The news came by email. Scott Smith and Cathy Sandstrom, volunteers at Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Idaho, read their email and started jumping up and down. They called Romel*, who was driving, and told him to pull over. Assuming it was bad news, Romel braced for the worst. Then they read him the message from his attorney.
“When I heard ‘You won!’ I started to scream and cry. It was very beautiful!” –Romel
“When I heard ‘You won!’ I started to scream and cry,” recounts Romel. “It was very beautiful!” In tears, he continued driving to his host “grandma’s” house, eager to share the news. Celebration radiated throughout this web of solidarity. He had reached an incredible and life-changing milestone—one that remains elusive for so many who come to the United States seeking safety. Three years after fleeing violence and persecution in Honduras, Romel had been granted asylum by an immigration judge.
Boise UU Fellowship was one of the first congregations to participate in the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s (UUSC) Congregational Accompaniment Project for Asylum-Seekers (CAPAS). Inspired by a trip to protest family separations at the United States’ southern border, members felt compelled to provide a compassionate welcome to an asylum-seeker. The fellowship began a process of discernment and preparation for a journey of accompaniment that unfolded in unpredictable, joyful, and sometimes frustrating ways. The result was an asylum success story that also created new friendships and demonstrated UU faith in action.
Seeking safety from persecution, conflict, and abuse is recognized in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In support of this universal human right, congregations around the country are providing solidarity to asylum-seekers, many with the UUSC’s support. The vast majority of asylum-seekers come from countries that either lack a democratic government or have governments plagued by organized crime, corruption, militarized security forces, and failing institutions.
Asked why he sought asylum in the United States, Romel explained, “I asked for asylum because of my sexual orientation, because of the gangs, and to have a safe life. I asked for asylum to have a better life than [in] my country.”
When people arrive at U.S. borders, they are often met with hostility, additional trauma, dehumanizing policies, and squalid conditions. To counter this brutality, the CAPAS program partners with communities of faith as they host and accompany immigrant individuals and families, providing a true welcome and working together against unjust barriers to asylum.
To date, more than forty congregations of UUs and other faiths have participated in the CAPAS program. Some, such as the Boise fellowship, have served as host congregations, providing comprehensive support to asylum-seekers. This support includes offers of housing, basic needs, legal representation, medical care, ESL support, transportation, job training, childcare, and partners to turn to at each stage in the process.
"They gave me trust, and that trust is that thing that helps us take away all of the bad things we have in our hearts.” –Romel
Romel reflects on the importance of the relational support offered by congregations: “I would say to the congregations, when they have an [asylum-seeker] in cases like this, I would hope that they give them lots of love and understanding . . . [Boise UU Fellowship volunteers] helped me feel the love in my heart . . . They gave me trust, and that trust is that thing that helps us take away all of the bad things we have in our hearts.”
Congregations have developed a variety of models for hosting. Some rent apartments for their guests or provide housing on their congregations’ campuses. Many house asylum-seekers in a congregant’s home. Diana Borrero-Lowe, Romel’s housing host whom he lovingly calls “grandma,” recalls, “I had recently lost my husband and had a relatively empty house. It took a little while to get used to, but I was so curious about him and his life. He really became part of my family. I learned so much from him about gratitude. It was a mutual learning experience, and I don’t regret a minute of it!”
Another part of the CAPAS program is connecting congregations with families that have been reunified after being horrifically separated from their children at the border. This work is done in collaboration with Al Otro Lado, a legal advocacy organization and UUSC ally, which helps reunify families and offers case management. Participating congregations offer their new neighbors a warm welcome, short-term assistance, and community connections to help them begin their lives in their new locations.
In Minnesota, the UU Church of Minnetonka and the Michael Servetus Unitarian Society are collaborating in their work with a reunited family. “The pandemic broke down so many congregational silos and taught us that we can build shared power in new ways,” said Minnetonka’s minister, Rev. Lisa Friedman. It takes time and intention to figure out how to partner with each other, she adds, noting that the congregations have a joint team of volunteers where each contributes based on its strengths. One congregation has more Spanish-speaking volunteers to offer interpretation services, while the other is closer to the family’s home and can more easily offer transportation. The ministers held a joint worship service focused on the work, and congregants are enjoying getting to know one another, as well as the family, as they work together.
“If we are to build the Beloved Community, we must continue to open ourselves up beyond our congregations and approach relationships and service to others with humility and love.” –Rev. Laura Smidzik
“Once we heard that there was a reunited family in our area, we knew that this would be a transformative journey,” said Rev. Laura Smidzik, minister at Michael Servetus. She said that as the congregation gets more involved in supporting the family in whatever ways they need, “we will no longer see immigrant justice as something that happens at our borders but instead as something that is needed throughout the United States and beyond.” While it is easy to “other” a stranger, relationships bring people together who have different backgrounds, histories, and life circumstances and experiences, she said, adding, “If we are to build the beloved community, we must continue to open ourselves up beyond our congregations and approach relationships and service to others with humility and love.”
The CAPAS program offers a wide range of support for congregations interested in doing this work and will remain with them throughout the journey.
“The UUSC and their partners have been important resources and support, especially as we’ve tried to show up as companions who are following the family’s lead and not as ‘helpers’ projecting our own ideas and needs onto them,” says Friedman. “The opportunity to be in solidarity is both a privilege and a spiritual practice. There are so many resources available—UUSC, other UU congregations, and community partners who have been doing this work on the ground for years.”
The UUSC invites you to join us in this work. Learn more about the CAPAS program and how you and your congregation can get involved.
*Last name withheld for privacy.