Small Arizona congregation reaches out to women and children seeking refuge

Small Arizona congregation reaches out to women and children seeking refuge

At 7 p.m. on a recent Saturday evening, the Rev. Alberta Wallace received a text message that took her a few minutes to fully comprehend. Sent from the community organizer of Yuma County Interfaith, a coalition of churches and nonprofits in Yuma County, Ariz., the message said that 16 women and children seeking refuge in the United States had been dropped off by U.S. Border Patrol in the parking lot of a local Walmart with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Soon after, the pastor of Yuma United Church of Christ and six members of her small congregation were among a group of volunteers who provided much-needed assistance to these refugees well into the night.

"If I hadn't lived it, I wouldn't even believe it," said Wallace. "You immediately go into crisis mode. Looking at their faces, you know these people really needed our help."

The 10 women and six children were spotted by a member of a local Catholic church who was shopping at Walmart and knew that "something wasn't right," Wallace said. After speaking with the women, she alerted her priest, who contacted the Yuma County Interfaith community organizer, who then reached out to the rest of the coalition. Each organization rallied to provide the resources they had available – one church provided housing for the night, another group provided transportation, Yuma UCC provided clothing, toiletries, diapers, water and food. Individuals offered their cell phones so the women could contact family members in the U.S. who bought them bus tickets, and another organization provided access to the computers and printers used to print them.

Each woman and child had been apprehended, detained, processed and released, and had probation papers allowing them to stay in the U.S. until their scheduled court dates. But with court dates in places as far away as Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami, and with no money or access to phones or transportation, they had little chance of getting where they were required to be. It was clear they hadn't had a shower or a proper meal in days, Wallace said, adding that one woman's three-month-old baby had a 104-degree fever. But with the help of volunteers from Yuma County Interfaith, each person was fed, clothed, provided access to showers, medical care and a safe place to sleep, and were on their way to connect with family within 48 hours. 

Yuma County Interfaith did the same for two more groups – one containing 14 refugees and the other containing 40 – that were dropped off shortly after.

"I sat stunned while they told their story," said the Rev. John Dorhauer, conference minister of the Southwest Conference of the UCC. "[Yuma UCC] is a very small church in a very conservative part of the state, and this itty bitty church was the one that met the need. They embody everything that is good about our UCC, and I am so proud of them."

While some municipalities are able to provide refugees with bus tickets to help them reach family or court date locations, Yuma County is unable to offer that assistance, Wallace said. So Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement drop groups off in public places with the expectation that they will find their way. Yuma County Interfaith met with the Yuma mayor on July 15 to request his assistance in making contact with Border Patrol officials, asking to be notified when and where they plan to drop groups off. Wallace said Yuma County Interfaith has also asked store managers of common drop-off locations to alert them when new groups arrive, so they can begin the relief process all over again.  

"Because of influxes coming in, [the government] can't house people – they can only apprehend, detain, process, and get them out," Wallace said. "We are trying to at least be part of the humanitarian effort of helping them get where they need to go. That's all we want."

Yuma UCC is a renewing community with about 15 members during the summer months. As the church discussed the previous night's events during worship the next day, many members of the congregation were in tears, wondering how people can treat one another this way. Despite the frustration, the small, but mighty, group plans to continue to make a big impact in the lives of others.

"We are a community with a big heart and we do big tasks with few hands and feet," said Wallace. "But we get it done."

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