SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Mennonite Mission Network) – The Guatemalan woman and her two teenage sons were flying out of San Antonio to their new home somewhere in the United States. In working together with their sponsors, they had created a new beginning for themselves.
Ruth Mellinger, a volunteer with SOOP (Service Opportunities with Our Partners), explained the process of getting through security and stood with the woman, offering more help as it was needed. The woman asked Ruth who she was, and Ruth replied, "We are volunteers from local churches who just want to be here for you."
Despite Mellinger's insistence that this was a free service, the woman pressed $2 into Ruth's hand. Ruth watched as the mother went through security and emptied the rest of her money into the security tray – $4 and some change."That was literally all she had," Mellinger recalled. "Not even a bag of clothes ... just her manila envelope of documents. Words cannot explain that experience."
When Mellinger's husband, Jim, retired from pastoring after 23 years, they knew they wanted to serve in some capacity for the next year. They also knew they wanted to be in cities and working with asylum seekers as much as possible. In Greensboro, North Carolina, Ruth Mellinger had been teaching English to adult refugees and immigrants. Their church also served immigrants and refugees. But neither of them had experience with asylum seekers.
Their decision to serve led to not one, but five SOOP assignments – 13 months of experiences that "words cannot explain," and a new home.
Wherever they served, their goal was to learn as much as they could about what life is like for asylum seekers and they were intentional about creating meaningful friendships with the people they were serving. For example, while serving in LaGrange, Georgia, they lived with a couple who chose to move to a street where 28 households of mostly-undocumented, first-generation Guatemalans lived.
The couple's goal was to become part of the daily life of the community and encourage them in whatever ways possible. That included sponsoring summer camps for the children, a food bank, driving recent arrivals to their immigration court appointments 1.5 hours away in Atlanta, and eating with them around their tables.
Ruth Mellinger also coordinated volunteers who traveled each week to visit detainees in Lumpkin, Georgia, at Stewart Detention Center, the largest male detention center in the United States. It holds 2,000 men picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
"It was disheartening to see the inhumane treatment of these men firsthand and feel there is so little we could do other than provide a listening ear, prayers, and a house where visiting family members could stay for free," Jim Mellinger said.
"We are certain if more people in the United States would get to experience what asylum seekers go through, laws and mentality toward these precious, vulnerable people would change. It never ceased to inspire us to see young adults taking the helm in many of the locations where we served, working long, hard hours to share the love of Jesus in tangible ways."
The Mellingers like warm climates and big cities. Above all, they love the work that San Antonio Mennonite Church and the Interfaith Welcome Coalition was doing in helping Latin Americans fleeing poverty and gang violence. So, they decided to buy a fixer-upper house in San Antonio and make their home there.
Since settling in San Antonio, they noticed that the needs of the border crossers had increased exponentially. Interfaith Welcome Coalition continues to help about 100-150 women and their children through the airport and bus terminal each day.
But now there are also from about 200-275 people being dropped off by ICE at the bus terminal every day, and churches are working together to provide safety during this vulnerable time of their journey. The city opened a resource center across from the bus station, staffed by their volunteers alongside church volunteers to provide food, phones, and medical attention as needed.
Within another block is a large church that opened its space as an overnight shelter with cots for sleeping. San Antonio Mennonite members volunteer every Friday evening from 7 p.m. until Saturday at 8:30 a.m.
"It's been good to help as we can," she said. "We are hoping within the next month to move into our home and be more involved again with this great need. We've talked about doing another term with SOOP at some point, but for now will probably continue serving locally as long as these needs exist.
"We pray daily for more humanitarian solutions that are family-friendly and Jesus-loving toward these people."