By Jeff Brumley
There was quiet talk among ministers in Dalton, Ga. last spring that as many as 30 Guatemalan children were in town and in need of tutoring and other services. Not much more was known about the children, a Cooperative Baptist minister recalled.
But talk turned to shouting and finger-pointing between elected officials in July when news reports said those youth were among tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children dispersed from border detention facilities to sponsor homes in communities across the nation.
“It’s become this incredibly politicized, fear-driven thing,” Courtney Allen, minister of community and missions at First Baptist Church in Dalton, told ABPnews/Herald.
While the federal government’s movement of unaccompanied immigrant minors into communities around the nation has stirred criticism from politicians, it’s also stirred calls for service from many churches and denominational leaders.
“It’s been a wake-up call to us,” Allen said. First Baptist is now searching for ways to help the local school district handle its responsibility for educating the young migrants.
But there are challenges. The government hasn’t asked for volunteers to help care for the immigrants and it isn’t known where they are living or possibly worshiping, Allen added.
“We really didn’t know until this year about the presence of these kids in our community.”
That surprise hasn’t been limited to First Baptist in Dalton.
Baptists and other religious groups around the nation are only just learning that thousands of immigrant children, previously detained on the American border, are now living in their communities, the highest concentration in states with historically high concentrations of South and Central American immigrants.
Federal figures reveal that around 63,000 migrant children have been placed in sponsor homes since late last year. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the program has existed for years, but that the numbers of placements has jumped dramatically along with the waves of young people migrating north from South and Central America.
A recent New York Times story and an accompanying graphic brought that reality home for denominational and church leaders in several states.
Surprised or not, many say the development presents a golden opportunity to provide Christ-inspired hospitality to those who’ve undergone a life-threatening and spirit-shattering gauntlet of smugglers, dangerous terrain and political scorn to reach relative safety in almost every state in the nation.
The Aug. 7 Times graphic illustrates that the highest concentrations of youth are in some of the states with high numbers of Baptists, including Texas with 4,280 of the children, Florida with 3,181, Virginia with 2,234, North Carolina with 1,191 and Georgia with 1,154.
That correlation wasn’t lost on Baptist leaders in some of those states.
‘Out of the blue’
“I didn’t realize a large chunk of them were coming to North Carolina,” said Larry Hovis, executive coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina.
Now that he and others in the organization do know, they are aiming to be ready to help if and when asked to do so. Hovis said he’s grateful news of their movement has broken because it gives churches time to plan how to best minister to the children and their families.
“Churches need to think about this, so when the opportunity arises, it won’t be out of the blue.”
But there haven’t been any opportunities, Hovis said. A check of CBFNC churches resulted in none reporting that they were housing or feeding any of the unaccompanied immigrants in the state, he said.
It was the same in Virginia.
“We will respond if the government asks for our assistance, but that has yet to happen,” said Dean Miller, disaster relief and Virginia missions coordinator for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.
And it’s likely not to happen at all — at least not from the federal government.
According to information provided by HHS, the system for placing the children in sponsor homes is largely self-contained.
The program, which is run by HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, normally operates about 100 shelters for what it calls unaccompanied alien children. They are kept there until placed with family or friends.
While border-town shelters at military and other locations have received much recent media attention, most of the children have remained in those situations only until they could be dispersed to sponsors across a number of states by the administration and its Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In normal years, 7,000 to 8,000 children come through the program. Usually, they are sent north from their homelands to escape violence, abuse, extreme poverty or some form of persecution in their countries of origin, the federal agency said. Usually they make the journey in hopes of finding family members already in the United States or to seek work. Some are smuggled in by human traffickers.
The numbers began spiking in 2012, when the number jumped to a total of 13,625. Since then the statistics have risen relentlessly: More than 24,600 were referred to the program in fiscal year 2013 and there’s a projected total this year of 60,000, according to the agency.
The increases necessitated the opening of emergency shelters, mostly on U.S. military bases in Texas.
Most of the children are boys and most are 14 or older. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are the primary nationalities of the youth who come through the HHS program.
‘Opportunity to imitate Christ’
The federal government’s caution against allowing access to the children is understandable, Miller said, but it doesn’t mean helping is out of the question. Christians must be prepared to act — and be patient.
“Once the children get connected, then that may be a place for us to offer assistance,” he said. That assistance can come in the form of “getting parents to travel to Virginia to pick up children, assisting with clothes and other items to help them transition into new homes [and] connecting them to churches and other resources as the child and family adapt.”
But if they are not asked by the government or families for help, churches and ministries shouldn’t see that as a lost opportunity, Miller added.
“Obviously this is a great opportunity to imitate Christ, but at the same time one must ask, is this really that much different than the more ‘normal’ opportunities to serve people trying to immigrate (legally and illegally) to our country?”
On the frontlines
Baptists across the national and theological spectrum are making similar comments.
Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd recently urged the denomination to adopt a sympathetic attitude toward the undocumented children crossing the U.S. border.
In an Aug. 3 sermon, Floyd preached that Jesus himself was an immigrant because his parents fled with him, as an infant, to Egypt to escape danger.
In Texas, Baptists have been on the front lines of the effort as government shelters became overwhelmed by the surge in numbers of the youths.
Texas Baptist Men, the Baptist General Convention of Texas and Buckner International have provided a range of services when and where they were allowed. Those include offering worship services for children interred in federal shelters, sorting donated clothing and food, offering translation services and collecting and distributing shoes.
‘Strangers in a strange land’
Now that tens of thousands of those children are fanning out across the country, others must be ready to act similarly, said Tommy Deal, U.S. disaster response director for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
To help with that, a fund has been established to aid congregations and ministries that may unexpectedly find themselves engaged in crisis ministry — including when a number of immigrant children appear in their neighborhood.
“If that’s something they didn’t budget for, we want to be able to give,” he said.
Deal blogged about the issue and the fund recently for the CBF “to hopefully send a wakeup call to everyone around that this is not something that is just happening on the border of Texas and Mexico.”
CBF and its churches should be asking themselves what Christ wants them to be to these children, Deal added.
“This is a great mission field coming to our door, and we must be ready to help meet the needs of strangers in a strange land.”