UCC congregations address humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied migrant children

UCC congregations address humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied migrant children

July 07, 2014
Written by Emily Mullins

They are coming to the United States in waves. Thousands of unaccompanied children, primarily from Central America, are crossing the border into the U.S. from Mexico, looking to escape violence and poverty at home. To address this humanitarian crisis, President Obama plans to ask Congress on Tuesday for more than $2 billion in emergency funding to help the children seeking refuge, as lawmakers and federal agencies wrestle with ways to stem the flow.

While this urgent and ever-changing situation is leaving many to feel helpless, United Church of Christ members and congregations throughout the country are stepping up to do what they can to help these children in need.

"When this story first hit our television screens, as an American, I was profoundly ashamed as I watched angry local residents shouting at innocent children with fear-filled faces," said the Rev. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries. "However, the outpouring of care, protection, and support for these frightened children by thousands of local volunteers all across our nation renewed my faith in human generosity and compassion being demonstrated in the face of this tragic set of circumstances."

On Tuesday, dozens of congregations from the Southern California Nevada Conference of the UCC will be represented in a faith-based delegation that will travel to the Port Hueneme facility on the Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, Calif., that is currently housing hundreds of migrant children. Organized by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the United Methodist Church, the group will seek entrance into the naval base to ensure transparency and oversight at the facility, assess its conditions, and advocate for the children being held inside.

"Once we hear back from the delegation in Ventura, we will know more about the needs there and how we can assist," said Keith Clark, executive associate conference minister of the Southern California Nevada Conference. "It's a situation where we will have to assess what is being done and how we can help with the immediate situation. I'm sure there will also be advocacy for the broader issues involved."

The Southern California Nevada Conference is also urging its congregations to send supplies to the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, which is collecting donations to distribute to the young refugees. Items of immediate need include baby wipes, diapers, baby formula, baby food, bottles, antibacterial lotions/dispensers, juice boxes and sealed snacks.

"We are called to care for the least of these and called to greet and care for the immigrant as well," Clark said. "It's the responsibility of the faith community and the UCC to meet the needs of these strangers who have come into our midst, and to help communities understand how we can have a loving response to those who are seeking our help."

University City United Church UCC in San Diego is collecting supplies to be delivered through Alliance San Diego and the Interfaith Center for Worker Justice of San Diego County. While the children are receiving basic care at the detention centers, items donated will be distributed to them as they leave the facilities to meet family members or go to foster homes, said the Rev. Jane Heckles, interim minister at University City United Church. Heckles is also encouraging people with bilingual households to consider providing a foster home to a child waiting for his or her court date.

"There may be a need for safe foster homes," she said.

Members of Silver City UCC in Silver City, N.M., are also rallying to assist the migrant women and children who have arrived in their state. The Federal Law Enforcement and Training Center in Artesia, N.M., is currently housing more than 700 refugees, and another center in Las Cruces, N.M., is housing 200 more. Silver City UCC is spearheading its community's effort to collect supplies and seek volunteers to support the work of N.M. Communities in Action and Faith (CAFe). On Monday, July 7, the congregation issued an appeal to the community calling for donations of items such as clothing, toiletries, food and toys.

"I think that it's all very fluid right now," Tyler Connoley, pastor of Silver City UCC, said of the situation. "But I'm really proud that it is UCC churches that are on the forefront of welcoming the stranger, just like we always have been."

Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., is another U.S. military base housing hundreds of migrant children, ranging in age from eight to 18. The Oklahoma Conference of Churches, of which the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the UCC is a member, has established a task force to determine specific ways churches can respond to this crisis, and has partnered with several state and national organizations. A private company from San Antonio has been contracted by the federal government to handle the physical care of the children at Fort Sill, so the OCC has identified personnel needs such as bilingual clinicians, counselors, translators, case workers, and attorneys.

While the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference plans to pass this information on to its churches, Edith Guffey, conference minister and a communion leader of the OCC, said the barriers between advocates and the children they are trying to help make this crisis different than others the church has addressed in the past.

"We have realized that churches can't do their usual thing," Guffey said. "We can't get in to see the kids, we have no ability to be in contact or offer spiritual support for these children."

But all help, no matter the kind, is welcomed. As Jaramillo said, "I am deeply grateful for people of every faith tradition who are working with community organizations to provide needed humanitarian supplies to take care of these precious children of God."

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