The problem of the refugee is as old as Scripture itself, as new as the latest headline. But what happens when they come to our door? That's the question we at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church recently faced.
St. Bartholomew's sits high upon a hill in north Poway overlooking Rancho Bernardo. Though growing in numbers, it has only one small sanctuary and a larger parish hall. Yet it nonetheless opens its doors to more than 35 groups.
With such a strain on budget and buildings, how can we still be caring and open to the stranger by our door?
For more than a year, a small group of friendly Guatemalans lived in the hills at night, coming down on Sundays to worship. Prayer books and Bibles in their language were purchased for them.
Then something happened. The group grew from four to seven to 12, and, instead of living in the hills, they began camping in a covered alcove at the church. They said they wanted to stay for just a few days. Parishioners provided contributions of cash, food, clothing and blankets.
But those days rolled into weeks.
Now, when 12 humans try to live in a 5-by-6-foot area, problems are going to arise. Though the patio area and alcove are brightly lighted at night, the refugees burned candles inside this fragile wooden structure. Bathrooms were made available during the day, but were seldom used. Garbage piled up because no one took it to the church bin only 30 yards away. Something had to give.
We had to try to find an alternative--for their health and the well-being of the church.
Numerous social service agencies were contacted, to no avail. Other outdoor camping areas were suggested, but the refugees said no.
Then one day the refugees approached us with a young man who appeared to be a leader. Through an interpreter we explained the parish's position. The Guatemalans agreed to leave the church within seven days. Seven days came and went, but the group did not disperse.
The congregation was torn between showing compassion for the Guatemalans and obeying the immigration laws and health codes. While Caesar may render the law, it is God who determines if it be just.
After seeking legal advice from city and county officials, church leaders voted to evict the refugees.
After two months of providing shelter and food, we asked them all to leave--again.
That's when all heaven broke loose. Other clergy criticized us, saying that St. Bart's parishioners should open up their homes to the Guatemalans. We challenged our critics to put their money where their mouths were: "You take six of the Guatemalans right now and we'll take the other six." Their response was: "They didn't come to my church. They came to your church. It's your church that has to deal with the situation."
Out of the brouhaha, we were able to locate a free shelter in Escondido for six of the refugees, but still they refused to leave. A few days later, Jeffrey Frantz, one of the ministers who had criticized St. Bartholomew's, acknowledged that St. Bartholomew's had indeed done all it felt it could do, and it was time his church did something. Now the Community Church of Poway is housing nine of the refugees in their fellowship hall. (The other three moved on.) And our two churches are holding an open community forum today to look at the political situation in Guatemala that forces the refugees to move here, what their situation is when they arrive in Southern California and what solutions there are to reach those in need.
Looking back on this crisis, what did I learn? Plenty.
I learned that most will pass the buck but never pass the hat. Lots of folks had good advice, but few had helping hands. I learned that when it comes to housing the migrant, it's like discussing the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody seems to be able to do anything about it. I learned that We tend to want a cheap supply of labor in the daytime and a no-cost housing solution at night.
I don't think there is any one solution to sheltering the strangers that come into our land. But, if some laws were changed, it would be a little easier to provide at least some refuge.
Building codes could be eased to allow "substandard" (though adequate) housing. Small tent cities might be permitted on public lands. Schools could house a few homeless each night. And there needs to be a Samaritan law so the average citizen who wants to help is protected from lawsuits.
Churches alone cannot handle the problem; they can only deal with some of the symptoms. Cities are ill-equipped to stand up to the political firestorm of public opinion. The county, state and federal governments can't seem to agree on whose responsibility it is or should be. So we're caught in a Catch-22 tunnel that can see no light, nor offer a solution.
This crisis will not change my insistence that St. Bartholomew's continue to feed the hungry, clothe the needy and soothe the suffering of those who ask. No other North County church gives so large a percentage of its money to help the least, the last and the lost.
I realize there are some who say that we should not have helped the refugees in the first place. Perhaps.
But one cannot be a Christian without tears of compassion nor a follower of Christ without pain on a cross.