Welcome to America – Part Two
In her second post in this series, Jennifer Merck tells us about an unlikely partnership on behalf of the refugees we help.
All Souls has been involved in Welcome to America! Pack deliveries for quite a few years. We used to welcome families moving into apartments in Wheaton and Carol Stream. In recent years, though, housing costs and availability have made Western Suburbs arrivals quite rare. Almost all refugees arriving to the Chicagoland area are resettled in Rogers Park, a Northside Chicago neighborhood, just south of Evanston. This diverse neighborhood along the Lake is a terrific spot for arriving refugees to settle and begin to belong, but is a challenging spot for All Souls to travel to regularly. The drive takes at least 90 minutes and arrivals are usually in the late afternoon or early evening. We spend 3 hours (and often much more) on the road + a couple hours setting up the apartment. While it is a wonderful experience (and nothing, compared to the journey families have taken to arrive to us), it has become impractical for many of the Souls to be part of Welcome Pack deliveries.
With these challenges in mind, Carolyn Hart was thrilled, a few months ago, to receive an interesting phone call. A Philosophy professor at Lewis University in Romeoville, Dr. Gerad Gentry, was calling to inquire about All Souls involvement with Exodus. Gerad is a Houghton College graduate, an Ethics and Aesthetics professor, an artist, a husband and father, and a compassionate Christian man who has advocated for refugee resettlement laws and worked with low socio-economic populations in several states. Gerad and his family had recently moved to Hyde Park and were looking for ways to support refugees in the Chicago area. They had settled in at Immanuel Anglican Church in Uptown, but had noticed that All Souls was part of delivering Welcome Packs. He wondered if he and his students might get involved in these deliveries.
Fascinating: All Souls had been struggling with deliveries and here was an offer to help with deliveries. This certainly seemed like an interesting solution to a challenging problem. Carolyn, Gerad, and I quickly put together an experiment for this November’s Welcome Pack delivery. Gerad would offer extra credit to his Ethics students for participating in a Welcome Pack delivery. I’m not sure he nor his students understood exactly what they’d signed up for. And yet, I think they got much more than they ever anticipated.
The week after Thanksgiving, Gerad and his wife were expecting their 4th child any day. Gerad was out for this particular delivery, but his students were still in. The list of 5 whittled down to 2 available on the date of the Welcome Pack delivery. I made plans to meet them at All Souls, pack up the Welcome Pack that Carolyn had inventoried, organized, and placed at the top of the stairs by All Souls’ door, hop into my mini-van, and head to Rogers Park. I met Gerad’s students, Michael and Taylor, in All Souls’ parking lot. They left their cars in our lot for the next 7 hours, as we headed off on our adventure.
Michael and Taylor are Seniors at Lewis University. They both live at home with their families. Michael works full-time at Target in Security, while also attending school full-time. He is a Law Enforcement major and may want to join the police force after graduation. Taylor is Pre-Med and plans to go on to become a Physician’s Assistant. She is applying to graduate programs. Gerad’s students may or may not be people of faith. He let them know they would be working with a church to deliver the Welcome Pack, but his students come from various faith backgrounds, as well as no faith background.
I spent 4 hours with Taylor and Michael on the drive into and out of the City that day. We talked about a lot of things for people who had never met before. They had a lot of questions about refugees and the refugee journey. They had questions about All Souls and our involvement with refugees. We talked about politics and college and life after college and families and hopes and dreams for the world. The drive wasn’t the task at hand, and yet God used it as an opportunity to get to know these students.
The Monday after Thanksgiving, you may recall, brought a huge snowstorm (by Chicago November measures, anyway). Our arrival in Rogers Park on that Tuesday meant challenging parking. We found a spot not too far from the apartment building, met up with Emily Gorz, our Exodus contact, and proceeded with the countless trips up & down the 3 flights of stairs to unload the mini-van. Then, we began to unpack the boxes of all the items that you shared for the Welcome Pack! What a joy it is to dig into these boxes and see the things that you provided.
For Taylor and Michael, this process was new. They had questions along the way:
Should we make the beds?
Should we unpack the dishes and put them away?
Where should we put the tool set?
What makes sense to you?
There are no hangers in the closets; what should we do with the winter coats?
Why are no lights in the apartment?
This apartment was secured this morning; the electricity hasn’t been turned on yet.
Who are all these workmen coming and going?
The landlord is finalizing repairs on the apartment, just in time to welcome this family.
What happens if this family moves; do these items stay in the apartment?
All of this is a gift to the family, our way of welcoming them to America; if and when they move, they can take all of this with them.
Will the children go to school once they arrive?
Yes, but they will need doctors’ appointments and vaccinations first, so school will likely happen within a month or so.
Are there people who will speak their language in the building?
Likely yes; resettlement agencies often choose locations based upon the presence of similar people groups and languages spoken; this can help families settle into their new surroundings more easily.
It is interesting to watch the questions move from the practical to questions about belonging: not only questions about housing, but questions about making this apartment a home in a neighborhood that feels safe. Read the next post to learn more about meeting the Khalids.