‘Loving our neighbor’
Chico churches pursue development of asylum-seeker sponsorship program
Clarity came as the holiday season approached.
The story of Christmas, Pastor Ben Colahan told the CN&R, is the story of a family in search of a place to stay. As Colahan was preparing to deliver sermons on the topic to his congregation at Faith Lutheran Church in Chico, he said he and a colleague recognized that there are many families fleeing their home countries to seek refuge in the United States.
A story not often told, the pastor said, is the one of Jesus’ flight to Egypt after he was born. Mary and Joseph fled to safety with Jesus, avoiding an atrocity carried out by King Herod, who slaughtered all the male babies in Bethlehem.
“And so to preach with integrity,” Colahan said, “we felt we had to address the way that Christ is present in our world—today—at Christmas.”
Colahan has since linked with the Rev. Gail Hill of Chico First Baptist Church to pursue the development of a local program to sponsor a family or individual applying for asylum in the U.S. The goal is to pool enough resources through a network of churches and community organizations to house, feed and care for asylum-seekers in Chico as they navigate a sometimes years-long court process.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review received about 120,000 “defensive” applications—migrants facing removal proceedings—for asylum in 2017, up from 73,000 the year before, according to U.S. Department of Justice data. A total of about 26,500 people were granted asylum that year, with the leading countries of origin being China, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Currently, the local sponsorship program—which would comply with federal guidelines—is in the research and exploration phase. A team comprising members of both churches and others in the community has been seeking information and foreseeing obstacles that could lie ahead, such as providing health care, finding housing and securing donations—both material and financial.
Perhaps above all, the pastor said, is avoiding the possibility of burnout. Any developed program would not be a one-time, feel-good event, he said. A commitment will be needed to support a family for multiple years, not only providing for basic needs and transportation but also helping to convey what it means to be an American, what it means to be a resident of the North State.
“There will be days when we get frustrated,” Colahan said. “There will be days when we want to walk away. … We have to make sure there’s a large enough team that when some of us get tired and need a break there are others who can continue to walk with the family so that no one person has to have strength to go the distance alone.”
There is no established timeline to launch, but Colahan said the team is working with some urgency. Every day a local program does not exist, he said, is another day someone remains in a detention facility—possibly separated from their family—at the expense of taxpayers.
“No one in our congregation wants that,” the pastor said, adding that support for a sponsorship program within his church has run across the political spectrum.
The team, he said, is ready to present more information about its findings to the community at large, having conversations with service-oriented organizations and feeling out “who else in Chico feels called to do this ministry?” A public meeting is scheduled for Sunday (see infobox).
Churches spearheading programs to sponsor asylum-seekers is not a new idea. Lynn Zender is the coordinator for the Families Together Project at Episcopal Church of St. Martin in Davis. The project launched in January 2019 and is currently caring for two asylum-seeking families from Guatemala.
Zender told the CN&R that the project comprises interfaith collaboration between several churches and a Jewish congregation. She noted the Episcopal church wouldn’t have been able to run the project with only its own resources.
The project fits within the church’s social justice and outreach program, she said, but there was a learning curve to overcome once families began arriving last spring. In the beginning, one family of six was being sponsored in a volunteer’s home. Several months later, officials recognized an apartment-living situation would better fit the family’s needs. That required finding a way to provide for rent and utilities.
Nevertheless, the experience has been positive, Zender said, and the project’s leadership has begun discussions to explore a possible long-term organizational structure to sponsor more asylum-seekers.
“We did not anticipate,” she said, “how bonded we would be feeling with these families.”
Back in Chico, Hill, the reverend at Chico First Baptist Church, told the CN&R her interest in such a program stemmed from a visit to the border city of Tijuana during an immersion trip partially facilitated through American Baptist International Ministries. She said she wanted to travel there to meet with people on both sides of the border and hear their stories.
Hill spoke with border patrol agents as well as migrants from Haiti, Russia and elsewhere. She learned about the persecution and dangerous conditions they were fleeing, and their hopes for crossing the border into the U.S. to seek refuge.
Pursuing an asylum-seeking sponsorship program in Chico to help someone in need, Hill said, would be consistent with practicing one’s faith outwardly.
“It’s truly about loving our neighbor,” she said. “And I think building a wall is one of the most horrendous ways in which we say, We don’t love you.”