Chicago parish expands its clothing ministry to help asylum-seekers

Posted Jun 29, 2023

A woman finds a blouse at the St. Chrys’s Closet. Photo: Del Hall

[Diocese of Chicago] The asylum-seekers who arrive in Chicago, Illinois, often step off the buses that carried them from Texas with little more than the clothes they are wearing. Under U.S. law, they are not permitted to seek work for months, and the city is struggling to find homes for them. In the meantime, they are finding the necessities of life where they can, and St. Chrysostom’s, Chicago is one of those places.

The parish has always sustained feeding ministries, but its once-small clothing ministry became something akin to a department store this spring when the parish responded to a suggestion from Douglas B. Fraser, executive director of Chicago Help Initiative, to take part with other faith communities in creating a clothes closet.

“We ended up being the only church to do this, and it grew organically from one small room to the use of the gym this summer, filled with clothes, cribs, toys, dressers, and other furniture,” said Liz Kohlbeck, who leads the feeding ministries.

As word of the parish’s efforts circulated among asylum-seekers, the crowds at what became known as St. Chrys’s Closet on Wednesdays grew, and what the parish had thought might be a monthly ministry quickly became a weekly one. Fortunately, St. Chrysostom’s has a vigorous network of volunteers and institutional supporters to draw upon.

“Energies are synergizing,” Kohlbeck said, as she ticked through a list of connections to friends and neighbors who had recently supported the ministry, including St. James Cathedral, Chicago Sinai Congregation and First St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Chicago Help Initiative has assigned a social worker to the dinners to train St. Chrys’s volunteers.

The Gold Coast community of which St. Chrysostom’s is a part has also rallied behind the effort. Donations by the bagful began appearing throughout the day as news of the asylum-seekers’ needs spread, and church staff scrambled to store the growing offerings. “It’s all rather Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” Kohlbeck said. “We don’t always know how a donation has found its way to us.”

Some asylum-seekers being housed nearby come week after week seeking good quality adult clothing, baby clothes, toys and housewares. The church has arranged it all in a room quickly filled to the brim. Now tables spill out to adjoining rooms, and piles of clothes grow and shrink with donations coming in even during the Wednesday sessions.

Kohlbeck said its absence of bureaucracy helps make the closet attractive to asylum-seekers, as does an atmosphere of trust that has quickly grown up around the ministry. “They seem to feel that they are treated in a loving way that is building relationships,” she said.

The Rev. Will Bouvel, associate rector, said the closet is also a place of real happiness for young asylum-seekers. One neighbor who had previously given clothing noticed a sale on plush pink pig stuffies at a local store and bought 15 to donate. The items were popular, and other toys have been too, as children have an opportunity to choose a gift for themselves. “Each Wednesday feels like Christmas morning,” he said. “One 7-year-old received a scooter. His delight was infectious.”

Although St. Chrysostom’s networks and neighbors have responded generously to the need in its midst, the parish is still seeking several kinds of help, Kohlbeck said. Those include:

  • Spanish-language interpreters to help asylum-seekers at the closet on Wednesdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Central (The parish is also exploring offering English as a Second Language classes with the help of volunteer teachers and aides.)
  • Immigration lawyers.
  • People skilled in helping asylum-seekers negotiate housing and health care bureaucracies.
  • Material gifts, including bedding and towels, rolling suitcases, baby strollers, infant and toddler car seats, diapers, pots and pans, and other basic kitchen items.

Donations can be dropped off at the church office at 1424 North Dearborn Street in Chicago, Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Central.