Church finds partner in urgent quest to help migrant families

December 13, 2022 | | GNJ News, The Relay

The Christmas story begins with a journey home and a blessed family’s search for shelter and hospitality. It ends with that family fleeing from danger to a strange land and becoming refugees in search of asylum.

First UMC of Union City, NJ, is living part of that story now—the hospitality part. The predominantly Latino church is trying to find shelter and meet other needs for a recent influx of mostly Latino migrants bused to the New York City area from Texas—once again refugees in search of asylum.

Union City, just eight miles from New York City, is where many migrants have come after traveling thousands of miles from their home countries—on foot, in crowded vehicles, across rivers and finally on buses sent North by defiant, unwelcoming Southern governors. Many—seeking a better, safer life for their families—have traveled risky, roundabout, rigorous routes from South America and the Caribbean, through Central America and Mexico, and finally crossing the U.S. border.

Jani, a nurse, came with her husband and children from Peru, while Dalia came with her family from Cuba. First UMC has helped them and others to find housing, food and basic services, and also enrolled their children in its preschool program, thanks to scholarships.

Dalia’s family is one of two living temporarily in the church’s parsonage, along with other tenants. Meanwhile, the Rev. Elizabeth Gonzales, pastor, and the Rev. Manolo Sardiñas, copastor, are appealing everywhere for donations to help pay for hard-to-find, affordable housing in the area.

“We are having a difficult time housing two immigrant families…who have nowhere else to live,” wrote Gonzales to the Rev. William Williams, Superintendent of GNJ’s Meadowlands District. “This city is receiving many immigrants, and our church must give an answer. We are helping families with clothes and food; but we have to try to find places for them to live.”

While some have found part-time work, they are often exploited and robbed of their wages due to their undocumented status, said Gonzales. They are too afraid to protest or complain. First UMC tries to help them with food and financial support, much of which comes from its popular preschool and childcare program.

“This ministry has been with us for years. We give them not only food and shelter but also hope for each person to be treated with dignity and respect,” said Gonzales. “We incorporate them into different support groups and invite them to join our church.” The congregation is now back to pre-Covid numbers of about 60 worshipers on Sundays.

“If the district wants to get involved, it would be very good,” she wrote to Williams. So, he put the UMC connection to work by linking First UMC with Morrow Memorial UMC in suburban Maplewood, near Newark. Morrow has been working for years with local partners to advance the cause of immigration justice and hospitality.

Lay member Dorothy Wetzel gathered church leaders to learn about and respond to First UMC’s appeal. The two churches instantly became willing partners in mission.

To start, a small team of Morrow UMC members visited First UMC on Saturday, Dec. 3, and helped with its biweekly distribution and home delivery of free food to about 178 families. They plan to recruit and send more members in January, including children.

“It’s a perfect volunteer opportunity for our young families who want to be involved in hands-on ministry,” said Wetzel, a health care marketing consultant. She serves on the board of First Friends of New Jersey and New York, which provides compassionate outreach to immigrants who are impacted by the immigration enforcement system to help them “survive detention, gain freedom and rebuild their lives.”

Wetzel was also invited to join the First UMC at their annual Christmas dinner Dec. 9 at a local Cuban restaurant. During that celebration, several migrant families shared their stories, “full of suffering but with the desire to have a new life,” said Gonzales. “Each has a story to share; and it is interesting to listen to them, so that one learns and appreciates more and more what God has done in our lives.”

Morrow UMC will call on some of its community partners to help First UMC get support from the state’s Community Food Bank, as well as legal aid for its migrant neighbors who are seeking asylum.

Meanwhile, Morrow and First UMC church leaders are brainstorming on ways to partner together to serve the community. They are considering donations of winter clothing and home furnishings for residents, Christmas gifts for children, collaborative fundraising activities—such as a Cuban cuisine cooking class—and some inter-church youth activities. Several of First UMC’s youth enjoyed meeting peers from other churches at GNJ’s IGNITE rally in October.

“My hope is that we will work together as partners, and they seem to welcome that,” said Wetzel. “There’s much we can do to help each other. There’s a lot we can learn from them.”

“I know our people are capable of helping those least favored,” Gonzales wrote to Williams. “As I always say, we are the hands and feet of God.”