Last year, we formed a small team from the congregation focused around issues of justice and compassion. Our hope was to identify potential areas of engagement in our neighborhood that we could invite our congregation into. Initially, we connected with San Diego Refugee Tutoring, an organization that tutors refugee students at an elementary school about a mile from our church. After getting to know some of the students and their families, we identified the refugee and immigrant community as one we wanted to continue to pursue a relationship with and come alongside.
Shortly after, I went on an immersion trip to Tijuana for a weekend with an organization called Global Immersion. We stayed at a migrant shelter and got to witness some of the realities of the border and hear from folks doing work on the ground. When the migrant caravans started to gain momentum, I received an email from Global Immersion with a list of urgent needs for asylum seekers, one of which was physical space. They informed me of the work Safe Harbors was doing and I realized that we were less than a mile from them! They connected me with Bill and we began talking about possibilities.
For the past six months, we have explored multiple scenarios of what a Covenant-Safe Harbors partnership could look like. We went through a process with our board where we approved taking in 8-12 folks. We then held meeting with 20 folks in our congregation, a “next layer” of inviting folks into the process, where we invited feedback and concerns. We were surprised at how little pushback there was. During this time, another organization who we work closely with, Hope for San Diego, hosted Matt Soerens from World Relief to come and do a workshop on immigration and asylum seeking where we invited other churches to attend. We had almost 100 folks in attendance, and the spirit in the room in addition to the beauty of having at least seven different churches represented was momentum building.
During this time, other folks from our individual and church networks voiced that they would want to be a part of whatever framework is established in a Covenant/Safe Harbors partnership (i.e. financially, meals, transportation needs, kids’ involvement, donating items, etc.) However, we have also encountered a number of obstacles.
A few tensions we find ourselves in:
We have a large building, fully paid off, but don’t currently have the financial resources to utilize it at full capacity (for example, to simply get new flooring, paint, and sound proofing in the gym would cost at minimum $100K). Thus, we have been exploring options for ways to use some of our space as a means of revenue. We have had a number of proposals for the space, some including the gym, which is one of the only remaining spaces we have that we feel could pass fire code.
The up-front costs just to get to a trial run are such that I think we need to identify what the ceiling is of what we are open to. The rooms we were going to house 8-12 folks were on a second floor, and do not pass fire code. So we have had to explore other options. There’s a scenario where Covenant is a decent sized “shelter” for Safe Harbors which would require significant funding and additional staff/volunteer positions, houses 50-75 asylum seekers and partners with local resettlement agencies in getting them placed and builds a bridge to the community and invites collaboration. For us as a church, the Jeremiah 29 potential here—to “seek the peace of your city,” is exciting. Obviously, the barriers there are extremely significant. But as we go forward in this process, we will need to discern our limitations and capacity as a church—at this point that looks like either opening up our homes, volunteering at other sites, or continuing to explore what it would take to make our gym into a shelter.
An additional risk is that the realities of the border and the decisions of the government are so in flux. If the President bans all asylum seeking at the border, that will most likely impact the need for emergency shelters.
As we are in process, we remain hopeful and open to possibilities as we seek to discern what a partnership looks like. We have a desire to come alongside asylees and are grateful for the work that Bill and Safe Harbors has done and how you’ve stood in the gap for so many of these folks.
Pat Little, Creative Arts & Community Outreach Director Covenant Church