At Mennonite Mission Network, I hear countless stories about people leaving their local congregations to serve in the United States and around the world. But it is rare for me to hear a story that describes how a vision caught in one part of God's kingdom and was released back home, where it stretched hearts and borders.
This is one of those rare stories.
For six years, Jeanne and Mark Birky, farmers from Hopedale, Illinois, have traveled to San Antonio, Texas, to participate in Mission Network's SOOP (Service Opportunities with Our Partners) program. As part of their service, they engaged with La Casa de Maria y Marta (Mary and Martha's House), San Antonio Mennonite Church's (SAMC) hospitality ministry to asylum seekers from Central and South America.
The ministry provides a safe place, basic necessities, medical care and intentional community for asylum seekers on their journeys. For families remaining in San Antonio for extended lengths of time, the hospitality ministry offers job training and other connections.
During a recent interview, Jeanne and Mark shared what happened when they brought immigration/border concerns back to Hopedale Mennonite Church, where they are two of the 75 members in a rural community of 900 people.
At one point during their time at SOOP with SAMC, Pastor John Garland asked if their congregation would consider sponsoring an asylum seeker. The Birkys were personally on board, but they also knew that they needed to convince others back home. Before Jeanne and Mark shared stories of their SOOP experience, much of the community's exposure to the topic of immigration had been through mainstream media, which tended to evoke fear of the "other."
"We enjoyed getting to know and learning more about the situation with people fleeing from persecution," Jeanne Birky said. "When we came back to Illinois from Texas each spring, we informed our congregation about what was actually going on.
"We helped people understand that the nightly news images of people traveling in big caravans had a reason behind it. Groups keep people safe from the violent gangs threatening them during their journey to the U.S. border. Education and showing both sides is important in dealing with a subject like this."
The truthful storytelling yielded good fruit.
When Garland called the Birkys, in January 2019, to ask if the congregation could provide asylum for Jennifer, a woman in her mid-30s, and Lucia, her 10-year-old daughter, a group of 15 couples agreed to support the ministry. One couple opened their home to Jennifer and Lucia for six weeks, before an apartment became available. The mother and daughter lived in Hopedale for two years, until Jennifer received her work permit and became a nanny for a family in nearby Peoria, Illinois. She and Lucia still live in Peoria, where Lucia attends Peoria Christian School and they await a permanent asylum hearing.
The community also provided assistance with medical services, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, social engagements, transportation to required monthly check-ins in Chicago, Illinois, and other connections within the community.
The Birkys shared their story beyond Hopedale Mennonite, and as a result, two other congregations in Illinois — Lombard Mennonite Church in Chicago and Roanoke Mennonite Church in Eureka, Illinios — also provided safe communities for asylum seekers.
"We found this to be a real bonding experience and a good way to bring people together," Mark Birky said. "Jennifer and Lucia were blessed by the church, and we were blessed by their presence, because they gave us such direct insight into the challenges and joys faced by immigrants."
As a result of those two years, the church stretched beyond its former language and cultural borders by entering into a more bilingual worship experience. "I know of at least one instance in which an individual, who was very much against accepting immigrants without legal status into our community, changed attitudes and became very good friends with Jennifer and Lucia," Mark Birky shared.