Karen Miller, SOAR
It was a Thursday afternoon, and the winter sun warmed my face as I sat on the front porch of our church. The bustle of activity inside floated through the open door.
Folks from Shir Tikva, the Jewish congregation that shares our building, arrived for Torah study with Rabbi Ariel. The director of Sponsoring Organization to Assist Refugees, or SOAR, was on his phone and a couple of clients arrived to meet with lawyers who would help them navigate paperwork and court appearances in their citizenship process. A church member stopped by to visit and to pick up his newly washed socks and a pair of shoes another church member found for him at the Goodwill store. A couple of church members worked in the garden beds, preparing them to raise vegetables and herbs that would be shared with the neighborhood.
All of the activity in this moment was exactly what I had hoped and dreamed for Bridgeport UCC when I helped found the church two decades ago -- and today, I am part of a community where my spirituality grows and expands and I can put my faith into action with our Justice, Witness and Sanctuary team.
I was volunteering with the afternoon shift for SOAR’s monthly legal aid clinic, sponsored by Bridgeport UCC. Lawyers help refugees and poor immigrants on their journey to become US citizens. My job is simple: I greet people, pour them a cup of tea or offer a snack, guide them to the SOAR staff. With the church door propped open, I smile and tell them my name. I want them to feel safe and welcome, that they belong here. Too many spaces and faces are unwelcoming to our immigrant friends.
We provide our sacred place as a true refuge for immigrants and refugees seeking this service. Each month we meet people from all over the world.
On this day, a woman from Guatemala stood at the door waiting for her turn. I invited her to sit and enjoy the sun with me. We began talking. She needed information so her daughter and grandchildren could join her in the US. As we visited, her story unfolded. She left home at 14 -- born and raised in rural Guatemala, working in the fields was no future for a girl, she said.
She wanted more out of life. With a smile, she noted that at 14, “more” was a second pair of shoes and a pretty dress. In the city, she found a place to live in return for house cleaning. She learned to cook. She wanted to go to school and was able to both work and attend classes. But nothing could have happened without help, she said.
When I told her she was brave, that I couldn’t imagine starting over in a new country, she said, “You are so lucky. You don’t have to.” She has never met her grandchildren -- ages 2, 8 and 15 -- in person. But she treasures connecting with them on Face Time. We shared the joys and limitations of the app. My oldest daughter lives in China, and I told Mayra we mostly stayed in touch through texting. Sometimes I felt more distance with Face Time and I wasn’t sure why, I told her. My new friend from Guatemala nodded. “Yes, the hard part about Face Time is when it goes off and the screen is blank, you really know they are not with you.”
This was why I spent an afternoon greeting people at the SOAR clinic. I support the work of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon in providing this critical legal service.
I also love the simplicity of opening our doors, welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds. And, on a day like this, to make a new friend...