Migrants and organizers converse after Saturday morning’s service. Credit: Concord Missionary Baptist Church

CHICAGO — Two weeks ago, nearly 200 migrants — most of them Spanish-speaking and with little or no knowledge of Chicago — moved into a makeshift shelter at Woodlawn’s vacant Wadsworth School.

The opening of the shelter for migrants at a closed school in a predominantly Black, South Side neighborhood sowed confusion, outraged residents who felt blindsided and exposed racial tensions. Some neighbors protested the move. Other community members met their new migrant neighbors with open arms, planning to help them.

As part of that effort, Woodlawn residents gathered Saturday morning at Concord Missionary Baptist Church to welcome migrants for a multilingual, nondenominational service followed by a free community lunch.

“The full voice of Woodlawn says that Woodlawn is a welcoming community,” said Pastor Edward Morris of Parkway Garden Christian Church, one of the faith groups working with Chicago 4 All. 

Volunteers and faith groups united under the Chicago 4 All initiative hope they can bring migrants the material, emotional and spiritual resources they need as they get settled in the neighborhood.

After lunch, Spanish-speaking volunteers helped migrants find the resources they needed in the growing body of donations housed at the church, which includes everything from hygiene products and clothing to luggage, backpacks and fresh fruit. One Woodlawn resident even donated a dozen bicycles, Morris said. 

The short-notice rollout of the Wadsworth School shelter plans last month was met with fierce public backlash. At a series of community meetings, Woodlawn residents expressed public safety concerns and frustration with the city’s “ingenuine” dealings with the community in advance of the rollout. City officials denied the shelter plans even after they were revealed by public records.

Multiple protesters, including a 20th ward aldermanic candidate, were arrested for refusing to leave Wadsworth School shelter earlier this month. 

Paula Gean began coordinating the Chicago 4 All initiative just two weeks ago when the migrants began arriving at the Wadsworth School shelter. She said her push to bring together friends, neighbors and local clergymen under Chicago 4 All was spurred by frustration with the narrative emerging from Woodlawn — that the local community wouldn’t welcome the migrants. Nothing, she said, was further from the truth. 

“It doesn’t have to be an ‘us versus them,’” Gean said, adding that any resources Chicago 4 All assembles will be “available to everyone,” including longtime Woodlawn residents. 

Rev. Kenneth Phelps of Concord Missionary Baptist Church said he was inspired by how quickly his congregation leapt into action to coordinate Saturday’s service and luncheon. 

“I think the more that the community engages with these incredible people, that’s going to change the narrative,” Phelps said. “We want the community to come and to share with them because they are incredible people. … They’re not aliens to us, they’re our family.”

Migrants and organizers at Saturday’s lunch. Credit: Concord Missionary Baptist Church

Morris compared the migrants’ arrival in Chicago to the arrival of African Americans to Chicago during the Great Migration, and said he was “sickened” by the parallels between segregationists blocking buses carrying African American schoolchildren in the 1960s, and protesters blocking bus carrying migrants to Wadsworth. But he said he knew that those protesters were only a few, isolated voices. 

“Those of us who remember our own struggle, we can empathize with them readily, and understand their struggle,” Morris said. “Rather than not be neighborly, we have to be neighborly because we remember our struggle as well.” 

As migrants and community members begin to work together, the stories of those sheltered at Wadsworth are beginning to cross the language barrier. Keila, a migrant from Venezuela currently staying at Wadsworth School, spoke to Block Club Saturday through Gean, who worked to translate.

Keila said she knew almost nothing about Chicago before arriving, only hearing through informal conversation that work and shelter would await her upon arrival. Now staying at Wadsworth, she’s had little opportunity to leave the school building and says she spends most of her time idle indoors. The migrants’ ability to move in and out of the shelter is limited. 

Gean, who has talked with a number of the migrants, said that migrants’ had no clear expectations before arriving in Chicago.

“Some of them were bused without knowing where they were going and some of them knew very little. It’s really a mixed bag,” Gean said. “Some of them did think that there were job opportunities here. But from what we’ve been able to gather, most of them didn’t know.”

Keila told Block Club that inside Wadsworth, she has her own cot in a room she shares with 18 other women. Her husband, whom she migrated with, stays in a nearby room reserved for men. 

When asked what resources she felt she needed, Keila was clear: English language skills. Over and over again, she stressed her desire to learn English and find work as soon as possible. 

Faith leaders with Chicago 4 All gather for a quick selfie. Left to right: Rabbi Ari Margolis of Or Shalom, Rev. Kenneth Phelps of Concord Missionary Baptist, Rev. David Black of First Presbyterian, Rev. David Cruz, Father’s Heart Church. Credit: Concord Missionary Baptist Church

Gean, Phelps and other organizers with Chicago 4 All have said that English language classes are part of a suite of resources they’re working to mobilize for the migrants. An internet café, the “Home Away from Home Center,” will be available at Concord Missionary Baptist.

Concord and First Presbyterian Church both have offered to open their kitchens to migrants who would like to cook and host meals. 

“It’s clear that the migrants want to work and they want to be contributing to the community and gaining self-sufficiency,” said Pastor David Black of First Presbyterian. “It’s been clear from everything that I’ve heard that they’re just very, very motivated individuals that are ready to establish lives here.” 

Concord Missionary Baptist is working to coordinate donations on behalf of Home Away from Home shelter. They are requesting hygiene products, washcloths and other goods that can be used to assemble care packages. They are also accepting donations in cash. For more information, those interested can reach out to info@chicago4all.org.

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