping them become independent as well as find a sense of home and community in Chicago. Doucet noted, “We’re really excited to work with this team and others as well, just because we know it takes a village to welcome and to support families once they get here.”
Supporting families upon arrival, while exciting, is not without its challenges. The team elaborated on tactical challenges, including having enough people, communication with sub-teams, and facilitation of events, such as an earlier arrival than expected. Besides organizational challenges, interpersonal challenges remain, but they are a source of joy and an opportunity for learning within the team.
Wendt said it’s important to focus on walking alongside newcomers as they face different challenges, “and not to push them in a certain direction.” She recommends that teams work to creatively problem-solve in a way that centers the real needs of the person or family.
Community sponsorship rejuvenates and reinvigorates communities
Resettlement within the United States is often a long, arduous process, with many agencies at full capacity. In many ways, folks coming to the U.S. enter a system that is overwhelmed and underdeveloped. Despite that, Wendt noted that RefugeeOne has welcomed more than 500 Afghans, “more than the last three fiscal years combined.”
Episcopal Migration Ministries, along with the other nine national resettlement agencies, have helped more than 74,000 Afghan allies with resettlement and services with the help of its 11 affiliates across the U.S.
Unsurprisingly, that rapid increase has put strain on agencies like RefugeeOne and EMM. One solution to the overwhelm? Community sponsorship.
“It’s a huge job, and no one can do it alone,” Wendt said. “We’ve definitely learned even more so that we’re better when we work together. And we are excited that it has also reinvigorated our community to welcome and begin welcoming again.
“It has been amazing and inspiring to see all the different ways that congregations and other communities have stepped up to support Afghans and other families that are continuing to be welcomed as well,” she said.
And the urgent need for help continues.
“We do expect to welcome folks not only from Afghanistan for the next several months, but other families from across the globe,” Wendt said. “And we’re really excited and have been inspired, honestly, to see the way that communities of faith have stepped up in that way.”
Fueled by faith: ‘It begins with our baptismal covenant’
The church partnership team unanimously agreed that this critical work of welcome is deeply ingrained in their faith. As the Rev. Terri J. Morrissey of St. Matthew’s explained, “It begins with our baptismal covenant: ‘to seek and serve Christ in all persons,’ and to love one another as Christ called us to—and to respect the inherent dignity of every human being.”
If we are all God’s beloved children, Morrissey asserted, then no matter what religion, “this is work we are supposed to be doing.”
St. Andrew’s member Marta Humphreys noted that “in the Old Testament, God teaches us about kindness to a stranger. We can show this when people are at their lowest point, [or] confused. We have a place in our hearts that can touch them; we have the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to walk with them. Christ is not here in the flesh to walk with them. We are here.”
She expressed that the St. Andrew’s Pentecost / St. Matthew’s partnership is, to her, “a reflection of God’s plans for us. We care about love and support each other. And that opens us up to join in the voice, heart, and spirit of all who demand to live with respect, justice, and peace to contribute to making this world a better place for all.”
We need your help
EMM’s Neighbor to Neighbor program is an official Sponsor Circle Umbrella under the Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans. **We are in urgent need of sponsor circles to support the move of Afghan newcomers into welcoming communities in the coming weeks. You can play a critical role. Learn how you can be a community sponsor.
How to support and follow this ministry
To support this ministry of welcome, make a gift to Episcopal Migration Ministries. With your help, we will continue to welcome and resettle refugees in communities across the country, offer support to asylum seekers, and create beloved community for all our immigrant siblings. Visit episcopalmigrationministries.org/give, and be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram where we are @emmrefugees.