By Rolly Loomis, Inn Project Coordinator
Hundreds of people a day are fleeing across the Southern Border into the United States. There is a current wave of people coming from Central America, many single parents with children. Large numbers are also coming from Mexico and a few from other countries throughout the world. People are escaping from violence, war, political persecution and extreme poverty. Most of these people are apprehended. Mexican nationals are returned to Mexico. and others are placed in detention.
In early December 2016, a high-level official from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contacted Bishop Robert Hoshibata of the Desert Southwest Conference of The United Methodist Church. ICE predicted an influx of Central American single parents and children seeking asylum at the border. The ICE official went on to explain the shortage of detention space as well as the desire not to place parents with children in detention centers or merely drop them off at bus stations and Walmart parking lots to fend for themselves. This problem occurred a few years ago and caused considerable human suffering. Many refugees, most unable to speak English, were stuck in bus stations and parking lots, abandoned for days, trying to maneuver this strange world. Fortunately, several faith communities, including some United Methodist churches in Tucson, organized to assist people at the Greyhound station in Tucson.
The ICE official asked Bishop Hoshibata if there might be churches in Tucson that would be able to take in the asylum seekers who would soon arrive. The request was for each church to take in as many as fifty people. Bishop Hoshibata asked churches to respond.
In Mid December 2016, Rev. Beth Rambikur of First United Methodist Church Tucson called an emergency Council meeting following Sunday worship. There was much discussion.
How many? Don’t know.
What are the costs? Don’t know.
Will ICE help pay the bills? No.
It was Christmas time, and the conversation soon congealed around welcoming the stranger. Over Two thousand years ago Mary and Joseph had to flee their home to protect the soon to be born Christ Child. They were asylum seekers in a strange land. When the birth was imminent, the couple sought shelter at an Inn. There was no room for them.
Stepping out on faith and hope, First United Methodist Church Tucson was moved to make room at the Inn. Plans for a shelter, called the Inn, in the church basement began. 45 beds were set up, and installations of a washer, dryer, and an additional shower began. Donations were accepted. Clothing, food, towels, bedding, backpacks, toys, toiletries. We asked The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) for an Emergency grant of $13,000. They gave us $60,000. Other money rolled in totaling almost $100,000.
Soon Christ Church United Methodist, under the leadership of Rev. Mark Lansberry, set up an additional shelter and shared the general resources of the Inn Project.
An online volunteer registration form was setup by the Desert Southwest Conference. Volunteers from throughout the community of Tucson gave their time regardless of their church affiliation. Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists came together to show compassion toward strangers. To date, we have registered over 250 volunteers. Providing round the clock coverage for a full week at First United Methodist Tucson Inn Project meant 56 volunteer shifts. The count does not include the work of the volunteer cooking staff under the leadership of Roy DeBise and Ann Goff which provided almost 5,000 meals for our guests and volunteers. Our volunteer coordinator, Mary Lynne DeMarinis, did an outstanding job using an online calendar to schedule volunteers. To date, we logged over 4,500 volunteer hours that equates to a dollar value of over $100,000.
Saint James UMC and Catalina UMC provided space and coordinated efforts to receive donations.
During a typical day at the Inn, guests are dropped off by ICE in the church parking lot. Each guest has traveling papers and a future hearing date with ICE in their new community. We don’t know how many days, weeks, or months each guest traveled through extreme conditions before arriving at the Inn. I greet each guest the same way.
“I am Pastor Rolly Loomis. We are in Tucson Arizona, about 50 miles North of the border. This is my church and your home for a few days. We are very happy that you are here, Welcome!”
Our guests are led into the Inn and immediately given a bed. We offer them food and begin the orientation. Many take showers and find clean clothes to wear. They are welcome to use the washer and dryer to clean their clothes which are often grimy from their travels. We sit down with each guest and go through an intake process to determine where the guest is going. Phones are provided for the guest to contact friends and family who will purchase bus tickets to their destination.
Children immediately begin to play with one another. Games and toys abound. There is a large screen TV that usually plays a children’s movie in Spanish. Adults converse and become friends, often helping to clean or cook for each other. Jamie Booth, the site coordinator at Christ Church once told me that whenever she picks up a broom, a guest will take it from her and begin to sweep. Within a short time, the guests become family. The downtrodden faces transform into joyful expressions.
Most guests stay 1 to 2 days, some more, a few have stayed for almost a week. It often takes the family established in the US many days to raise bus fare. On any given day our census has ranged between 0 and 45.
Throughout the day our guests receive word from their families. They receive a confirmation number on the Greyhound to their new home. A volunteer is contacted to provide a ride to the bus station. The guests assemble their belongings into a backpack provided by donors. Volunteers pack a large bag of ready to eat food items into a cloth shopping bag that will hopefully last the 2-4 day journey. Tearful goodbyes are the norm as guests leave the Inn, a stopping place on their journey home.
As of the end of July. The Inn Project has cared for and reunited over 1,000 people with their families all over the country. UMCOR says the Inn Project is “nothing short of miraculous.” It’s a model for future projects of this kind in other communities along the border.
The rate of immigration of this sort slowed down in April and May. Christ Church combined efforts with First Church into one location. We had an upswing in July and August. The Inn is still open and receiving guests.
Gretchen Lokey, the site coordinator for the First Church Inn, recently told me of a woman who stayed at the Inn. Several months ago, her husband passed through the Inn and told her that it was a very good place where they would be provided wonderful care. This family, mother, father, and two children are now together.
Plans are underway to expand our work to other locations along the Border.