For six years, Jeanne and Mark Birky of Hopedale, Ill., have traveled to San Antonio, Texas, to participate in Mennonite Mission Network’s Service Opportunities with Our Partners (SOOP) program.
They’ve engaged with La Casa de Maria y Marta (Mary and Martha’s House), San Antonio Mennonite Church’s hospitality ministry to asylum seekers from Central and South America.
The house provides a safe place, basic necessities, medical care and intentional community for immigrants. For those who remain in San Antonio for extended lengths of time, it offers job training and other connections.
San Antonio Pastor John Garland asked the Birkys if Hopedale Mennonite Church would consider sponsoring an asylum seeker. They were on board but knew they needed to convince others.
“We enjoyed getting to know and learning more about the situation with people fleeing from persecution,” Jeanne Birky said. “When we came back to Illinois from Texas each spring, we informed our congregation about what was actually going on.
“We helped people understand that the nightly news images of people traveling in big caravans had a reason. Groups keep people safe from the violent gangs threatening them during their journey to the U.S. border. Education and showing both sides are important in dealing with a subject like this.”
When Garland called the Birkys in January 2019 to ask if the congregation could provide asylum for Jennifer, a woman in her 30s, and Lucia, her 10-year-old daughter, a group of 15 couples agreed to support the ministry. One couple opened their home to Jennifer and Lucia for six weeks before an apartment became available.
The mother and daughter lived in Hopedale for two years, until Jennifer received her work permit and became a nanny in nearby Peoria. She and Lucia still live there. Lucia attends Peoria Christian School, and they await a permanent asylum hearing.
The community also assisted with medical services, English classes, social engagements and transportation to monthly check-ins in Chicago.
The Birkys shared their story beyond Hopedale Mennonite and, as a result, two other congregations in Illinois — Lombard Mennonite Church and Roanoke Mennonite Church in Eureka — provided refuge for asylum seekers.
“We found this to be a real bonding experience and a good way to bring people together,” Mark Birky said. “Jennifer and Lucia were blessed by the church, and we were blessed by their presence, because they gave us such direct insight into the challenges and joys faced by immigrants.”
Their presence led to personal change.
“I know of at least one instance in which an individual who was very much against accepting immigrants without legal status into our community changed attitudes and became very good friends with Jennifer and Lucia,” he said.
Laurie Oswald Robinson of Newton, Kan., is a former editor at Mennonite Mission Network.
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