When we needed to have some things done around our house a few years ago, we were given a few referrals to some men who reportedly did great work. While they were at our home, we engaged in conversations with them about their lives and families. We invited their families over for meals and learned more about the tight-knit Hispanic community within our larger community.
Communication was definitely a challenge (we don’t speak Spanish), but we stumbled along and grew to care deeply for these families who emanated joy and hospitality despite having very little as if it was their privilege to care for us. We went to a baby shower (essentially a church service and party) at their church with about 100 people and we were the only white people in attendance. Still, our friends had everything translated to English so our family could understand.
I decided to ask a few of the women if they would be interested in learning English together. We started meeting weekly in my home and it was the highlight of my week! There was a lot of laughter as we shared, learned, and grew together. Over the summer, we held potlucks at a local park which brought out their families and friends’ families as well as others who wanted to come alongside and get to know these neighbors. The food was amazing.
We also held an official ESL Training for volunteers through Ministry to North America. We were excited to launch an ESL Ministry at the Mennonite Church in September 2019. We put flyers up around the community and had about 35 adults (and lots of kids) come through our doors on registration night. We held three levels of classes on Thursday nights as well as Wednesday morning women’s class. The church gym was bustling with kids on Thursdays, and we had volunteers that led them in activities, crafts, and games. It felt like a taste of heaven where cultures, races, languages, and people made in God’s image connected and built bridges.
Meeting Eva through her husband, who painted our house, changed my life. Her English was not perfect but we could communicate enough for a friendship to grow. She helped me understand what life was like for this community. She and her husband have four beautiful children (and two more in Guatemala). They live very modestly and quietly, and they love Jesus. They want their kids to be happy, healthy, to get a good education, and to become contributing members of society.
They want the same things we want for our own children. It is why they came to America. Eva and her husband have lived here for 13 years and desired to pursue U.S. citizenship. They hired a lawyer who ended up being corrupt and making their situation worse. When Eva was pulled over by police on her way to ESL classes one evening for no apparent reason, she was arrested for not having a license. She was found to be undocumented and told that she could be deported.
She reached out to our family and we met with them, listened to them, cried, and prayed with them. I discovered a tremendous resource in a local grassroots organization called Immigrant Rights Action/ Grupo de Accion. Jenny, the amazing director there guided us to a highly reputed immigration lawyer as well as a criminal lawyer for the traffic violation. I learned the value and importance of accompaniment.
I went with Eva to the meetings with these lawyers and ensured that she was treated fairly, but also just to provide her support. I used my privilege, which was simply my presence. When it came time for her and her husband’s immigration hearing, my mom and I took the train with them (their first time) to Philadelphia and sat in the courtroom as case after case was heard and ruled upon by the judge.
Thankfully, their case was extended and they have a few more years to build it. We rejoiced when she was given a social security number and work papers and she quickly signed up, took, and passed her driver’s license test. She went to criminal court for not having a license with her newly acquired license in hand. The judge was impressed with her determination and tenacity and dismissed the fine completely. Eva dreams of owning her own café, and it is my honor and privilege to be able to market her delicious creations, learning and helping her navigate all that is required, and building inroads and bridges within our communities.
Our ESL Ministry was forced to close its doors when Covid hit in March 2020. We tried to stay in touch with technology and front door visits, but it felt like a wall went back up between our two communities. Those of us with immune-compromised loved ones had to take precautions which meant physically distancing from our immigrant neighbors, many of whom had to keep working in order to pay bills and survive. The need to keep working made them more vulnerable to contracting the virus which made our interactions seem even riskier. I thought about them crammed in their apartment buildings while we were able to at least play in our yard, walk safely in our neighborhood, and even swim at my parents’ pool. It did not seem fair.
Then one of the men in our ESL Ministry did get the virus. He was a pastor who preached from his pizza shop or wherever you encountered him. He and his wife, originally from Guatemala, have three sons and have lived here for eight years. His status quickly declined, and he was placed on life support. His wife and church community prayed and fasted for his healing. His wife and oldest son reached out to us for help when they felt the doctors were pressuring them to take him off of life support.
We called the hospital and spoke to the medical staff. We attended the meeting with them when the doctor explained (via a computer translator) that everything possible had been done. We ensured that they were being treated like we would hope we would be treated. When he passed away, we went to the funeral which was unlike anything we had ever attended, and we didn’t understand many of the words sung or spoken. But the nonverbal language of grief and mourning was completely understood. It was one of the most holy and sacred experiences of my life.
When a mom reached out mid-summer for help with her son who had floundered in the virtual learning of Spring Kindergarten, one of our amazing ESL volunteers prayed about it and said “yes” to the opportunity. They began meeting at a park two nights a week for tutoring. She brought books and activities and his mom couldn’t believe his progress in such a short time. Others began approaching them to ask if they could also receive help. And just like that, “school at the park” began. One night a week, we rolled out a mobile library, a bin of activities and resources, and eager kids gathered with masks to meet with volunteers under a pavilion. The volunteers might have been more excited than the kids as we felt frustrated having been isolated and desiring to DO something with bottled up time, energy, and privilege we have.
School at the park became a highlight of the week for many of us as we laughed, learned, and experienced life together if even for one hour. When school started and the days grew colder and darker faster, we were given permission to move into a beautiful newly renovated shopping facility around the corner from the park. Most of the kids and families live in apartment buildings surrounding the park so meeting nearby eased the burden of transportation which is an obstacle for many. We are keeping our program small right now for everyone’s protection but we have a handful of elementary-aged kids, middle schoolers, a few high schoolers, and a moms group meeting each week. They have invited us into a corner of their lives and we feel honored to know them and to witness God’s image in them.
One of the most rewarding aspects of being a “mom of welcome” is the faith-fueled participation, diverse relationships, and spiritual growth of my whole family. It is serving alongside my husband and seeing our kids live out the Bible in practical ways that are fun and life-giving while also recognizing the weight of injustice, inequality, and oppression. It is stepping into the essence of welcoming the stranger, loving your neighbor, and taking care of the least of these regardless of what the world or politicians have to say about them.
When a teenager from Honduras who grew up in America says she has never been to a home or an event of a white person— we lament the chasm between our communities that isn’t an ocean or a border but a frame of mind. We know that the current state of the world isn’t a surprise to God and that He created and equipped us for such a time as this—to show His love, to shine His light, to be His hands and feet. As the world with Covid exposes even more disparities and division between our ethnic communities, we pray for peace and protection in the privilege and blessing of welcoming and of being welcomed by our immigrant neighbors.
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.” - Mother Theresa
Written by Women of Welcome community member, Kristin Burleigh