They fled Africa after witnessing unthinkable violence in Somalia, Rwanda and the Republic of the Congo.
They escaped Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, knowing that to stay—or return—would be a death sentence.
They ended up as refugees seeking asylum in the small town of Okemos, Mich.
Now these youth have found a home thanks to Michigan Refugee Hope, a ministry started by Faith Lutheran Church in Okemos.
“As a Christian, I am called to welcome the stranger,” said Ellen Schoepf, pastor of Faith. “We are to see the face of Christ in every person. When I see the face of Christ, how can I turn them back to a place where they might be killed? How can I in good conscience do that?”
In 2017, Schoepf received a call from the nonprofit organization Samaritas (formerly Lutheran Social Services of Michigan) about issues they were facing because of changes to immigration policy. Samaritas would no longer receive funding to help unaccompanied refugee children who hadn’t received federal documentation by their 18th birthday. And, with new delays to the immigration process, these young adults might not receive their documents in time.
“When I see the face of Christ, how can I turn them back to a place where they might be killed? How can I in good conscience do that?”
“Without proper documentation, they would be out on the street or in detention, facing deportation,” Schoepf said. “That could likely mean facing death.”
Faith’s old parsonage was refurbished as a home for refugees who have aged out of the foster care system. But turning hope into reality didn’t come together overnight, and the initiative to create the new Parish House took buy-in from the congregation.
One such congregation member is Laurie Hereza, a mother of four with a teaching degree who serves as vice president of Michigan Refugee Hope. She not only oversees Parish House but has adopted two children who lived there.
“It’s totally changed my life,” she said. “They are all family to me now. I wish more people could get to know these young men and others like them and know what they’re going through.”
Over the last several years, what started as a phone call to Schoepf has grown into a community-wide effort as others involved in Faith’s ministry get to know the experiences of refugee youth. Today doctors and dentists provide free care for the youth, and area attorneys work pro bono with the young men as they deal with the legal challenges of immigration.
Living out their dreams
So far 10 young men have been helped by Michigan Refugee Hope, and its work has not gone unnoticed by other members of the spiritual community. “The news is spreading,” Schoepf said. “We’d love to see this happen in other churches, because the need is great.”
A collaboration between Faith, Samaritas and representatives from various religious traditions, the program grew so quickly that it became an official nonprofit, with University Lutheran Church in East Lansing serving as the fiduciary and Ryan Prondzinski, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Michigan Center, as president. Michigan Refugee Hope held its first annual meeting earlier this year and is working with eight other communities around the state to raise funds and awareness.
“There is understandably an element of fear,” Schoepf said, “but if there’s some way we can support other congregations to take this on, it would be a ministry that would be so worthwhile, because there are so many young people who need help.”
The ELCA is committed to accompanying migrant children and families on a national level. The 2016 Churchwide Assembly approved the church’s AMMPARO (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities) strategy, and in 2019, the assembly voted to declare the ELCA a sanctuary denomination. It also provides aid through programs such as ELCA World Hunger and Lutheran Disaster Response.
“The work Faith Lutheran is doing is helping these young men stay in the country and live out their dreams.”
Mary Campbell, AMMPARO program director, hopes other congregations will see in Faith an example of the impact a congregation can have.
The ELCA “has a track record of helping refugees, but one of the gaps has been, when unaccompanied children come here, they get turned over to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) if they have nowhere to go when they turn 18,” she said. “The work Faith Lutheran is doing is helping these young men stay in the country and live out their dreams.”
The leaders of Michigan Refugee Hope know this work will be ongoing. President Joe Biden has signed executive orders reversing many immigration policies, but new ones will take time to implement. In the meantime, the organization plans to spread its ministry.
“I hope the work we are doing can serve as a beacon for others,” Prondzinski said. “This whole movement, project, work of the Spirit, shows that when the church comes together and works with the Holy Spirit, anything is possible.”