“Because I can set up some cots in the sanctuary…” Part 1: The Families

We knew it would be squeezing a lot in, but when we realized that the kids’ Christmas holidays had been extended by 3 extra days (thank you Clarke County!), we decided to pack them into the Jetta and to make a quick road trip out to New Mexico. The connection we were able to make before our trip with El Calvario UMC and their “Resiliency” justice mission for migrants and asylum seekers in Las Cruces was God’s hand, and in the couple of days that we were able to spend with them serving Afghan families recently settled in the U.S., we saw and learned a lot. In this 3-part series, we’d like to share a little bit about our time there.

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The Families

In the years since beginning this sort of work with the most vulnerable of our society, we’ve tended to share fewer and fewer details about either the migrant and refugee families, or the refugee workers whom we’ve had the great privilege to know. These are people who are giving everything – whether to search for some place of refuge for their children, or to go and serve other migrating families. It has become very clear that any time we are given to share space and community with these folks is sacred, and should be handled with great care.

On our first evening there, a couple of the Afghan families who had been in Las Cruces already a few weeks were at the church receiving English and culture lessons – a part of the support Resiliency offers. We helped to serve them snacks after their lesson, and while they were naturally a bit timid with us – preferring to stay close to their own family – everyone was very warm and gracious. A few of the children even practiced with us a few words of English they had already learned.

We could see that some of the shock of the nightmare they had experienced in the weeks before landing in Las Cruces was beginning to wear off. But each of us also clearly recognized the weights of culture shock, intense grief, and trauma that the parents and children in these families were navigating, each coping in their own way, as human beings do. Our family has definitely experienced the ache of some of these things ourselves, but we couldn’t imagine having been forced so traumatically from our home and family under such intense threats of violence, only to land in a completely foreign culture and language, not knowing whether we’d ever see our home again.

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The children playing a game together in the El Calvario UMC fellowship hall.

The next day we met another family, which had arrived in Las Cruces only 2 days prior. This family was still staying in a nearby hotel while the Resiliency staff searched for any available long-term housing in the very scarce Las Cruces housing market. Their team has struggled through this season to find housing options that are both affordable and that have an owner willing to rent to Afghans. (“We’ve experienced more prejudice than we expected from owners unwilling to rent to these families,” one of the Resiliency coordinators told me.)

As there was no kitchen in the hotel, this family of 7 was welcomed to spend their day at the church where they would have access to El Calvario UMC’s industrial kitchen and the space around the church grounds. We were asked if we would be willing to spend the day playing with the children and going with them to the nearby park while the father – who’d been a successful chef back in Afghanistan – and mother used the kitchen to prepare a meal for their family’s dinner that evening.

On our way into the church that morning, we stopped and picked up some soccer balls, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, and a couple of simple card games. It was a wonderful gift to spend those few hours watching our kids connect with these Afghan children, watching as the initial shyness slowly began to wear off and to hear real laughter and connection begin to emerge. We’ve seen language and culture barriers broken many times through the grace of children, including our own, and each time it is nothing short of a miracle.

As this family was still so fresh to Las Cruces, however, some of the common issues that crop up when coping mechanisms fail under shock and trauma – such as unexpected, emotional outpourings, emotional detachment (ie suddenly “spacing out” during a conversation), and exhaustion – were a bit more evident than they had been with the other families. While the mother and father both worked hard to engage with us, it was clear by the red, swollen eyes, the quiet tears shed during lunch, and the forced laughter during our conversations with them that they were both exhausted and only beginning to process their experience since being forced to leave their home with their children in Afghanistan just a few weeks earlier.

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Along with the families at the church, we also met a young Afghan father who had served in the Afghanistan military for a number of years, alongside the U.S. and other allies in defense against radical, militant terrorist groups in that area. He spoke fluent English as a consequence of his military service, and so acted as a translator for the other families.

This young man showed us photos of the day that he and others serving with him had been evacuated under emergency due to threats being made against their lives. He happened to be on duty on that particular day, and the call for evacuation was so fast that he had not even been allowed to go to his home before being flown out. He was told that going into the city at that time would be too dangerous for all of them.

There’s much more to his evacuation story, but for the safety of his loved ones still in Afghanistan we are reluctant to offer more details here.

During the weeks of processing after his evacuation, when asked where he would prefer to be settled in the U.S., he told us that he’d actually requested the Atlanta area. He said that he has some relatives living in that area, and that he understood that there was a large, international community of migrants there, especially in the Clarkston area.

However, he learned from the visa processing agent assisting him that in the past few years, the Atlanta area has become a place which is no longer considered supportive or welcoming to migrants, as so many of the non-profits, resources, and support structures that once were available for migrant and refugee families in the area have been defunded and dismantled. So smaller communities and organizations – such as the Resiliency program at El Calvario UMC in Las Cruces – were likely going to be better options for meaningful, long-term support.

This has been both humbling and heart-breaking to process, especially as we have known so many who’ve lived and worked in the vibrant migrant communities around the Atlanta area over the years. In the context of the massive support structures that were once so much more accessible for these extremely vulnerable families in our communities, this little congregation in Las Cruces, New Mexico honestly seems like barely a speck in the expansive vacuum, which still sits mostly void.

But then we realized – yeah, it’s barely a speck. But at least it’s not nothing.

As we were able to see and learn and process during and since our time with El Calvario UMC and Resiliency, the underlying questions have remained:

  • “Why does it feel like this sort of sacrificial service and intimacy is so difficult to find in so much of the Western Church?”
  • “With this sort of need and brokenness so present in our own communities, why do so many of our church buildings sit mostly empty during the week?”
  • And finally, “Is my church showing up as another “speck” working to fill the expanse? Or are we just a continuum of the empty, barren vacuum?”

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