Singing God’s Song of Hope—In early December 2016, the people of San Antonio Mennonite Church (SAMC) were witnesses to hope. They heard the stories of some of the 500 asylum-seeking moms who risked everything to get themselves and their children to safety and a better life. In the four days that a local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Detention Center released a flood of traumatized mothers and children and the media flooded in, SAMC had the opportunity to witness to God’s faithfulness as they offered short-term housing in every corner of their church building for these refugees. They had the chance to “sing God’s song of hope” in public witness as few churches have.
A Strange and Wonderful Song that Christmas—Why did so many women and children end up crowded into this church? The ICE Detention Center in the area lost their court battle to become a legal “child care center” where children were housed with potentially dangerous adults not related to them. So, in less than a week, around 500 women and children seeking asylum from violence in their home countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were released, whether or not they had anywhere to go from there. Members of SAMC had been working quietly with others for eighteen months to see that the regular stream of asylum seekers routinely released from detention in San Antonio had a safe place for a day or two until they could travel to be with family in the U.S. The Interfaith Welcome Committee had been ministering to 500 people a month, not 500 people in less than a week. Church members and other volunteers quickly saw the desperate need for sleeping space, so Christmas decorations were removed “to make room for a living nativity,” according to San Antonio Mennonite Church pastor John Garland. After hours of finding more space for more people who were released in the middle of the night, an exhausted Garland sat in his office that overlooked the sanctuary trying to find peace at 4 a.m. as hundreds of mothers and children below were finally settling down somewhat. He covered his ears to block out the reality, and to rest. Then he heard a woman singing a lullaby, not quietly, either. It was a lullaby for many mothers and children, and it was a song of hope.
A Song of Comic Dissonance—God was at work not just in the church building. God was and is clearly working in the hearts and minds of neighbors nearby. SAMC sits in a neighborhood known for people who “don’t do institutional church.” Yet, as the days went on, the church became packed with neighborhood volunteers. Several remarked on the comedy of this. They had not been in a church for so long, yet here they were willingly. They didn’t realize Christians cared about this sort of thing, yet here they were working together with Christ’s followers engaged in work they all cared about. God was at work breaking down preconceived notions about who Christians are and what they do and don’t do. Garland notes, “God doesn’t seem to care so much about our beliefs, but about how we’re acting them out in our neighborhoods.”
A Song of Solidarity—“It was a strange time for those four days with the crazy influx of people,” says Garland. “There were crazy amounts of media coverage with reporters crying and thanking us. The Church was getting all this popular publicity. Then it hit us, we’ve gotten the publicity, but we realize the real heroes, the real witnesses to hope, are the women who risk everything. We’re honored to touch God’s story in these families. We stand with them for a few days cheering them on.”
A Song of Pain and Injustice—The strange situation at SAMC in early December highlighted by the media is just a tiny piece of a much bigger, harder-to-solve puzzle. It includes the challenges of the violence in the asylum seekers’ home countries, the terrifying drug cartels, then the danger of being caught up in human trafficking when they make it across our borders and out of detention. Garland mused about these terrible complexities: “People who make it from their home countries to northern Mexico are stuck between a rock and a hard place—getting turned away at the U.S. border, and ending up in very dangerous areas. They end up in churches in areas [of Mexico] controlled by the drug cartels. Some of these churches have been reaching out to Mennonite Central Committee. But then the question becomes how to help and not hurt unintentionally? How do you financially support churches, when you’re afraid that doing so will put the church leaders at risk of kidnapping and extortion?” These are painful questions that hang in the air.
A Song of Praise—Even with the forces of evil doing “nasty things” that could easily overwhelm some of us, John Garland finds reasons to praise God. “Thanks to God for the work God is doing and thanks for the witness of the heroes of faith we’re seeing coming through our city.” The work continues. The witness continues. The song goes on. “We need to continue to sing that song of hope that God is doing amazing things out of nothing—bringing love, hope and caretaking.” Thanks be to God!
–Kathy Neufeld Dunn, WDC Associate Conference Minister (Kansas-Based) interview with John Garland, Pastor, San Antonio Mennonite Church