One Too Many: The Tragic Intersection of COVID-19 and Immigration

LUCHA Ministries, Inc. recently lost its first client to the coronavirus. In addition to grief and loss, immigrants must also deal with the impact that the loss may have on the immigration status of others in the family.

by Greg Smith, Immigration Legal Services Program Director

2,757,339.  On this day, as I write this blog, that is the number of global deaths due to COVID-19.  546,825.  That is the total number of US deaths.  1.  That is the total number of clients LUCHA Ministries Immigration Legal Services have lost to the coronavirus.

That’s one too many.

Over the years, I’ve learned that an immigrant’s legal status in the US (or lack thereof) affects not only her or him but can have significant consequences for the entire family.  Positively, gaining citizenship opens all kinds of doors for the immigrant’s immediate family.  Negatively, a sudden deportation, or even denial of an immigration benefit, can cause indescribable trauma, stress, and fear of an uncertain future.

In late February, one of our clients – a gentle and sweet man from Central America in his mid-fifties, a father, a husband, and church member – died of COVID-19.  His pastor, and good friend of ours, told me the day after his passing.  I sat in my office chair stunned.  It hadn’t been that long since I’d seen him.  In fact, it was last November when we filed his immigration papers, with high hopes his process would be approved and he and his family would enjoy a measure of security they hadn’t known before in their adopted country.

But now he was dead.  His immigration process would stop.  His dreams for himself, for his wife, and for his children were gone.  With tears I mourned his loss as I sat in my office chair.

Quickly my thoughts turned to his wife, for all the obvious reasons, of course – the denial and grief she was experiencing, the shock of now being a single mother, the financial hardships she would face without the family’s primary breadwinner, the role of caregiver and comforter to her children she now assumed even as she struggled emotionally, even spiritually, in her own heart and spirit.

The obvious reasons soon led to a deeper concern – with her husband now gone, her chances of legalizing her own status had also vanished simply because her options for status  depended on the success of his immigration process.  And that was gone.  For now, her chances of emerging into the light of status security were put on hold, for God-only-knows how long.  

At that moment, it became crystal clear like never before not only how tragic COVID-19 is but also how unjust.

God’s mission is a mission of righteousness and justice.  God is about the business of lifting up the downtrodden and the hurting, the fearful and the forgotten.  God abandons no one and especially not the mournful, the meek, and the distressed.  We’ve seen this over and over in our ministry with the Latino and broader immigrant community since we launched LUCHA Ministries in 2004.  We’ve seen God working in the lives of those who suddenly face crises both of and not of their making.  Miracles and “happy endings” aren’t always the results.  But God’s presence always and  faithfully shows up.

So we’re praying and working for this family.  Our program’s volunteer immigration attorney, Bill Botts, has gathered a team to help this man’s widow assess her financial means and capabilities.  He’s also gathering a volunteer team together, with her permission and in partnership with her church, to finish repairs on her home begun by her deceased husband months before.

Ephesians teaches that we struggle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers in high places.  Against forces seen but mostly unseen.  Against powers that our feeble human strength is no match for.  Powers that make no sense, adhere to few rules, fight dirty and devastate as much as possible.  Powers so strong that death and destruction are often left in their wake.

Powers like a coronavirus.  Coming out of nowhere.  Unseen, diabolical, overwhelming and, all too often, deadly.

Our only recourse in the struggle against this foe is God’s mission of justice and righteousness. So we organize friends and fellow congregants in support of wives, children, husbands, and others left behind by the devastation of COVID-19.  Or we wear masks and social distance because our love of God  and our neighbors is greater than fears and falsehoods.  Or we get vaccinated and encourage others to get vaccinated – or, as my wife Sue has been doing, help enroll people for their vaccinations – as a crucial step in defeating this diabolic killer.  And we become advocates for vaccine equity. We do this because God’s mission of justice requires it.

It shouldn’t take 2,757,339 deaths, or even 546,825 deaths, to convince us to partner with God in God’s mission of justice in this world.  It shouldn’t even take 1 death.  God’s Spirit is working like there’s no tomorrow carrying out God’s justice in the world.  And you know, there may not be for our neighbors, for you or for me.

One death is one too many.  May we strive, in the power of God’s Spirit, to bring justice to those in our communities and our contexts for the sake of each one and as testimony to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Migrants as Imago Dei: Human Rights and our Responsibility

by Sue Smith

The Christian understanding of human rights begins with an acknowledgement of the imago Dei – that humans are created in God’s own image and likeness.

Every person has inherent dignity and worth, and certain rights just because we’re human beings. But with rights also comes responsibility.

Consider Article 14 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: All persons have “the right to seek a safe place to live. If we are frightened of being badly treated in our own country, we have the right to run away to another country to be safe.”

But there is no responsibility placed on other countries to receive these persons.

That’s where we come in.

It’s not enough to simply say that people have the right to seek asylum or refuge. If we believe in this right and embrace the concept of imago Dei, we are compelled to speak out on behalf of a better immigration system, for receiving larger numbers of refugees, for ensuring that the most vulnerable are welcomed.

As a nation, we must provide asylum and accept refugees into our country.

In my work with migrants and refugees, I often talk with people about their experiences, both conditions in their home countries that caused them to flee and seek asylum and the actual process of seeking asylum.

Eva,* a young indigenous woman from a remote village in Central America, is energetic and spunky with an infectious smile.

In her mid-20s, rumors began to circulate in the village that she was a lesbian. Eva sought support from her evangelical church community, but she was labeled “evil” and told she was no longer welcome.

Eva’s parents were told by village leaders to “put her out.” They were reluctant to do so, but a mob came and threatened to burn her parents’ home with the entire family inside if Eva remained in the village.

Eva packed her bags and fled to the US, for both her own safety as well as that of her parents.

Eva was not safe in her own village, among her own people, or in her own country.

Jorge* is seeking asylum. He’s a quiet, respectful teen, a good student who is active in church and college bound. He helps out with his two younger, US-born siblings. His four adult siblings live in El Salvador.

Jorge’s parents tried to keep their sons safe from gangs by bringing them to the US. The two older brothers were both deported, and one was quickly recruited by a gang.

This brother’s gang involvement keeps his siblings and their families safe. “But my brother is getting too old, and now the gang wants me to replace him,” says Jorge.

Jorge is in the United States with his parents because he’s not safe in his own country.

Nina’s* story is one of being kidnapped, raped and held hostage by one of the Mexican cartels. She looks into the face of her newborn son and wonders who he is. “Maybe he’s Mexican, or Guatemalan, or Honduran,” she says. “I honestly don’t know. But I still love my baby.” Nina cannot return to Central America or Mexico; both she and her son would be murdered for having escaped.

Roberto* tells of torture by gangs and harassment by the local police. He has nightmares and relives the beatings and being shot and suffers from PTSD.

He fled his Central American country with his wife and three preschoolers just minutes before gangs burst in and destroyed his home. He was granted asylum and cannot return to his country.

Each day, those of us who work with migrants and refugees hear these stories and walk alongside people who are hoping to find a safe place to live and raise their families. There’s no question that each of these persons is created by God, in God’s own image, and are persons of dignity and worth.

Part of our responsibility as followers of Christ is to go farther than listening and responding to basic physical needs. We must acknowledge the abusive power structures and injustices that have caused others to seek asylum and refuge, and to offer hope to those who end up in our nation.

But where do we start?

First, we must put aside our fear, mistrust or even hatred for those who are different.

Migrants, refugees and immigrants are all created in the imago Dei, in God’s image, just as we are, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or language.

Second, we must become more educated and informed about migration and displacement.

This necessitates a willingness to explore the role that we collectively played (or play) in the creation of certain conditions that led (or lead) to displacement.

Third, we must become actively involved in speaking out on behalf of and alongside those who are forced to flee in order to live in safety and security.

This is also part of the imago Dei, to join with God in the work of building God’s kingdom here on earth.

And finally, get involved in the life of an immigrant, refugee or asylee.

I closely follow the work of a network of pastors working both in the US and Mexico. While the situation on the Mexican border has fallen out of the headlines, the situation still exists.

One day, I mentioned pastor Lorenzo Ortiz’s name in a conversation with Nina. She knew of him and of his compassion and witness for Christ. He’s apparently well-known on the northern Mexico migrant route for his ministry to migrants and asylum-seekers.

While life in one of the network’s migrant shelters isn’t a permanent home, it’s at least a temporary safe place to live.

Pastor Lorenzo helps with food, transportation and shelter, but what he represents to Nina and other migrants like her is hope – hope from the knowledge that someone has seen their plight, has heard their cries, and cares.

This is pastoral care. This is the imago Dei in action.

The right to seek a safe place to live is enshrined in the UDHR to which the U.S. is a signatory. Yet, there is a continuing crisis at our border, with people who still hold out hope that we’ll live up to our commitments.

Perhaps 2021 is a good time to reflect on our attitudes about migrants and refugees, and to find our place in both advocacy and action.

*names changed to protect the identity of these persons

This article originally appeared December 9, 2020 in Good Faith Media.
Read more information about Pastor Lorenzo and his work at the border
with Fellowship Southwest.

Immigration Legal Services: Getting More than You Pay For

Assistance with Adjustment of Status for refugees and asylees
is one of LUCHA’s most popular legal services

by Sue Smith

LUCHA’s immigration legal services program is an essential ministry for low-income immigrants and refugees in our community.

Beginning in February, as more and more persons became concerned about the ability to pay for immigration-related appointments, LUCHA Ministries made the decision to waive our fees. Many of the families we serve were negatively affected by COVID-19 and struggling to pay even our modest costs for immigration legal services. We didn’t want to cause them additional financial hardships — or cause their immigration process to be delayed!

Thanks to our awesome supporters, we have been able to waive the charges for 62 low-income clients during 2020 (an average cost of $125/person) — and still cover our programming costs! And we plan to continue offering pro bono services throughout the remainder of 2020.

Our services offer a significant savings for our low-income clients, and provide them with access to quality legal services that is often unaffordable with private immigration attorneys.

One Central American family of four, all asylees who are applying for Legal Permanent Residency (“Green Card”) status, received pro bono legal services to process their applications to adjust status. Neither parent was working due to COVID-19, and even LUCHA’s basic fees for low-income individuals would have been difficult for this family. LUCHA’s regular charges would have been $450 for all four, which is less than 10% of the estimated $5,200 cost using a private immigration attorney.

Our staff also helps low-income clients apply for fee waivers from the USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services), which resulted in additional savings of $4,425 for this family. Essentially, LUCHA was able to help this unemployed family not only apply for Green Cards, but save nearly $10,000 in the process!

Our legal services program began in 2016 with approval from the Department of Justice as a Recognized Organization and authorized provider of Legal Services. This DOJ program allows churches and non-profit organizations to provide legal services through a qualified Accredited (non-attorney) Representative. One of the requirements of the program is that our fee structure is “nominal”, or a fraction of the cost of what an immigration attorney would charge.

LUCHA Ministries embraces a holistic approach to service delivery. As we get to know families through one specific program area, we often discover other needs. We may discover legal services clients who may need food or emergency assistance grants, and clients receiving food assistance or benefitting from case management services may have questions about an immigration case.

And perhaps most importantly in our ministry, we listen. Counseling and pastoral care services are offered in Spanish, and we often offer to pray with clients regarding a particular concern or need.

Our model has been particularly effective during these difficult times of COVID-19. We’ve been able to talk with persons about their immigration status, identify those who are unemployed and need a short-term emergency grant or food assistance, or just simply need to talk with someone about the emotional distress and stress they are feeling.

As we go into the colder winter months, we will continue to focus on the basics: caring for immigrants by providing for crisis needs, including food, emergency funds for housing or medications, etc., and by being present and listening.

Fresh Produce for Maseca Mondays

Remember back in the spring when we talked about Maseca Mondays?

Well, Maseca Mondays continued throughout the summer! We pledged at the beginning of the pandemic that our Latino immigrant families would receive the basics to put together a meal – rice, beans, and tortilla mix.

But Maseca Mondays didn’t stop with just rice, beans, and Maseca. Thanks to a grant through The Table in the World, a ministry of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg, we are also able to offer farm-fresh vegetables and fruits through Cinco Panes, our weekly food pantry. And we’ll be able to continue our commitments into the fall to ensure that vulnerable Latino families have access to the basics for a healthy, nutritious diet.

Over the past six months, Latino immigrant families across our nation have been some of the hardest hit by the coronavirus. At one point, just over 50% of the persons who texted positive in our community were Latino.

Many Latinos worked in jobs and were considered essential workers. While restaurants closed their dining rooms, they were still providing carry-out and drive-through services – and kitchen workers remained employed. Construction workers and those who work in meat-packing and poultry industries remained employed, as did agricultural workers. While still receiving a paycheck was good, it also meant that people were directly exposed to the coronavirus.

Within a short time, many workers became ill and entire families were quarantined, which left some families with no source of income. These same families didn’t receive unemployment benefits or economic stimulus payments, so they struggled with rent, utilities, and food costs. And on top of the other challenges, children were engaged in at-home and online learning, and many parents couldn’t return to full-time jobs as they had in the past. And while many people have returned to work, their hours have been reduced, and they got so far behind while they were not working that it has been difficult to catch up.

Immigrants are proud — and reluctant to ask for help. “There are people who need help more than we do,” I hear quite often. I assure people that there is plenty of help available, and encourage them to please take a bag of veggies or fruit. It’s not just about “need,” I assure them; it’s also about nutrition and health.

One of the biggest surprises has been the quality of the products that we are providing. One week, when we provided freshly-harvested carrots, one lady assured me that she really didn’t like carrots very much, so she would just take a couple to try. A few days later, she called to report that she’d “never tasted carrots like those carrots!” Many of our clients return with stories of a new recipe or a having been introduced to a new vegetable.

Having a sufficient amount of fresh fruits and veggies that have to be distributed quickly has encouraged us to expand our distribution model and rely more on community members to also distribute to their friends and neighbors. People are more likely to see need in their own circles, and to be part of the helping chain. One note reads, “Many thanks for the food . . . would it be possible to help my sister-in-law? She doesn’t receive any help at all.”

We’re very thankful for all of our community partners and individuals who have helped us provide for the needs of the Latino community. We’ve provided for the basic food needs of approximately 45-50 families per week; distributed countless face masks; and provided emergency assistance in the form of rental assistance, basic medicines, and hygiene products.

Thank you, not just from LUCHA Ministries, but also from each of those families who has been helped through your generosity during difficult times.

Just Now Seeing the Worst

There seems to be a lot of talk these days about reopening things and getting on with our lives. About the damage that is done to our economy. About “herd immunity.” About wearing facemasks or not.

I recently read an article that stated that overall, our response to the coronavirus in the US has been typically “American” – focused very much on our individual rights and not wanting anyone to tell us what to do.

I get it, I really do. But from where I stand, from my daily ministry context as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Field Personnel working with Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees, I’m seeing a very different side of things.

Several weeks ago, a single mom of three called to tell me that her sister, who lives with her, had tested positive for COVID-19. The entire household (two adults and five children) was quarantined. Another lady asked for help as well that week. She contracted COVID-19 at work and lived in a home with several other families. She asked for food and toiletries so that she could quarantine in her room and try to keep others safe.

That week, we put in place a protocol to help Spanish-speaking Latino COVID-19 patients that includes regular check-ins with them by phone or text and leaving food or boxes of supplies on their doorsteps. We include facemasks, acetaminophen, soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.

Since those first two reports of illness among people we know, we’ve heard of many more persons in the Latino community who have tested positive for the virus. They’re all immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Mexico.  They include:

A paternal grandmother who took over the care of her grandson when the toddler’s mom and other grandparents tested positive. The baby also has COVID-19.

A recently-arrived single mom seeking asylum shows symptoms of COVID-19 but hasn’t been tested. Her landlord insists that she needs to move, but she can’t find a job to pay rent and has no friends willing to take her in.

An older gentleman with kidney failure has been in the US for many years. He rides the bus for dialysis treatments several times each week and was recently hospitalized with COVID-19.

A couple who were discretely trying to earn enough money to pay the rent and avoid homelessness by doing odd jobs in the community. Both became ill and tested positive for COVID-19 and are now quarantined, along with their 76-year-old mother and two young sons.

An asylum seeker under electronic monitoring. He’s a single dad who rents a room and has recently moved to a new house and worries that he may have infected others before he became ill.

And more and more of our immigration legal services clients are unable to complete crucial steps in their immigration process. Some are ill themselves, but other parts of the system have also been affected by COVID-19. They may be unable to complete the required physical exam, or have difficulty scheduling appointments to sign necessary documents in a timely manner.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, data on ethnicity is included for approximately 65% of the COVID-19 cases reported by our region. Of the 690 positive cases in the Rappahannock Health District where data on ethnicity is included, 50% are persons of Latino or Hispanic heritage; Latinos represent 33% of the total 1,059 positive cases. For a geographic area with a Latino population of just under 11%, this is a rather astounding number. And particularly when you consider that this population is often uninsured or underinsured.

These are some of the most vulnerable persons in our community. Early on in the pandemic, as people were losing jobs and struggling to adjust to at-home schooling and the loss of childcare, many of the folks among whom we work were still doing OK. Hours were cut, but many reported that they were still employed. Older children cared for the younger ones, or parents with reduced work schedules were able to cover the bases.

Our Latino friends were working in restaurant kitchens, where clean-up or prep work still had to be done for carry-out orders. They were still working on construction or remodeling sites and engaging in day-labor type jobs, or doing landscaping and other outdoor work. They weren’t in jobs where they could work from home or engage in social distancing.

But now, the effects of the coronavirus have hit the immigrant population full force, and while there is an overall clamor to open things back up and get back to normal, what we see is the panic within the Spanish-speaking community as they must now isolate themselves and quarantine — and see the earnings from those last few work hours disappear. They’re no longer OK.

They can get by on less, but it’s difficult to get by on nothing.

Immigrants Face High Living Costs, Lack of Safety Net During Pandemic

by Sue Smith

“Can you help?” she asked. “We’ve just moved to the US, and my 75-year-old mom needs to find a primary care provider so that she can get new prescriptions for her medications.”

Our contact with migrant families often begins with a specific request for assistance. And usually, that’s the beginning of a long-term relationship with a family.

It was Monday, March 2, and not exactly the best time for this South American family of five to start fresh in the US. Less than a week later, COVID-19 would hit hard.

The Acero* family arrived in the U.S. in mid-February. Their business had failed, and they were at the point of bankruptcy.

Both Amada* and her husband, Santiago*, were willing to accept any jobs they could find to pay off debt and get back on their feet – and to eventually return home.

Despite the fact that both appear to be educated professionals, they weren’t looking for professional-level jobs.

“We’ll wash dishes, work in the kitchen, clean houses – whatever it takes,” said Amada. “We know it’s hard to start over, especially in the U.S., but we have nothing back home. We had to take a chance.”

After locating a physician for Amada’s mother, the family’s next step was to get the kids into school. The couple’s two sons, ages 9 and 12, needed school physicals and immunizations, which cost just over $500.

The parents had to meet residency requirements to enroll the boys in school by providing documented proof that they actually lived in the school district. This was difficult, because they were in a temporary housing situation, staying with friends.

With the boys finally in school, both adults could now work. Santiago quickly found a job, and soon after, Amada found one as well – both working in restaurants. Amada’s mother was available at home to help out with the boys.

The next hurdle was permanent housing. They quickly realized that renting an apartment for the family was out of the question, even with both adults working.

With savings nearly depleted, they were barely making enough to pay the first month’s rent, much less the one-month deposit that was also required when they signed a lease. Not to mention food, clothing and transportation expenses.

According to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Out of Reach 2019”, a family should expect to dedicate approximately 30% of their monthly income to housing costs.

In the state of Virginia, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a 2-bedroom apartment is $1,203. A family working at the minimum wage rate (currently $7.25/hour in Virginia) would need to hold 3.2 full-time jobs in order to afford a 2-bedroom apartment. That translates into 128 hours of work per week.

The FMR in Fredericksburg and its surrounding counties is actually higher than the state average. FMR for a 2-bedroom apartment is $1,665, and the family would need to hold 4.4 full-time jobs at the state’s $7.25 minimum wage in order to afford housing, or work a total of 177 hours per week.

Many immigrants, refugees, asylees, etc., enter the job market at extremely low levels and often work less than 40 hours per week.

Desperate for income and with minimal English skills, they frequently find work in restaurants, housekeeping or janitorial services, construction, landscaping and outdoor maintenance, etc. These jobs provide average hourly wages ranging from Virginia’s $7.25 minimum wage to around $14-$16 per hour for a construction helper.

The Aceros were in shock. They realized that their family of five would need at least two bedrooms. And not only did they need to pay the first month’s rent in advance, but they also needed to provide a security deposit equal to one month’s rent.

This wasn’t possible on the couple’s two salaries from their work in restaurants. The family was forced to rent two bedrooms in the home of strangers.

It’s been over a month since I met the Acero family, and COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on immigrant and refugee families like theirs.

The boys were in school only two days before spring break began early and abruptly, and classes have now been cancelled for the rest of the year.

Schools are still struggling with how to meet the needs of students with limited access to technology. The boys are at home all day, but unable to complete their schoolwork in English. While schools are working on ways to support English Language Learners or parents who aren’t fluent in English, this requires time to get everything in place.

Santiago lost his job on a Friday, and Amada on the following Monday. Amada’s mother initially received one month of medications through a reduced-cost clinic, but she needs to refill her prescriptions.

This month’s rent on the rooms is paid, but what happens next? There are no shelters for families like this, and friends simply can’t take in a family of five in these difficult times.

As difficult as things are for the Acero family, they are only one of thousands of families across the United States who are being affected in some way by COVID-19. Many don’t have a safety net to rely on, as their friends and family members are in similar situations.

Through LUCHA Ministries, we continue to provide food for families like the Aceros, to help them gain access to healthcare, and to provide other forms of assistance when we are able.

And we serve as advocates, intervening when we can and educating others on the plight of vulnerable migrants. We pray for them and call or text often to check up on them.

In spite of everything, Amada gives thanks for the blessings of being healthy and safe and together as a family. “God is good. God is so good,” she says.

This article was originally published on April 30, 2020.

DO UNTO OTHERS: A Devotional Thought

by Greg Smith, CBF Field Personnel

From a transitional home, Ricardo* told me his story. Of being at the center of political power, of advising government ministers and overseeing the daily routines of powerful people. Of enjoying life with his family, watching his daughter grow, knowing security and accomplishment through hard work and sacrifice.

His story continued. Of being unjustly accused of corruption by the incoming president. Of being followed in the streets and threatened on the other end of the telephone line.

Of a government-orchestrated trial intent on his incarceration . . . or worse.

Of living in constant, maddening fear. Of fleeing to protect his family and himself. Of not seeing his daughter since the day he left over two years ago. Of the worry, tears and clinically diagnosed depression that resulted.

But thankfully it didn’t end there. His story continued as he spoke of the help offered him, the counseling he received, the asylum case he won, and the first glimmers of hope and new life he now saw.

The essence of all Scripture, Jesus said, was to do to others what we longed for them to do to us. The Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12. Ricardo longed for many things from others he could no longer do for himself: security, shelter, medical treatment, and even daily sustenance.

But beyond all this, what he deeply longed for and needed was the chance to tell his story. To plead his case before the government. To feel and know he was being heard, and in that knowledge to feel and know his life had value and meaning, that his story did matter — that, essentially, he mattered.

At LUCHA Ministries, Inc., we’re at the end of the migration route. We see folks who’ve arrived in their destination communities with the hope of settling down and beginning to build a new life. We offer immigration legal counsel, but also meet basic human needs as we help migrants settle into our community.

With gratitude and praise to God, we also recognize the life-saving ministry to intending immigrants and asylees along the US-Mexico border by churches, pastors and others supported by generous followers of Jesus (click here to read about Border Ministries through Fellowship Southwest).

But beyond these basic immediate needs also lies the longing to tell their stories and be heard by government officials, judges, anyone who can grant them hope and a future and a restored sense of life and self-worth.

Jesus calls us to do to others what we wish others would do for us. So let’s open our ears and listen to the stories of our immigrants friends and neighbors. Let’s pray for their chance to tell their stories for the opportunity to live and work in our country without fear or threat of violence. And let’s plead their cases before our elected officials to open all avenues for those at the border and those in our communities to tell their stories and be heard.

Let’s do for our immigrant friends and neighbors what we would want others to do for us.

* Name has been changed.

The Haircut

On a hot September day, I met Denis, a 14-year-old migrant from Honduras, and helped him register for school in his new community. He and his mom had only been in the US for a few weeks, and a friend offered the two a room and a chance to begin life fresh.

Denis had gotten a haircut before moving to Fredericksburg, but no one had the time to take him to the barber shop during the three months he was here.  But he finally got a haircut on the first day of Christmas vacation, as he prepared for a visit with his dad and a move to a new community and school.

It was important to Denis to make a good impression on his dad, because it was only the second time he had seen him since he was a baby. “It’s hard for my dad to relate to me. He doesn’t know me, and he thinks of me as a little kid,” Denis says. “And he isn’t sure what to talk to me about. Our worlds are so different.”

And now, having just turned 15, his long, shaggy hair made him look much younger. “I’m the oldest — and smallest — person in my [8th grade] class, so I really don’t want to look any younger than I am!” he said.

Denis is the youngest of five children and is being raised by a single mom. His dad left Honduras for the US when Denis was 7 months old, and at the time, he wasn’t interested in responsibility or a long-term commitment. As a young man in his 30s, he scarcely gave thought to moving to the US and leaving behind Denis and his mom, along with another son.

But time has a way of changing people. Denis’ dad has come to realize all that he gave up, and he wants to make things right with his son. And Denis is willing to give him that chance.

The two had not actually met until this past fall when Denis’ dad drove nearly five hours to meet him face to face. They went to lunch together, saw a movie, and did some shopping. They now talk often on the phone, and Denis’ dad sent him a birthday gift. Slowly, carefully, they’re developing a relationship.

At school, Denis was assigned to an 8th grade ESOL class with kids from mostly Central America and the Middle East, and he thrived. He’s learning English at a good pace; he’s intelligent and motivated, polite and kind, makes friends easily and is liked by everyone.

But while school was going well, his home life wasn’t. A difficult relationship with Denis’ mom’s “significant other” was making his life miserable, and Denis and his mom made the decision to leave the area once school was out. A move means living much farther from Denis’ dad, and leaving all of Denis’ new friends behind, but they’ve decided it’s for the best.

Which brings me back to the haircut. I wanted to do something special for Denis before he left, and he’d been begging for someone to take him for a haircut. I called my salon*, shared his story, and they graciously agreed to not only find an appointment for him, but to set him up with the products he needed to maintain his new “look.”

Denis got a first-class salon experience complete with a shampoo (and head massage), haircut and style, and a complimentary beverage (CocaCola) to sip on during the process. It was only the second time a female stylist had cut his hair, and he told me later that he’d been terrified. “The last time a girl cut my hair, it didn’t turn out so well,” he laughed. “I was so nervous!”

Thanks to the staff at the salon, this young man ended his semester and time in our community on a high note. He used his English skills to tell the stylist exactly what he wanted, and she practiced her Spanish with him. Their kindness helped make up for the pain of hurtful words and feelings of rejection. Their respectful treatment of him restored his sense of self-esteem and helped him prepare for his visit with his dad and his move to a new place.

Their kindness helped restore my faith in the power of simple, considerate acts by good people to bring healing and hope to others.

*A special thanks to Julie and the folks at Downtown Salon in Fredericksburg, Virginia for making this happen!

It’s Not Just a Box of Food

Around fifteen years ago, LUCHA Ministries began providing food assistance to Eusebio, an immigrant from Mexico who had been hit by a car. His lower leg was severely damaged and required multiple surgeries to avoid amputation. He lost his job, his income, his independence — and his dignity.

Eusebio had just about given up hope of recovery when members of his Bible study group (who were also part of LUCHA) came to his aid. He wanted to work and to earn his keep, but he saw himself as “a cripple.” When we discovered that Eusebio could cook, we suggested that he talk with his housemates (all single guys) about exchanging his culinary skills for rent. To his surprise, they agreed!

That year, Eusebio received a turkey and all the fixings for a full Thanksgiving meal for eight. He hobbled around the kitchen on his crutches, resting and elevating his damaged leg as needed, and prepared a wonderful Thanksgiving feast for his housemates.

Eusebio continued to cook in exchange for a roof over his head for the next year or so, until his leg was healed enough to return to Mexico. LUCHA suggested a creative plan that allowed Eusebio to gain back much of his self-esteem and dignity.

It wasn’t just a box of food.  It was a restoration of Eusebio’s dignity.

Ten years ago, after a day of food deliveries, I had one box left in my car. Somehow, we had miscalculated the number of food recipients. I mentally compiled a list of anyone I knew who lived nearby and made an impromptu stop at the home of Gisela.

Gisela was a single mom with three kids, who had recently separated from an abusive spouse. Her middle child had cerebral palsy, and she often struggled with a consistent work schedule that revolved around his needs and complicated childcare issues.

I knocked and asked if she needed a box of food. “How did you know?” Gisela asked. “Come, look in my kitchen.” There were a few stray condiments in the refrigerator, and nearly bare cupboards. “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said through tears. But God knew.  God had directed me to Gisela that day.

It wasn’t just a box of food. It was proof that God hadn’t abandoned Gisela.

Not only was God with Gisela that day, but God also gave her a heart for helping others.  This week, the Cinco Panes volunteer team prepared 20 boxes of food to be distributed in the community, and Gisela is one of those volunteers.

Over 120 persons were the recipients of those food boxes, many of whom are among the most vulnerable immigrants in our community. Today’s list included persons with medical conditions (diabetes, renal failure, and cancer), a hospice patient, an amputee, and two families with children with disabilities. It included persons whose spouse had been deported, and victims of domestic violence.

Some boxes were picked up, some were delivered by the volunteers or by friends and neighbors, clients themselves who offered to take a box to someone else. The 8 client volunteers would also benefit, and one of those volunteers was Gisela. “I volunteer with LUCHA, because you’ve always helped us, the Latino community, whenever we needed you. I want to do that, too, for others.”

These weren’t just 20 boxes of food.   They were boxes of hope, and encouragement, and healing, and reminders of God’s love.

Hidden Pain and Irrevocable Damage

On his first Halloween, Daniel* was dressed as a clown, complete with a colorful, baggy suit, big orange hair, and an exaggerated, painted red smile. He was excited to share his loot with me, digging through his bag to find a Reece’s Peanut Butter cup, my favorite.

Daniel is a 17-year-old unaccompanied minor from Central America who was sent to the US by his parents. The level of taunts, verbal abuse, and physical attacks had made it impossible for him to safely leave his home. He couldn’t go to school, church, or the local store without fear of being grabbed, thrown to the ground, and beaten and kicked.

At the time I met him, Daniel had been in an unaccompanied minor’s shelter for over nine months, waiting on clearance in order to join a sponsor in the US. Sponsors are often parents or close relatives; some sponsors are distant relatives or close family friends. Sponsors and those who share lodging with them must pass criminal background checks, and the sponsor must be able to care for the child in a safe, appropriate home environment.

Decisions to emigrate to the US aren’t made lightly and kids pay a high price

Two of Daniel’s potential sponsors were denied, and the third, a cousin, was still awaiting approval.

Meanwhile, Daniel gradually lost hope as he waited  – hope of starting school, of going to a football game, of spending the holidays with someone, of being wanted.

Luisa*, a young social worker in Virginia, understands what unaccompanied minors go through. Luisa lived much of her life with her family in the US.  She is fluent in English, attended school in the US, and has crossed the border many times to visit her family.

But one day, Luisa’s luck ran out.  During a trip to rejoin her mother in the US, she was apprehended as an unaccompanied minor and spent months in a detention facility. Three days before her 18th birthday, neither her mother nor sister had been approved as sponsors, and Luisa was scheduled to be transferred to an adult detention facility. Case workers managed to place Luisa at the last moment with a foster family on the east coast, far away from her family.

Luisa describes her foster parents as OK, but she never bonded with them or felt like part of a family. “I was practically an adult when they took me in, an easy foster kid. But they didn’t really want me,” she says.

Luisa made the best of things and completed her senior year of high school.  She worked a full-time job to pay her way through college (with no financial assistance), and she was accepted into graduate school.

Today, Luisa is a US citizen, has earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work, and has a job in her field. But she thinks about those “lost years” when she was unable to be reunited with her family, when she lived far away from them and was unable to visit.

“I didn’t really celebrate the accomplishments in my life because there was no one to share them with.”  No one to attend her graduations, no one with her at the naturalization ceremony.  “It just wasn’t the same after detention and foster care,” said Luisa.  Luisa’s life was forever changed by separation and detention.

During FY 2019, nearly 73,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the southwest border.  All faced some form of detention as family members or sponsors were identified and screened.

The irony isn’t lost that Daniel chose to be a clown on Halloween. The huge painted-on grin and gaudy costume hid  the real Daniel: a sad, depressed kid who desperately missed his parents and younger siblings.

Daniel was shuffled between several different detention facilities and considered a security risk due to a suicide attempt. “I grabbed myself by the neck with both hands and squeezed as hard as I could.” Sometimes, Daniel said, he just wanted to die, because nobody wanted  him.

Recently-arrived kids hide behind fake smiles to maintain the outward appearance of being happy.  They struggle with grief and loss as they miss their families, friends, and familiar surroundings.  They struggle with language and culture, often alone.

Others, like Luisa, acknowledge that they’re among the lucky ones.  In spite of the challenges they’ve experienced, they’re using their own experiences of pain, separation, and loss to help others.

But the fact is, every child who is separated from his or her family is forever changed.  They will never be able to recover this time.