‘How do you say no to this?’ Resettlement work at St. Luke’s, Jamestown

Diocese of Western New York
Posted May 11, 2023

Photo: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church via Facebook

[Jamestown, New York] The Rev. Luke Fodor, rector of St. Luke’s, Jamestown, gave a bit of his Easter Vigil sermon in Spanish this year, and a bit in Swahili, too. These languages are not frequently heard at the same church service in the rural southwestern corner of New York, but the city is beginning to welcome refugees and asylum seekers, and St. Luke’s is helping to lead the way.

“This is living the gospel,” saidthe Rev. Cathy Smith, the parish’s deacon. “If you have any belief at all, how do you say no to this?”

The mission St. Luke’s has undertaken in welcoming both refugees and asylum seekers is a complex one. The two refugee families the parish supports fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while the eight families of asylum seekers with whom the parish is in touch arrived from Colombia. The two groups differ not only linguistically and culturally, but also have differing legal statuses. Refugees can work and receive government benefits in the United States; asylum seekers cannot, although their children are allowed to attend public schools.

“Our whole community has responded to this,” said Linnea Carlson, director of the Jamestown Public Market, which has offices at St. Luke’s and works closely with the parish. “We aren’t providing support because we want these people to be dependent on us. We are providing this support because they need it at this time.”

Fodor first began exploring refugee work in 2016 during the war in Syria and revisited the possibility at the end of the war in Afghanistan, but political circumstances beyond the parish’s control frustrated those efforts. After Joe Biden was elected president and Eddie Sundquist became mayor of Jamestown, however, new possibilities presented themselves, and Fodor founded the New Neighbors Coalition. The new organization, which included members of St. Luke’s and other local faith leaders, set out to explore the possibility of supporting people fleeing persecution or danger in other countries.

The coalition worked with Journey’s End, a Buffalo-based Christian organization that resettles refugees, and in early 2023 a Congolese family of nine settled in Jamestown. Two other Congolese families arrived more recently: one is sponsored by St. Luke’s and the other by Zion Covenant Church in Jamestown.

“Our goal is for them to become self-sufficient, active members of our community, thriving in a world that loves and cares for them,” said Smith, who coordinates the volunteers supporting the Congolese families.

That care, she said, is already evident.  “If I say we need a ride to an appointment, boom I’ve got five volunteers,” Smith said. “I have worked with many volunteers over the years, and these are the most passionate volunteers I’ve worked with.”

Volunteers have assisted the families with food, furniture, transportation and other assistance, and helped them negotiate the social service and education systems. They are “learning more English than we are Swahili, and I’d like to change that,” Smith said.” But the younger refugees prefer to interact with St. Luke’s volunteers in English to improve their language skills.

The parish’s work with Colombian asylum seekers began when one of the families called in January asking for food. Other churches that the families had called were uncertain about whether they could legally offer the Colombians assistance. But Fodor, who had been exploring whether the New Neighbors Coalition should work with asylum seekers, understood the law, and the parish began cultivating a relationship with two Colombian families. Their needs, however, were more complicated than those of the Congolese family.

Asylum seekers can’t receive food stamps or cash assistance from the government. They cannot get work permits, and as a result they cannot get their medical needs met, or even buy school supplies for their children, Carlson said. “Either they get help through a mutual aid system, or they are exploited through, say, farm work, or they fall into dangerous territory such as human trafficking or sex trafficking,” she says.

While the Colombians cannot work legally, they can receive charitable assistance, and St. Luke’s has been creative in helping them get as much as possible. In one initiative, two Colombian families make food in the church’s kitchen on Sundays and donate it to the parish to provide lunch for the congregation. In turn, parishioners and visitors offer donations to the church in gratitude for the food, and the church uses the donations to support the families.

“We have people coming off the street to join us,” Fodor said. “Groups from other churches also come.”

The families also attend English as a Second Language classes at the church after Sunday services and will offer their cooking and baking this summer at the Jamestown Public Market, for which St. Luke’s serves as fiduciary agent.

The parish has also made sure the Colombian families have legal assistance as they face the complex asylum system of the United States. Marion Beckerink, a lawyer in the parish, had been involved in immigration cases while practicing in Ohio. She connected the families with the Volunteer Lawyers Project in Erie County, New York, and became certified with the Executive Office of Immigration Appeals “so they don’t have to walk into court without legal representation,” she said.

Beckerink, who is vice president of the Jamestown Rotary, has also worked to make sure people understand that the Columbian families have a right to be in the country. “The concern for me was that, as a Christian community, we should be taking the lead in how best to make these people our neighbors, and as an attorney I felt maybe I can use my skills to help bring the temperature down in the conversation about immigration, which tends to focus on the legality of their presence,” she said.

“I think once we were able to address that issue and raise awareness about what does it mean to be legally in the United States, it also helped open the conversation to solutions, which I think always leads us closer to becoming a beloved community.”

One problem neither the Congolese nor Colombian families have faced is significant anti-immigrant backlash. “The expectation was the city might not receive it well,” said Mayor Eddie Sundquist, who has supported resettlement efforts to help reverse decades of population decline, “but it turns out they did.” Residents of Jamestown have been generous with money, furniture and time. “I’ve seen people step up in ways I would have never thought,” he said.

St. Luke’s has been energized in surprising ways by its resettlement ministry, Fodor said. Three Colombian families approached him recently about preparing their children for their first Communion.

“People joined to help with refugee work and are now pledging members,” he said. Since the Colombian families have begun cooking at the church on Sundays, several people have come one Sunday for the food and returned the following Sunday for services.

“I never thought our resettlement work would involve Sunday morning church,” Fodor said. “But what I’ve discovered in my time here at St. Luke’s, and in ministry in general, is that when you have a missional outlook and opportunities for people to engage meaningfully in that mission, people show up.”