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How to help immigrants in detention

In September of 2017, Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. set out on a journey to learn, understand and gain compassion for some of the world’s most marginalized individuals, immigrants. The church started a study “Awakening to Immigrant Justice” to learn about the plight of immigrants, documented and undocumented, in the United States.

A portion of the Awakening to Immigrant Justice pilgrimage was learning some tangible ways to help. Members of Myers Park heard from volunteers of the Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta (NSMA), an interfaith, multicultural immigrant rights organization and from El Refugio in Lumpkin, Ga., a ministry of hospitality and visitation serving immigrants at Stewart Detention Center and their families and friends.

Both of these ministries strive to listen to the stories of immigrants in their communities. They also offer hospitality and support to immigrants who are at risk for separation from their families and loved ones. And most importantly they educate the non-immigrant community about the complexity of the immigration system in their communities.

Some of the ways that individuals and congregations can help are to learn about the issues of immigration and advocate for humane, compassionate, and sensible public policies and laws which impact the immigrant community.

In addition to advocating, groups that works with immigrants and their families can support immigrants along the immigration path in North Caroline, South Carolina and Georgia through:

Court Watch Programs: The Immigration Court Watch Program works with immigration courts to teach volunteers how to become a trained court observer. Court watchers help protect the due process rights of individuals in immigration proceedings. No previous legal training is necessary.

Donations: The Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga. is located in rural Georgia about 2 hours from Atlanta. Churches involved in The New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta and El Refugio provide free food and lodging for families traveling to Stewart to visit detained individuals. Individuals can support these ministries through monetary donations or volunteering with these organizations. In addition to these two organizations, the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy assists unrepresented immigrants at Charlotte Immigration Court with a 10-minute consultation, education, and referrals to help them understand the legal process.

 

For more information about The New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta, please visit sanctuarymovementatl.org/join.

For more information about El Refugio, visit elrefugiostewart.org/visit-us.

For more information about the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, please visit lssp.org.

For more information about the Immigration Court Watch Program, please visit crln.org/immigration-court-watch-program.

MPBC Immigration Pilgrimage

Associate pastor Christy Tatum Williamson prays outside of Stewart Detention Center.
Photo/Mackenzie Harris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read more in the Awakening to Immigrant Justice Series:

Awakening to injustice: a church goes on a pilgrimage to follow immigrants’ journey from undocumented to detained

Photo Gallery: Awakening to Immigration Justice

Video: Pilgrimage to Immigration Justice

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

On the border: ‘Children of a lesser god’ | Bill Leonard

Inviolate! The protection of all children | Kathy Manis Findley

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Cooperative Baptists trek to border for prayer, advocacy outside migrant child care center

Pastor: ‘Protecting borders’ was also the excuse for detention of Japanese-Americans

Baptist ethicist says undocumented immigrants deserve more than hospitality

 

Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. embarked on a sacred pilgrimage to listen, learn and discern how God is calling them as individuals and as a Church to seek justice for America’s immigrants. The group followed the route to Georgia many undocumented immigrants in North Carolina must follow after being detained. These pilgrims had prepared with a year-long study titled ‘Awakening to Immigrant Justice.’ The culmination of the study helped open their eyes to the complex, convoluted and, in many cases, inhumane ways newcomers are treated in this country.

This series in the “Welcoming the Stranger” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. In “Welcoming the Stranger,” we share the inspiring stories of the people and faith communities that are teaching us all to love our neighbor as ourselves.

 

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.




Awakening to injustice: a church goes on a pilgrimage to follow immigrants’ journey from undocumented to detained

Although I’m a fourth-generation Mexican-American who grew up in Texas, I was in my 20s before I was introduced to life in the “New Latino South” following a move to Atlanta 10 years ago. Coworkers would ask me why so many people from Latin America were moving into their neighborhoods and starting to visit their churches. I did not know what to tell them. Although I was Latina, my experiences in Texas were not the same as this new clash of cultures. After all, Texas was once part of Mexico, and the two cultures have remained deeply intertwined.

I did not stay in Atlanta long. While my job in Atlanta was fulfilling, the social context, micro-aggressions, and conversations were overwhelming.

A decade later, however, I returned to participate in a pilgrimage with Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, joining senior pastor Benjamin Boswell, associate minister Christy Tatum Williamson and about two dozen members. I was intrigued and curious to see what might have changed in the New Latino South, particularly as our nation struggles with the immigration crisis of the undocumented and detained.

MPBC Immigration Pilgrimage

Participants of the Awakening to Immigration Justice Pilgrimage with Myers Park Baptist Church gather for orientation and prayer before their journey begins. Photo/Mackenzie Harris

We gathered in August on a rainy, hot day in Charlotte. Nearly 20 people arrived early in the morning at Myers Park (MPBC) to embark on this sacred pilgrimage to listen, learn and discern how God is calling them as individuals and us as a Church to seek justice for America’s immigrants. A pilgrimage is a physical journey with a spiritual purpose. Pilgrim travelers prepare, set intentions and enter a journey in a spirit of prayer and awareness. These pilgrims had prepared with a year-long study at MPBC titled “Awakening to Immigrant Justice.” The culmination of the study helped open their eyes to the complex, convoluted and, in many cases, inhumane ways newcomers are treated in this country. They set their intentions to follow the path of an immigrant detained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to bear witness to the truth of the humanitarian crisis affecting our immigrant brothers and sisters as a result of the policy changes to the U.S. immigration system.

“These pilgrims had prepared with a year-long study at MPBC titled ‘Awakening to Immigrant Justice.’ The culmination of the study helped open their eyes to the complex, convoluted and, in many cases, inhumane ways newcomers are treated in this country.”

Myers Park partnered with several organizations to follow the path of many undocumented immigrants: Faith in Public Life, El Refugio, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Atlanta Sanctuary Movement and First Baptist Church of Decatur, Georgia. The itinerary for a journey of fewer than 48 hours was demanding. It began with prayers and an orientation at MPBC, followed by a prayer vigil outside the Charlotte Immigration Court and a drive to York County Detention Center, a Georgia facility that houses immigrants awaiting deportation.

Throughout our journey, the group strived to discern next steps for themselves and their church.

“By placing our feet on sacred grounds which are off our well-beaten paths, we hope to expand our listening and learning,” Boswell explained. “Moving beyond head to heart, beyond words to feelings, we yearn to gain a fuller understanding of our systems of immigration.”

MPBC Immigration Pilgrimage

Participants of the Awakening to Immigration Justice Pilgrimage with Myers Park Baptist Church pray at the Charlotte Immigration Court. Photo/Mackenzie Harris

 

 

Before embarking, participants discussed their intentions and shared their concerns:

“What does Jesus actually want us to be doing?”

“As an ESL teacher, I want a different perspective because I hear these stories from the periphery.”

“I’m worried how to communicate to people once I return.”

“I want a perspective and deeper understanding of the system.”

“I hope to learn more about the plight of immigration to this country.”

After the orientation, the group boarded a pair of white buses. At the first stop at the Immigration Court, Cynthia Aziz, an immigration attorney, described challenges facing immigrants in the Charlotte area. Until 8 or 9 years ago, she had to travel to Atlanta for her clients’ hearings on immigration cases. Today, the four immigration judges in Charlotte appointed by the U.S. attorney general hear nearly 8,000 cases a year. According to Aziz, the Charlotte court has earned a reputation as one of the toughest in which to win an asylum case. It’s one of the courts with the highest rate of deportation orders. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) estimates that the Charlotte Immigration Court will hit a 10-year high with almost 5,000 deportations in 2018. Through May, 293 deportees were children.

To be granted asylum in the United States, immigrants must prove that they fear persecution based on race, religion, nationality or politics. Unlike criminal courts, there is no right to government-paid counsel because immigration court cases are civil proceedings. Yet, the chances to obtain asylum rely heavily on the ability to afford a lawyer which typically costs $5,000 or more. Furthermore, said Aziz, the process is intimidating for most immigrants because they are unfamiliar with the American legal system.

“The pilgrimage also reminded me not to be silent, to heed the chorus of the freedom song, ‘We won’t be silent anymore.’”

The group followed the route many undocumented immigrants in North Carolina must follow after being detained. They are transported from immigration court in Charlotte to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. We met with persons involved in the sanctuary movement and with CBF leaders who were on the southern border during the child separation humanitarian crisis and are now advocating for immigration reform. In Lumpkin, we joined other faith leaders to form a “prayer chain” around the detention center to call for justice and to denounce shameful immigration policies that criminalize children and families seeking safety.

The pilgrimage travelers talked with Amilcar Valencia, the sole employee of El Refugio, a ministry of hospitality – the only one of its kind – in Lumpkin. Valencia meets regularly with immigrant detainees and coordinates visits with the men who call Stewart their temporary home. The group also listened to advocates for immigration justice who are working with and for immigrants every day.

MPBC Immigration Pilgrimage

Prayers, songs, meditation and expressions of support were shared outside the Stewart Detention Center on the Awakening to Immigration Justice Pilgrimage with Myers Park Baptist Church. Photo/Mackenzie Harris

As the group continued on the journey, we entered into a time of liturgical worship. Someone would read or tell what they knew about the upcoming stop, which was often followed by questions and answers. There were also moments of pacing as if to take in our surroundings, followed by a group prayer, singing and then silence again to take it all in.

Somebody’s hurting my brother and it’s gone on
far too long
and we won’t be silent anymore!

Somebody’s hurting my sister and it’s gone on
far too long
and we won’t be silent anymore!

Somebody’s deporting our neighbors and it’s gone on
far too long
and we won’t be silent anymore!

Somebody’s separating children and it’s gone on
far too long
and we won’t be silent anymore!

 

Myers Park Immigration Pilgrimage

Photo/Mackenzie Harris

At each of the stops on the pilgrimage, participant Jane Offill left behind one of the cross relics she had purchased on a trip to Latin America. She wanted them to be tangible reminders that the immigrants are not forgotten and that someone is praying for them.

When we arrived at Stewart Detention Center, participant Carol Pearsall met the wife and daughter of Jose, an undocumented immigrant who had been arrested three days earlier during a routine police traffic stop. Jose’s daughter hugged Pearsall and started crying. Pearsall listened to her story and prayed with her.

Three weeks after the pilgrimage, Pearsall was still thinking of that encounter. “I’m still on a quest to find out about Jose’s situation at Stewart Prison,” she said. “I find it frustrating that info on prisoners is not public knowledge or easy to find.”

For Pearsall and the other pilgrims, there have been more questions than answers. Why was Jose arrested and scheduled for deportation? Why are these immigrants put in a position where they cannot be defended? Where are the public defenders?

Stewart Detention Center is a private prison with nearly 2,000 beds. Operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, the center is located about 150 miles south of Atlanta. It is considered one of the most remote detention centers in the country. A portion of the money paid for each inmate is also paid to the county. The center’s remote location almost guarantees that asylum seekers will have no legal representation and that Stewart will continue to board one of the highest deportation rates in the country.

“As I reflect on all of the moments where the mistreatment of unfortunate people was so obvious, it broke my heart to see how these people must feel so much pain.”

Along the bus rides, one of the topics of discussion was immigration in Charlotte and some of the changes that have occurred over the years. Although not all of the changes have been positive, everyone was glad that the 287(g) program recently came to an end. According to ICE’s website, “The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 added Section 287(g), performance of immigration officer functions by state officers and employees, to the Immigration and Nationality Act. This authorizes the Director of ICE to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies, permitting designated officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions, provided that the local law enforcement officers receive appropriate training and function under the supervision of ICE officers.”

The former sheriff of Mecklenburg County participated in the 287(g) agreement with ICE. However, in May, Gary McFadden was elected and did not renew the county’s participation. ICE has 287(g) agreements with 78 law enforcement agencies in 20 states, including the North Carolina Department of Corrections and York County Sheriff’s Office. (To learn if your city is a part of the 287(g) program, visit https://www.ice.gov/287g.)

Myers Park Immigration Pilgrimage

“Wanting for a better life is not a crime!” Signs and notes of support were left outside the Stewart Detention Center on the Awakening to Immigration Justice Pilgrimage with Myers Park Baptist Church. Photo/Mackenzie Harris

Participant Tara Harris reflected on the pilgrimage experience in an article on the MPBC website:

Standing on the soil there on Saturday afternoon, we prayed, sang, and listened, leaving relics (for me, a Bible, a prayer for both those being detained and those detaining, and a small sign saying “no human being is illegal”), sweating, thinking, and asking questions.

The listening meant the most to me that afternoon. A woman came out of Stewart Detention Center after visiting several detainees and told us their stories – stories of inedible and unsafe food, of inflated prices of things available to buy in the commissary, of too many men in one room with too few accommodations and bathrooms.

What all of this has inspired me to do right now is find out more. Find out more about the neglect and poor conditions that have been rampant at Stewart Detention Center. Find out more about our three neighbors/brothers who have died at Stewart in the last fifteen months. Find out more about the disparity between the number of people whose cases end in orders of “final deportation” from Stewart versus people detained or tried in other ICE detention facilities around our country (at Stewart, there’s a more than 20% higher deportation rate than the national average). Find out more about respite houses like El Refugio near detention centers like Stewart.

The pilgrimage also reminded me not to be silent, to heed the chorus of the freedom song, “We won’t be silent anymore.”

The 782-mile pilgrimage from MPBC to Stewart Detention Center and back was emotionally difficult. “As I reflect on all of the moments where the mistreatment of unfortunate people was so obvious, it broke my heart to see how these people must feel so much pain,” said Pearsall. However, the pilgrimage was also an example of how churches can gather around immigrants, documented and undocumented, in their communities through ministries like those that partnered with the church in its pilgrimage project.

In a report to the congregation, Boswell said “our pilgrims heard stories that sounded more like nightmares of how the justice system plays out for America’s immigrants. Staggering statistics and consistent tales of inhumane treatment left them all feeling that they must bear witness to what they have seen and heard.”

As we traveled back to Charlotte, I could not help but think how much the New Latino South had changed in the past 10 years. The faith community of Charlotte was gathering around immigrants, documented and undocumented, in their communities. As I reflected on conversations with others on the pilgrimage, I could not imagine a better way to return to the South. Unlike the first time I lived here, I now found myself embraced by a community that was willing to share their stories of working with immigrants in their community and their desire to learn from them.

 

MPBC Immigration Pilgrimage

Prayers are offered outside the York County Detention Center on the Awakening to Immigration Justice Pilgrimage with Myers Park Baptist Church. Photo/Mackenzie Harris

 

Read more in the Awakening to Immigrant Justice Series:

How to help immigrants in detention

Photo Gallery: Awakening to Immigration Justice

Video: Pilgrimage to Immigration Justice

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

On the border: ‘Children of a lesser god’ | Bill Leonard

Inviolate! The protection of all children | Kathy Manis Findley

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Cooperative Baptists trek to border for prayer, advocacy outside migrant child care center

Pastor: ‘Protecting borders’ was also the excuse for detention of Japanese-Americans

Baptist ethicist says undocumented immigrants deserve more than hospitality

 

Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. embarked on a sacred pilgrimage to listen, learn and discern how God is calling them as individuals and as a Church to seek justice for America’s immigrants. The group followed the route to Georgia many undocumented immigrants in North Carolina must follow after being detained. These pilgrims had prepared with a year-long study titled ‘Awakening to Immigrant Justice.’ The culmination of the study helped open their eyes to the complex, convoluted and, in many cases, inhumane ways newcomers are treated in this country.

This series in the “Welcoming the Stranger” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. In “Welcoming the Stranger,” we share the inspiring stories of the people and faith communities that are teaching us all to love our neighbor as ourselves.

 

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.




Photo Gallery: Awakening to Immigrant Justice

All photos taken in this photo gallery are by Mackenzie Harris of Faith in Public Life.

Myers Park Baptist Pilgrimage
Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte partnered with Faith in Public Life, El Refugio, CBF Advocacy, the Atlanta Sanctuary Movement, and FBC Decatur to conclude an Awaking to Immigrant Injustice series with a pilgrimage that follows the path of an immigrant detained by ICE. Photo by Mackenzie Harris of Faith in Public Life.
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Storytelling Projects

Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. embarked on a sacred pilgrimage to listen, learn and discern how God is calling them as individuals and as a Church to seek justice for America’s immigrants. The group followed the route to Georgia many undocumented immigrants in North Carolina must follow after being detained. These pilgrims had prepared with a year-long study titled ‘Awakening to Immigrant Justice.’ The culmination of the study helped open their eyes to the complex, convoluted and, in many cases, inhumane ways newcomers are treated in this country.

This series in the “Welcoming the Stranger” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. In “Welcoming the Stranger,” we share the inspiring stories of the people and faith communities that are teaching us all to love our neighbor as ourselves.

 

Read more in the Awakening to Immigrant Justice Series:

Awakening to injustice: a church goes on a pilgrimage to follow immigrants’ journey from undocumented to detained

How to help immigrants in detention

Video: Awakening to Immigration Justice

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

On the border: ‘Children of a lesser god’ | Bill Leonard

Inviolate! The protection of all children | Kathy Manis Findley

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Cooperative Baptists trek to border for prayer, advocacy outside migrant child care center

Pastor: ‘Protecting borders’ was also the excuse for detention of Japanese-Americans

Baptist ethicist says undocumented immigrants deserve more than hospitality

 

 

 

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.




Video: Awakening to Immigrant Justice

Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. embarked on a sacred pilgrimage to listen, learn and discern how God is calling them as individuals and as a Church to seek justice for America’s immigrants. The group followed the route to Georgia many undocumented immigrants in North Carolina must follow after being detained. These pilgrims had prepared with a year-long study titled ‘Awakening to Immigrant Justice.’ The culmination of the study helped open their eyes to the complex, convoluted and, in many cases, inhumane ways newcomers are treated in this country.

This series in the “Welcoming the Stranger” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. In “Welcoming the Stranger,” we share the inspiring stories of the people and faith communities that are teaching us all to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Read more in the Awakening to Immigrant Justice Series:

Awakening to injustice: a church goes on a pilgrimage to follow immigrants’ journey from undocumented to detained

How to help immigrants in detention

Photo Gallery: Awakening to Immigration Justice

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

On the border: ‘Children of a lesser god’ | Bill Leonard

Inviolate! The protection of all children | Kathy Manis Findley

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Cooperative Baptists trek to border for prayer, advocacy outside migrant child care center

Pastor: ‘Protecting borders’ was also the excuse for detention of Japanese-Americans

Baptist ethicist says undocumented immigrants deserve more than hospitality

 

 

 

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.




Decades of life with the ‘Lost Boys’ from South Sudan: Charlotte church loves their neighbors as themselves

Storytelling ProjectsMartha Kearse knew the young men were out of their element as soon as she saw them milling in bewilderment at the grocery store’s vast array of options.

Very tall, very thin and very confused, they stood out like flies in a glass of milk. Kearse suspected they were some of the Lost Boys of South Sudan that she’d seen featured on the TV news magazine 60 Minutes.

She approached one wearing a colorful African shirt and asked where he got it. That started a conversation, and she offered to help them navigate what surely to them was an overwhelming cave of treasures worthy of Aladdin’s wonder.

After helping them select food, she gave them her phone number and encouraged them to call if they needed help.

Her phone was ringing when she walked through her door at home.

On that May day in 2001, Kearse was “just” a member of St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. But her church has a worldview that embraces “the other” and she immediately started to talk up the young men and their needs in the congregation.

Maggie Bond, a tinderbox always one spark away from flaming into action, caught fire and passed a sock around to Sunday school classes. She collected $600. “You can’t tell me somebody’s hungry and me not do something about it,” she said.

Their story was fresh in the news. From 1983 to 2005, a civil war in Sudan over a battle to control natural resources had torn apart their country, costing the lives of as many as two million. It was dangerous to be a boy on either side of the battle lines. Soldiers killed or maimed boys to keep them from maturing into soldiers.

Consequently, as many as 20,000 — some say 40,000 — boys of the Nuer and Dinka tribes, many of them 5 to 7 years old, trekked a thousand miles or more across desert and jungle, to Ethiopia and then to Kenya, trying to find a safe place to settle. Likely half the boys died on the journey from starvation, drowning, wild animals and crossfire.

Ten thousand made it to the massive Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where they waited, hoping for a permanent home.

The name “Lost Boys of Sudan” was colloquially used by refugee camp aid workers to describe the horde of boys who trickled into the camp without parents or any adult supervision. Their leaders were as young as 12.

After 14 years, about 3,800 of them were accepted as refugees to the United States, including about 40 to Charlotte.

Because of Kearse’s early contact with the group, they migrated to St. John’s. Many were Christian, having been reached through Episcopal and Catholic ministries at the refugee camp.

The congregation embraced them immediately, encouraging, mentoring, feeding and providing personal instruction on the baffling machinations of American life. They’d never had electricity or plumbing so a simple thing like turning on the lights or faucet was magical.

Everything was a mystery. They needed to learn to keep a refrigerator door closed; that crackers don’t need to be cooked; that Americans appreciate people who shower regularly; that if you step off a curb without looking you’re going to get hit by something far deadlier than a goat.

And that, yes, with proper preparation, you really can produce from the powder inside the box of Bisquick the food pictured on the outside.

These “boys” were young men who endured hardships unimaginable, who were wise in human relationships, and who knew survival skills beyond the grasp of a Navy Seal.

But they were very tall infants born into an alien world. The people of St. John’s embraced them, mentored them, helped to clothe and transport them to work and to school, and to navigate the maze of life that is second nature to any mouse born into it.

Lost Boys of Sudan and St. Johns Baptist Charlotte/Norman Jameson

Over pizza on a cool fall day, Abraham, left, and Joseph, talk about their trials in establishing professional lives in America. Both have college degrees but are severely underemployed – likely because of their strong accent that is difficult to understand. Yet, Dinka cling to their language and culture to preserve it unto the next generation.

Teaching them to drive was the worst.

American children are learning to drive from the time they’re in a car seat. By observation, they absorb the nuances of cars, roads, traffic lights, patterns, lanes and turns so that when they get behind the wheel for the first time, that aspect of driving is almost second nature.

Now think of teaching a young man to drive a car on busy American streets whose sole mode of transportation until he left camp on a bus to fly to the United States was sandals or ox cart. Samuel backed into another car in the parking lot within two seconds of putting a car into gear.

These boys quickly became more than recipients of good will and Christian charity. They became family.

When Nancy Fuller married again, she blended her four children with her new husband’s two. They agreed to “adopt” Abraham from the Lost Boys and, Nancy said, “He became our only ‘ours.’ He brought us all together.”

“He was a wonderful gift to our family,” she said. When her husband died, Abraham traveled across the country to see her, and he never forgets a Mother’s Day.

 

Reconnecting with St. John’s

As immersed in St. John’s as the refugees were and as embraced as they felt, the young men eventually coalesced around their own culture, grew independent, educated and employed. They reconnected with cousins and moved if there was a better work opportunity elsewhere in the country.

After about 10 years of saving money, some found wives from South Sudan, and they established independent lives. That meant less involvement at St. Johns.

But during a special service in November under the influence of Moses Joknhial, an aircraft mechanic newly arrived from Philadelphia after 14 years in South Dakota where he had started a Dinka congregation, the Lost Boys established a congregation unique to them, hosted at St. Johns. Their services will be in their heart language and their culture will be transmitted to their children.

A reception after the service was an open-armed reunion as host families, sponsors and “adoptive” parents embraced the young men they’ve known for 16 years. Some brought wives and children, and all wore suits and smiles that split their dark faces like a sunrise.

All the mentors are “mom” and “dad” to the young men. The walls of the reception hall are covered with photos and newspaper clippings from the earliest days when they first arrived in Charlotte, wide-eyed and hungry.

“We are different people now because they have been in our lives,” said Kearse who joined the staff of St. John’s in 2001, and eventually became the associate pastor. (She resigned in 2018 to become pastor of Peakland Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.)

“They taught us about the welcome of community. They taught us about things we would never have imagined.”

It is important to the Dinka that they establish a language church. “We need to teach our children where we came from and what we went through,” said Moses, holding 13-month-old Nhial on his knee. “We want to raise the children in the church, and we want our services to be a reunion and fellowship for South Sudanese people in Charlotte.”

“We have our kids,” said Deng, another alumnus of St. John’s. “We want to show them how to worship in our language.”

“I’m not sure they ever thought of this as truly their church,” Kearse said. “It was more a place where kind Christian people were kind to them and included them. But when they created church, they created it among themselves.”

Now they want to reconnect with the Christian fellowship that embraced them by having a Dinka congregation in the facility where their adoptive families worship.

 

Lost Boys of Sudan and St. Johns Baptist Charlotte/Norman Jameson

Lost Boys and their families were commissioned to start a Dinka language church at St. John’s Baptist, the church that welcomed them when they went from being “lost” in the Sudan, to being lost as new refugees in America in 2001. Martha Kearse, instrumental in leading the church to embrace them, is second from right. She has just moved to become pastor of Peakland Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.

“The main thing is for the children, our kids,” said Moses. “If they grow up in the church, we influence them at this moment and it will be less headache later on when they’re in high school and going to college. It is good to influence the children to know where we came from and what it’s like to grow up in the church.”

It’s important to the adults that their children learn their heart language because so much of heritage is tied to language. The children learn English through many avenues, he said, but “when you try to speak Dinka, they will look at you as if something is not right.”

One of the tenants of Dinka culture is never to steal, even if you are hungry. No one may know of your theft, but “it goes on your permanent memory record,” said Joseph Majak, a trained accountant who is greatly underemployed.

One reason Dinka have a difficult time getting work that their education merits is that even after almost two decades in the U.S., their accent is very heavy. In professional venues, clients are unlikely to entrust their resources to a person whose diction is not easily understood.

Moses did not come with the original group to Charlotte. When he and 44 other Lost Boys boarded a plane in Nairobi on Sept. 10, 2001, they were bleary-eyed and tired from days of celebrating the news that they were leaving war and hunger behind, and coming to America — a safe place.

Then they landed in St. John, Newfoundland, instead of New York. They sat on the runway for eight hours as all air traffic over the U.S. was grounded following the attack which occurred while they were in the air on Sept. 11. The news was a dramatic shock.

They spent eight days in Canada before being admitted to the U.S.

“At the time we couldn’t believe what happened here,” Moses said. “We thought those terrorists were following us, the same as happened to us in 1987 when people were dying in the desert, eaten by lions, drowning in river.”

Maggie Bond and her husband R.D. lived with their three children in a 1,000-square foot house when the Lost Boys came to their attention. One of the Lost Boys was actually a woman with a child she couldn’t care for while working and trying to acclimate to the U.S.

The child, Aluel, stayed with the Bonds five days out of seven for two years, and on occasion, 24/7 when her mom had to return to Sudan to care for a family member. Looking back on the cramped conditions, Bond simply said, “To whom much has been given, much is expected.”

The only real cost to her and her family she said, was “a broken heart at times.” Her own children’s lives were “enriched” she said. She never left them behind to care for Aluel, and they “never wanted for anything.”

Instead, they each claim a baby sister named Aluel.

“It’s not that I did something so wonderful or special,” Maggie said. “But she’s mine and will be mine ‘til the day I die. I gave her everything I gave my own children.”

It “means a lot” for the boys to come back to St. John’s to start a Dinka congregation.

“It’s kind of a selfish thing,” she said. “They came to us when they had nothing and they’ve grown and blossomed and are having children. It’s like having your own kids come back to church.

Lost Boys of Sudan and St. Johns Baptist Charlotte/Norman Jameson

Dynamo Maggie Bond jumped in immediately to raise food funds for the refugees and virtually adopted the daughter of one refugee for two years while the mother dealt with long distance family issues.

“This does something for me. They’ve come back to roost. I get to see them again, to touch them and squeeze’em and tell them I love them.”

“One of the things the South Sudanese give me is a reminder that I don’t have all the answers,” Kearse said. “I don’t come from a position of power, glory and wealth to hand things down to them. They have things they give to me, such as a wider worldview, resilience. It’s a gift they’ve given to me. When I watch the news and I hear ‘Uganda’ my ears perk up because I have family now who are affected by what happens in Uganda.”

“God called them and said, ‘There’s this woman and her friends who don’t know anything about the world. Go teach them about inclusion. That’s your mission.’”

She relishes the fact that current members of St. John’s youth group have never been unaware of South Sudan or been unable to locate it on the globe.

When the Lost Boys were acclimating to their new surroundings, they would gather in the parking lot of their apartment complex to chat, standing in jeans and T-shirts in 35-degree weather. St. John’s people saw that and brought them stocking hats, jackets, gloves and scarves.

“There’s a lot of mothering that happened,” Kearse said. “They missed a lot of mothering.”

 

A childhood lost

Their lives before the war were almost idyllic. They went to school a few months each year and spent the rest of their time out with other boys, caring for cattle, free to roam. Then came the schism and they were torn from their families and thrust into survival mode for years.

Their experience was so intense that no one who didn’t go through it can relate, which makes their own community hard to penetrate beyond a surface level.

Moses said when the boys fled their villages in fear, they assumed they would be returning the next day. Instead, they kept walking. Days were reduced to “sunrise” and “sunset.” They skirted villages, and traded clothes for food if necessary, although they had little more than what they wore.

“If you had a knee or foot problem, that’s it, you’re done,” said Moses, aged 9 at the time.

Actually, any age or birthday claimed by any of the boys is an estimate. There are no birth certificates and because none of them knew their birth dates, immigration authorities assigned them all Jan. 1 as their birth date.

Of course, the wandering boys never did return home. Instead, they walked 1,000 miles in the next three months until they got to a camp in Ethiopia where they stayed four years, before heading for Kenya.

Before they fled, growing up in their villages, the children were sheltered from death. They didn’t attend funerals or see corpses. During the long walk, boys saw others killed by lions, drowned in rivers, caught in crossfire of warring factions, and dropped by starvation.

The boys overwhelmed the massive Kakuma Camp in Kenya, in part because they had no adults in charge. Although they had survived horrific experiences that most adults never would, emotionally and intellectually, they were still children.

Camp life was hard and they would receive one meal a day at best. Some days there was no food. They told stories to pass the time and forged bonds forever unbroken no matter how distant their relocations might separate them.

“I would be driving in the neighborhood and see them and they would be holding hands,” Kearse said. “It was very sweet. Their bond to each other was enormous and they kept each other alive. Their bond endured when they came here, they loved each other very intensely.”

The presence of church in the camp made life tolerable, according to Abraham Garang, a graduate of Lynchburg College and now a limo driver and one of the Lost Boys who shared lunch with Kearse after the reception at St. John’s.

Lost Boys of Sudan and St. Johns Baptist Charlotte/Norman Jameson

Abraham Garang, with a degree from Lynchburg College, is a limo driver in Charlotte. Lost Boys often are underemployed due, at least in part, to heavy accents.

“Church was not just to preach about God,” he said, with an enthusiastic intensity that belies the tragedy through which he’s lived. “It also provided counseling. People were depressed. We were losing people left and right.”

To combat that depression, the camp church sponsored dance performances. Kids competed to be able to dance in front of the church and in front of crowds at the camp. When a child was selected to perform, it made their week. It gave them a goal, something to do.

“It limited the time you had to think of your miserable life,” said Abraham.

“It’s interesting how few of them have crumbled under the weight of their experience,” said Kearse. “Amazingly, coming out of what they came out of, very few of them had issues [with drugs and alcohol]. They have happy marriages, happy children. They work hard and believe in education. They’re getting to the place where the second generation is starting to go to college and to be American.”

It took the boys about 10 years before they started getting married. They needed to save enough money to go to South Sudan and find a wife. They do not intermarry with Americans. It is imperative to them to retain their culture.

Kearse said the women are “unbelievably strong, physically, mentally, emotionally. They keep their families together by sheer force of will.”

Some of the young men are married to women who remain in South Sudan — even for years — navigating the red tape maze to get permission to immigrate.

The Lost Boys remain committed to South Sudan’s well-being. Many drove five hours each way either to Atlanta or to Washington to vote an absentee ballot in the election that formed South Sudan as a separate nation. The diaspora hasn’t given up their love of South Sudan, even as they’ve become Americans.

One of the boys, James Mijack, graduated from Mars Hill College and works for an oil company. He started a foundation to raise money to build a school in South Sudan, proving wrong those who said, “It can’t be done.”

Kearse has been to the school, which she said is the nicest building in a 50-mile radius, even though there is no road leading to it.

“I think if America took two seconds to see where South Sudan is, a million dollars to build roads and schools would go a long way,” Kearse said. South Sudan is about the size of Texas.

According to UNICEF, the largest population of Sudanese refugees in the United States is in Omaha, Neb., which hosts about 7,000.

 

This changed people

Moses Joknhial is encouraged about the Dinka congregation. It meets bi-weekly and he anticipates it growing in strength to support at least a part-time pastor/leader. The church he started in South Dakota has two ordained priests.

He is totally committed to the value of the church for the next generation. “They will be knowing God, what to do and what not to do, that is the main thing,” he said.

Blythe Taylor was associate pastor of St. John’s in 2001 when Kearse told the congregation, “I’ve told these young men that my church will welcome them.”

“She made us step up to the plate,” said Taylor, now assistant director for academic support at Barton College in North Carolina.

Taylor quickly organized committees to cover the Lost Boys acclimation and assimilation into American life: education, healthcare, daily life skills and finances. Church members volunteered for areas that utilized their gifts and she established a fund to help them go to the local community college.

Some members volunteered for watch care, “adopting” one or two boys, embracing them as sons, and being called “mom” and “dad” to this day.

One of those families was Carl and Nina Philips, recently retired at the time. They had two computers and a willingness to teach so they ended up mentoring at some level nearly all the boys. Thirteen of them went to college and at least two earned graduate degrees.

“We completely turned our lives over to them for a period of several years,” said Nina. “That was the main activity of our lives.”

At least once a month the Philips would provide a big meal and it wasn’t unusual for 15 to come, hang out and use the computers.

While the Philips and other mentoring families embraced the opportunity to serve, they also found the young men so easy to relate to that their service was enjoyable. “They were outgoing, appreciative, so eager to learn,” Nina said. “We just fell into it so easily because of their receptiveness. “

Lost Boys of Sudan and St. Johns Baptist Charlotte/Norman Jameson

Abraham Garang, a graduate of Lynchburg College and now a limo driver, shares memories with Nina Philips, who, with her husband Carl, opened their home for meals and computer training.

And St. John’s, unlike many — maybe most — Baptist churches of that time was receptive to Africans in the church. They had a few African-American members, so the Sudanese coming “was not a big event.”

As technology advanced and cell phones grew ubiquitous, the boys learned slowly of the status of family in Sudan. They had gone years not knowing if their families lived or died.

Somehow David Thon’s father learned he had come to the United States and he tracked his son down through a relative in Canada.

His father’s first call came to his apartment while David was at work. His father called back the next night and they talked for the first time in 12 or 13 years.

In 2013 David took his wife and child to visit his father in the village. Renewed fighting broke out and they fled. His father — a prominent man in the village with several wives and cows — is back in a refugee camp in Uganda.

Cell phone technology changed their lives. Carl recalls one young man riding in the car and taking a call — from his cousin in Sydney, Australia.

Fifteen years later, the pain is still evident as the Philips recall innocence shattered. The Lost Boys came to the U.S. with no awareness of racial discrimination. But when the security guard at Walmart doesn’t believe that you paid for the shoes you’re walking out with, even though you show him the receipt; and when a policeman stops you while you’re driving to work through a white neighborhood and asks, “Whose car is this?” you learn quickly that being suspicious for “driving while black” is a real thing in America.

The Lost Boys “opened our eyes in many ways,” Carl said, including prompting a worldview they never had before.

“It really makes you angry when you hear the president of the United States speak in disparaging terms about the continent of Africa,” Carl said.

There are many success stories. David Thon graduated from Mars Hill and Emory and worked for the Carter Center in Atlanta, which sent him back to Sudan to work on eradicating guinea worm.

Madut Bul and others enlisted in the military. He recently sent to the church a framed U.S. flag that had flown with him on a combat mission over Afghanistan.

“I’ve never seen a church that lived up to its covenant in the way St. John’s did,” Taylor said.

That covenant includes phrases such as, “We will not let our differences separate us” and “We will be a servant church.”

“Martha Kearse gets a lot of credit for believing in the church enough to have them believe they really could be a servant church,” Taylor said.

“I have a sense of awe in who the St. John’s volunteers have been with those young men and have transformed their lives,” said Taylor. “It took a lot of bravery on the part of the young men to be helped and to let us teach them.”

The biggest takeaway for Taylor was the sheer volume of the commitment and its longevity. “I don’t know that I understood at the time the longevity of the commitment. But I understood that something was big about this, and it seemed to get bigger and bigger as we became more and more connected with them.”

“I hope for St. John’s that is the part that’s been transformative for them,” she said. “Most churches just give money and send people on mission trips. Frankly, a lot of that is toxic charity because it doesn’t change anything, it just makes us feel good about doing something. This changed people. And that’s how service in the name of Christ should be.”

 

Lost Boys of Sudan and St. Johns Baptist Charlotte/Norman Jameson

Samuel Awar has established a family since he came to America after surviving the death march through the African jungle. Martha Kearse holds some of Samuel’s family, with his wife, Akur.

 

 

View more in the Lost Boys Series 

Photo Gallery: Lost Boys in photos

 

Related news:

Bucking anti-refugee attitudes, small N.C. church opens ‘welcome house’

America needs refugees ‘to show us how to love each other,’ agree church resettlement volunteers

Richmond grateful for growth of Burmese refugee ministry

Churches helping refugees despite fear and rhetoric, say those involved in resettlement

 

Related commentary:

Humility, kindness and welcome: Hard but biblical callings | David Jordan

A lavish welcome to the table | Amy Butler

 

 

This series in the “Welcoming the Stranger” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. In “Welcoming the Stranger,” we share the inspiring stories of the people and faith communities that are teaching us all to love our neighbor as ourselves.

 

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.

 




Photo Gallery: Lost Boys in photos

 

All photos taken in this photo gallery of the Lost Boys are by Norman Jameson.

 

Lost Boys of Sudan and St. Johns Baptist Charlotte/Norman Jameson
Lost Boys and their families were commissioned to start a Dinka language church at St. John’s Baptist, the church that welcomed them when they went from being “lost” in the Sudan, to being lost as new refugees in America in 2001. Martha Kearse, instrumental in leading the church to embrace them, is second from right. She has just moved to become pastor of Peakland Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.
« of 13 »

 

 

Storytelling ProjectsIn this ‘Welcoming the Stranger’ series, we learn what happens when one church decides to live up to its covenant of “We will not let our differences separate us” and “We will be a servant church.” After some ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ resettled in their neighborhood in Charlotte, they embraced them immediately, encouraging, mentoring, feeding and providing personal instruction on the baffling machinations of American life. Now, after decades of life together, they are like family and welcome a new generation of Dinka-Americans as they begin their own church on the same campus. St. John’s Baptist Church truly welcomed and loved the strangers among them.

 

Read more in the Lost Boys Series 

Decades of life with the ‘Lost Boys’ from South Sudan: Charlotte church loves their neighbors as themselves

 

Related news:

Bucking anti-refugee attitudes, small N.C. church opens ‘welcome house’

America needs refugees ‘to show us how to love each other,’ agree church resettlement volunteers

Richmond grateful for growth of Burmese refugee ministry

Churches helping refugees despite fear and rhetoric, say those involved in resettlement

 

Related commentary:

Humility, kindness and welcome: Hard but biblical callings | David Jordan

A lavish welcome to the table | Amy Butler

 

 

This series in the “Welcoming the Stranger” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects Initiative. In “Welcoming the Stranger,” we share the inspiring stories of the people and faith communities that are teaching us all to love our neighbor as ourselves.

 

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.

 




For whites observing Black History Month, remember what seat you’re sitting in

Greg JarrellChoosing a pack of gum in the corner store usually takes me several minutes. There are just too many options. I hold too much fear of buyer’s remorse. Making significant life decisions, then, is agonizingly slow for me. So when I found myself ready to walk down the aisle to join Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on the first Sunday I visited there, I knew something significant was going on within me.

The music, the preaching, the hospitality, even the way the light filtered through the stained-glass, all of it drew me, body and soul, into this new home. The Spirit spoke deep down in my gut that I needed to listen in this place. I needed to harmonize with these brothers and sisters, as weekly we would “lift every voice and sing.”

The following week, a dozen Januarys ago, my wife and I did make the walk down the aisle at the end of the service, where we were celebrated and treated with as great a warmth as we have ever experienced. And immediately, we were put to work. A middle-aged man approached us, armed with the dangerous combination of the smoothest voice I have ever heard, and an uncommon gift for welcome. I would have done anything he asked.

What he wanted was simple and disarming: would we come to rehearsal on Saturday with the drama team, as they prepared a dramatic presentation for the next week’s Black History Month celebration during worship? You’ll have a simple part, with no lines, he said. It will be easy.

We showed up Saturday morning, ready to get our instructions and play our part. The silky-voiced director began placing people and giving instructions. “You’ll be here, as the driver of the bus,” he said to a tall and thick man, with gray salting his dark beard. “And you’ll be here waiting on its arrival,” he said to a small group to the side, women and men holding the props of daily life — a shopping bag, a baby, a tool box, a lunch pail. “And you all,” he said to me and Helms, “will, of course, be the white people who want Ms. Parks to give up her seat.”

Of course. As the only white folks in the room, we should have expected to play that part. This should not have been surprising to me. But it was. In history class, in church, in coffee shop discussions, it was always other white people. It was never us — our cousins, our ancestors, our heroes, but especially not ourselves — who sustained the system, or enforced it, or benefitted from it, or created it, or taught it in classrooms, or defended it in courtrooms, or stayed silent in the middle of it. It was always someone else, someone removed far enough from us to keep us comfortable. We were the good white people.

With that affirmation, we comforted ourselves, regardless of the cost of that comfort to our neighbors still seeking equal justice under law, still seeking confirmation from their society that their lives matter. There’s even a white folks’ parlor game, popular among students, where you discuss what you would have done during the Civil Rights Movement. Spoiler: we all know that we would have marched, at great and heroic sacrificial costs to ourselves and our families. Each and every one of us would have done that, we can assure you, which brings us great comfort.

The church drama ripped that comfort away from me, and rightly so. I had to put my body and mind in the place where I would have been, which is where pretty much all of us white folks would have been, and were — at the front of the bus.

February is here again — Black History Month. White navel-gazing is not the proper orientation toward Black History Month. We’ve got to do the needed self-examination, but we are not the center of the narrative. There are too many profound and beautiful stories to learn: the lives of Sojourner Truth and Malcolm X; the writing of Octavia Butler and James Baldwin; the music of Thelonious Monk and Nina Simone; the politics of Ella Baker and Marcus Garvey; the art of Augusta Savage and Romare Bearden; and more and more, more beauty than one month, or one year, or one lifetime can hold. During February — but not only during February — we rightly take time to focus on the lives and work of black people, whose very living was often an act of artful resistance. Using their work to put ourselves back at the center of the story is not the right strategy. But while reading all that black history, it does help to know what seat we are sitting in.

For those of us weaned on the religion of slaveholders, and the politics of the domination system, and the art of sentimentality, the brilliance of black people can set us free as well. Black history in America is American history, and if another Reconstruction is possible in America, that history will set the path forward. Black History Month celebrates black folks, but it is not only for them. It is for all of us who long to walk down freedom’s highway.




With little opportunity for youth and children — or almost anyone else — Christian community builds chances from the ground up

Helms Jarrell, co-director of the QC Family Tree intentional Christian community, had given crystal-clear instructions for the youth group’s annual trip to Boone, N.C.

Storytelling Projects

Faith & Justice

They had just hauled a van-full of Enderly Park teenagers up from Charlotte and the group was allowed one hour of free time on King Street, after which they were to report promptly for the dinner reservation.

An hour passed, but no youth group. What on earth had they gotten into? The Jarrells had no doubt. The notoriously mischievous gang was clearly loafing around the giant barrels of candy at Mast General Store. Except, they weren’t. With no kids in sight, Greg and Helms left Mast General and methodically perused the next stretch of King Street, shop by shop.

Suddenly, they spotted the entire group gathered in a storefront across the street, utterly enthralled in what was happening before their eyes — a potter was turning clay in his shop, all the while answering questions and talking with the kids about his craft.

Enderly Park youth consistently gather at the Jarrells’ home where they have created a pottery studio as well as a local hub for social activities. (Photo/Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey)

“That was an ‘aha!’ moment,” says Helms, who, with her husband Greg, has brought together Enderly Park youth for 12 years, seeking ways to inspire their imagination and empower their sense of identity in the world. Through weekly character-building gatherings, serving with their community and forming relationships rooted in mutual trust, the QC Family Tree youth group is seeking justice in their own lives and the life of their community, and challenging a long pattern of disinvestment in the lives of black youth.

A week after returning from Boone, Helms says, Samia Dillard, a 14-year-old member of the youth group, helped draft a grant proposal to create a pottery studio in the clubhouse behind the Jarrells’ home on Parkway Avenue. They got it. So they purchased a kiln, wheels and a mass of supplies for creating ceramic pottery and other art, which now cascades over the walls and shelves of the QC Family Tree pottery studio. Pottery, however, is only one way in which the youth of Enderly Park are imagining their worth and power in the world, Greg says.

“One of the most important parts of justice is using our imaginations, which doesn’t sound very tangible, but you can’t create a world that you can’t imagine.”

“There are multiple layers of imagination built into our pottery project — you have to imagine what a brick of clay can become, then you have to utilize your hands and develop the skill needed to construct what your imagination is telling you is possible. You have to be able to see, but then you have to practice a craft in order to cultivate your desire. In the process of doing that, you begin to imagine yourself differently. These kids have been told by popular culture, American culture and history books that their lives don’t matter. They’re not as important as my children are, just by the virtue of their racial heritage. That imagination has to change.”

Justice for Enderly Park youth means cultivating a positive imagination, Greg Jarrell says, for the possibilities in their life, identity and future. (Photo/Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey)

Enderly Park is marked by stark disinvestment and lack of opportunity for children and teenagers, 86 percent of whom are black and therefore begin with $50,000 less in household income than the average white child in Charlotte, Greg says. The result, as well as the cause? Only half of all Enderly Park residents have attained a high school diploma, with young men being 12 percent more likely than young women to drop out of high school. That’s why, when the Jarrells first moved to Enderly Park in 2005, Helms says, they immediately began gravitating toward their young neighbors, who constantly gathered across the street at the rec center.

Early days convening a youth group involved fierce basketball games with the kids, during which the Jarrells earned the monicker “Old School” and gradually diffused the natural skepticism. Basketball games morphed into youth group dinners, movie nights and holiday outings, and as relationships deepened, larger issues in the students’ lives began to rise to the surface. Gradually, the structure of the QCFT youth group began to reflect a response to those issues as well as an expanding relationship with their families, Helms says.

Earned trips to pick out a Christmas tree or play at the beach became incentives for students to pursue good grades and care about their homework. Regular Wednesday evening “Devos” became a weekly occasion to instill in the students respect for themselves and others. Sleepovers at the Jarrells’ home even became a way to protect children at risk of lingering in the street late at night or fleeing the prospect of their family’s impending eviction. Christmas 2016 finally featured a massive pottery market to display and sell the ceramic art that students had been crafting during the fall, and the youth group took home hundreds of dollars in earned income.

Twenty-year-old Marquell Pettiford grew up in the QC Family Tree youth group and says his experience will not only stick in his memory forever but has formed him as a valuable and compassionate leader in his community.

Marquell Pettiford, former leader with the QC Family Tree youth group, now serves as a local mentor and small business worker in Enderly Park. (Photo/Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey)

“I acquired a lot of traits, a lot of abilities, and it expanded my horizon and made me a more valuable person to the people around me. It sent me on another direction in life,” Pettiford says.

“Who knows who I would have been if I’d never met them, because you have to remember, in the area we’re in there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on around you and it’s easy to get consumed by it. I don’t like to talk about myself, but I don’t really follow too much. I’m my own self and I respect everybody for being their self. And now that I’m getting older I’m learning to respect the truth more. I’m starting to recognize these things and I’m starting to see God every day of my life. Since QC Family Tree, since I picked up those traits, I want to be an impact on people’s lives like they have.”

Pettiford, now a local coffee roaster, rap artist and business student, says the rest of the world doesn’t understand neighborhoods like Enderly Park, which, contrary to popular belief in more privileged communities, is not full of crackheads, prostitutes and gang bangers, he adds. Instead, Pettiford sees a community that he loves deeply, that sticks together and that grows with each other like family. It’s that community, he says, that he and QC Family Tree have both chosen to invest in and be oriented toward in love and solidarity.

Justice for young people like Pettiford usually means entering the kind of slow, steady fight that most tend to ignore. If racism is like an iceberg, Helms explains, the visible portion is overtly racist acts against people of color, with which the larger American conversation is highly preoccupied at the moment. But when you seek true justice with your black neighbors, she adds, you begin to deal with the portion of the iceberg that lies invisible below the surface, namely the kind of white supremacy that permeates all sectors of life and negatively affects everyone in a spiritually, physically, emotionally traumatic way, especially young people.

It’s that kind of injustice — marked by lack of educational opportunity, unsustainable income, over-policing and mass incarceration — that has contributed to the degradation of the family, which is where children truly learn to respect themselves and others, says Cornelia Hagens, a dedicated grandmother and volunteer with the QCFT youth group. Hagens’ constant presence among the youth of Enderly Park is not simply about disciplinary oversight, she explains, but about empowering an entire generation of black youth with reverence for their own character and thoughtfulness toward their path in the world.

Cornelia Hagens plays with her grandson Kylan at her daughter’s home, owned and leased affordably by QC Family Tree. (Photo/Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey)

“Somebody needs to put it in their heads to have a little respect about yourself, a little motivation about yourself, and say ‘Listen, you’re smart.’”

“They need to hear it from somebody that’s going to show some kind of care for them. In this neighborhood, our kids are doomed. I don’t want to just say black kids, but it seems that way. It’s like a platform laid out for them to go nowhere. It is our responsibility to teach our future, because they are our future. We have nothing without these kids. We want our kids to be leaders. We want our kids to drive our country forward, drive our people forward, because we’re all people. That’s what matters to me, these kids.”

While you can’t empower a generation of young people overnight, Hagens says, you can root yourself in their lives and persist through the systems that keep them unmotivated, uninspired and disrespectful toward their future. It’s a process, she explains, of continually demonstrating the goodness and power that comes when you live with respect toward yourself and others.

From her home just next door to the Jarrells’ on Tuckaseegee Road, this devoted grandmother and 30-year resident of Enderly Park says she finds hope in two places — the work of QC Family Tree, which brings young people off the streets and into an environment that cultivates their self-worth, and finally, her grandson Kylan. Kylan, she says, represents a whole new generation of kind, intelligent people, who, as far as she can see, have the best chance yet of transforming the black community and our country’s unwritten future.

 

Read more in the QC Family Tree Series

What is QC Family Tree?

For this intentional Christian community, seeking the world’s healing means battling gentrification close at home

Video: What does justice look like in Enderly Park?

Video: How is QC Family Tree seeking justice in Enderly Park?

Video: What do you love about Enderly Park?

Video: How is QC Family Tree on the path toward justice?

Video: Why are you fighting for stable housing in West Charlotte?

Photo Gallery: QC Family Tree in photos

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

Requiem for the ‘cut’: Finding connections in a gentrifying neighborhood | Greg Jarrell

Where to go from here: Re-imagining Charlotte | Greg Jarrell

Greg Jarrell is a regular contributor to BNG opinion. Read more from his column.

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Marginalized are harder to see ― and help ― in tourist towns, ministers say

 

Related curated at baptistnews.com:

Church makes scripture-centered fight against neighborhood displacement the core of its mission

Church planting and the gospel of gentrification

 

QC Family Tree, founded by Greg and Helms Jarrell, is an intentional Christian community forming relationships and seeking justice alongside residents of the Enderly Park neighborhood of Charlotte, N.C. This series in the “Faith & Justice” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects initiative. In “Faith & Justice,” we tell the stories of the people and organizations that are helping to bend the “arc of moral justice” towards justice and who are transforming communities. Additional series on this topic include Charleston: Metanoia with Bill Stanfield.

_____________

Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.

 




For this intentional Christian community, seeking the world’s healing means battling gentrification close at home

Enderly Park is blistering under an unseasonable September heat, and Frank Byers saunters across Tuckaseegee Road to the rec center where he likes to play cards with his neighbors.

Faith & Justice

He doesn’t use the crosswalk, but in many ways he’s earned it, that and another cigarette. Then he’s ready to talk football.

The Carolina Panthers’ veteran tight end Greg Olsen broke his foot during Sunday’s game, but Cam and the boys beat the Bills, and that’s fine by Frank.

“I’m my own team lover and I’m not riding the bandwagon no more; I’m a hometown diehard,” Byers says.

Despite some years rooting for the Steelers — one of the many bad habits Byers has sworn off — his devotion to the Queen City runs deep. Decades before he settled on the West Side of Charlotte, Byers grew up in Dilworth, the city’s first streetcar suburb, just two miles south of the city center. Yet, even as Dilworth dodged the 1970s urban renewal project, which disrupted many historically black neighborhoods, young Baby Boomers later crept in seeking in-town location and older houses. Rents skyrocketed and Byers had to leave. But hip, young families soon sniffed him out at his new home in Wilmore. Rents went up, again, and Byers had to leave — again.

From his new apartment in Enderly Park, owned and leased affordably by the QC Family Tree intentional Christian community, Byers is once more on a collision course with gentrification. But this time, he’s not alone. For the past decade, Frank has been engaged in the life and work of QC Family Tree and its directors, Greg and Helms Jarrell, together being authentic neighbors in Enderly Park and seeking justice with a community marked by stunning strength yet crippling disinvestment. And as the smell of hops wafts from the Lucky Dog Bark & Brew down the street, Byers and QC Family Tree are enlisting their neighborhood and other willing allies in a fight against the forces that put profit above people and exercise economic supremacy over Charlotte’s vulnerable.

Frank Byers, leader with QC Family Tree and chair of the West Side Community Land Trust, prepares plates at a community meal in Enderly Park. (Photo/Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey)

Yet, as Byers works alongside QC Family Tree to defend his community from displacement, even serving on the board of the emerging West Side Community Land Trust, Byers says he isn’t angry. He doesn’t speak of justice, but only of his family and an enduring love for his city.

“I’m living in a city that’s hungry for some kind of championship,” Byers says.

While the neon-blue panther on Byers’ ball cap sufficiently attests to his meaning, you can’t help but imagine that he isn’t just talking about Charlotte’s Super Bowl hopefuls. Byers says he simply wants to stay in the neighborhood he loves and keep his son, Frank Jr., in the same school until he graduates. The hometown diehard, on the run from gentrification his whole life, is standing with his Enderly Park family, and they are hungry for a win.

“Racism is a system that removes people from land and land from people,” says Greg Jarrell, co-director of the QC Family Tree intentional community, which has been cultivating solidarity with Enderly Park residents like Byers for more than 12 years.

“The story of race is a story in which people who look like me — white people — control and profit from land, and remove the ability of people of color to be grounded in the earth. That’s what colonialism is all about, who’s in charge of the land. Gentrification is the new way of settler colonialism. It removes the people who have lived on that land, sometimes for generations, and it’s the natural progression of late capitalism and the roots of it go way back. What does racism look like in this community? Right now, the instability of people’s housing.”

When the Jarrells first moved to Enderly Park in 2005, however, seeking justice did not yet mean practicing community development in an effort to heal broken places, Greg says. In fact, he believes the prerequisite to seeking justice with their neighbors means constantly indicting their own privilege and tendency to exercise supremacy through compassion. Effectively, justice meant siding with their neighbors, even when siding did not mean helping, and the Jarrells went about designing ways to do so.

“Racism is a system that removes people from land and land from people.”

In addition to gathering the neighborhood’s youth for basketball tournaments, movie nights and meals at their house on Parkway Avenue, the Jarrells established monthly community meals to which anybody in the neighborhood was invited and for which ordinary residents became servers. As natural skepticism fell and relationships deepened, community meals began to play a central role in how neighbors listened to each other and identified ways of organizing around places of injustice. If a local family faced impending eviction, the community responded. If a teenager became a flight risk, they responded.

Gradually, Greg says, family after family fell victim to rising property value and increasing development in the neighborhood. “Just like in most cities across the country, housing has become very expensive and this neighborhood has seen a doubling of housing prices in the last 18 months.”

“Extreme disinvestment in this neighborhood over the past 40 years has created an environment where poor people lived here for a long time, often in bad conditions that most folks would not want to live in,” continued Greg. “But the people who have lived here made the absolute best of it that they could and did a tremendous job. Now, the people still on the deeds, whose names are on the papers downtown but who haven’t invested any money for decades, are positioned to make large profits off of that disinvestment. That harms our neighbors, the large majority of whom don’t own their houses. So when the rent goes up, they just have to leave.”

As gentrification threatens Enderly Park residents with displacement, QC Family Tree is mobilizing their neighbors to create sustainable housing solutions in West Charlotte and corporate meals have become a jumping-off point. (Photo/Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey)

As QC Family Tree and neighbors like Byers began to organize against displacement, they quickly learned that North Carolina tenant-landlord law strongly favors landlords. Without ownership of land, Greg says, a given resident has very little recourse.

Byers discovered that precedent firsthand in 2016 when the landlord who rented his first apartment in Enderly Park suddenly sold the building for profit without notifying him. Overnight and without any improvements to the apartment, Byers’ rent rose from $600 a month to $900, leaving him no option but to turn to his neighbors at QC Family Tree, which owns five apartments that were gifted by a local landlord. Through a Section 8 voucher — a program, Greg explains, that has a highly stabilizing effect on housing but that has stalled by more than two years in the Charlotte area — Byers began renting from QC Family Tree at a price commensurate with his income.

For now, Byers helps his 12-year-old son get ready for school and prepare for his first season playing football in a rent-stable apartment, where Frank Jr. can attend the school he loves. Since getting clean from drug addiction and joining the work of QC Family Tree, life has never been so good, Byers says, and he wants to engage in the kind of advocacy that helped him find wholeness along the way.

“I’m seeing them help people, and that’s what I’ve been prone to do — help somebody else because somebody helped me over the years.”

“I’m seeing them help people, and that’s what I’ve been prone to do — help somebody else because somebody helped me over the years.”

“So we’re forming an organization to help people with affordable housing, people that live here and want to stay here in the 28208 zip code. We want to have them somewhere to live that’s affordable. This organization will have some property for you to live. We started last year in October and I’ve seen a lot of people come together.”

That organization, called the West Side Community Land Trust, is the latest expression of QC Family Tree’s journey toward justice. With Byers as chair of the board, WSCLT is comprised of the Jarrells, local West Side residents and other investors, Greg says, who want to see housing stabilize in West Charlotte and don’t feel the need to profit from investing in that mission. Through grassroots organizing and the building of a stakeholder pool, community land trusts effectively seek the legal recourse of land ownership, which, once attained, gives the group the ability to hold rents at sustainable and affordable levels for low-income residents.

Partnered with local investors and community leaders, the Jarrells are spearheading a movement to create stable housing for low-income residents in West Charlotte as gentrification threatens their housing. Helms Jarrell convenes a board meeting of the West Side Community Land Trust. (Photo/Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey)

With a median household income of $20,000 — more than $30,000 less than the median white household income — black residents of Enderly Park must have affordable housing to remain in their neighborhood and resist being displaced beyond the interstate where transportation and infrastructure provide even fewer opportunities, Helms Jarrell says. That’s why WSCLT is focused on educating local residents to resist lucrative offers on their property and lobbying for the funding necessary to purchase land in the 28208, 28214, 28216 and 28217 zip codes. As property value rises by the minute, Helms says, QC Family Tree often wonders if justice is possible, even in light of a God who seeks justice alongside them.

“I’ve been thinking about whether justice is possible and I don’t think it is right now.”

“When we think about the narrative of Israel’s departure from Egypt, they get out of Egypt but they’re still not in the Promised Land for another 40 years, wandering around in the wilderness. So it seems that there is a way toward justice. There is a practice that can be worked out to move us in the direction of justice, but I don’t know if we’re ever going to get there. The best I feel like we can do right now is to try and practice and work at it, and stretch into ways of abundant living, neighborliness, co-creation, resiliency, mirroring self-determination, being able to listen to the power of the voices of people who have been oppressed.”

After an entire day’s work is done and the babysitters have arrived, Helms Jarrell makes her way through Enderly Park to the WSCLT monthly meeting. En route, pristine craftsman bungalows dot the landscape, intermingled with the weathered homes of generations of resilient families. Once at the board table, she convenes the hopeful few in devising ways to be better neighbors and to defend their community’s right to remain in their homes. This quarter, they will focus on partnering with local investment initiatives and participating in a “Take Back the Block” demonstration, all the while building their membership $5, $20 and even $1,000 at a time through their fundraising website (squareup.com/store/westsideclt).

Yet, Helms explains, the end means nothing if the means reflect the same supremacy that now threatens their loved ones. For QC Family Tree, the work itself must be marked by a relinquishing of privilege and a sharing of mutual leadership and care. That’s why QC Family Tree and WSCLT safeguards their work by placing long-time Enderly Park residents like Frank Byers on governing boards and executive posts as well as continuing to host their neighbors for warm meals and careful listening. Ultimately, Helms says, housing justice is not an abstract issue — it lives and breathes, loves and fears, and desires a real peace.

“I don’t think of us doing the work of justice. I’m not a justice hero,” Helms says.

“It’s not abstract. Housing doesn’t just come down and hit us. It’s completely fluid, organic and relational. It means trying to listen and discern; what are the things going on and how can I respond with my gifts? We’re always wondering, ‘Did I do it right? Am I still doing it right? What is right? Should I even be worried about being right?’ I don’t know where justice lies, but I feel like I’m best practicing it when I have immersed myself in a community where I know God exists, because God resides with those who are marginalized and oppressed.”

 

Read more in the QC Family Tree Series

What is QC Family Tree?

With little opportunity for youth and children — or almost anyone else — Christian community builds chances from the ground up

Video: What does justice look like in Enderly Park?

Video: How is QC Family Tree seeking justice in Enderly Park?

Video: What do you love about Enderly Park?

Video: How is QC Family Tree on the path toward justice?

Video: Why are you fighting for stable housing in West Charlotte?

Photo Gallery: QC Family Tree in photos

 

Related commentary at baptistnews.com:

Requiem for the ‘cut’: Finding connections in a gentrifying neighborhood | Greg Jarrell

Where to go from here: Re-imagining Charlotte | Greg Jarrell

Greg Jarrell is a regular contributor to BNG opinion. Read more in his column.

 

Related news at baptistnews.com:

Marginalized are harder to see ― and help ― in tourist towns, ministers say

 

Related curated at baptistnews.com:

Church makes scripture-centered fight against neighborhood displacement the core of its mission

Church planting and the gospel of gentrification

 

QC Family Tree, founded by Greg and Helms Jarrell, is an intentional Christian community forming relationships and seeking justice alongside residents of the Enderly Park neighborhood of Charlotte, N.C. This series in the “Faith & Justice” project is part of the BNG Storytelling Projects initiative. In “Faith & Justice,” we tell the stories of the people and organizations that are helping to bend the “arc of moral justice” towards justice and who are transforming communities. Additional series on this topic include Charleston: Metanoia with Bill Stanfield.

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Seed money to launch our Storytelling Projects initiative and our initial series of projects has been provided through generous grants from the Christ Is Our Salvation Foundation and the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation. For information about underwriting opportunities for Storytelling Projects, contact David Wilkinson, BNG’s executive director and publisher, at [email protected] or 336.865.2688.