As migrant crisis grows will faith groups step up and offer unused buildings?

Religious organizations own substantial properties that sit empty or little used. Why aren’t they being opened to shelter people arriving in Chicago?

SHARE As migrant crisis grows will faith groups step up and offer unused buildings?
A traveler walks past asylum-seekers inside a waiting area for shuttles near O’Hare Airport’s Terminal 2 on Oct. 3.

A traveler walks past asylum-seekers inside a waiting area for shuttles near O’Hare Airport’s Terminal 2 on Oct. 3. More migrants were sheltered behind the curtain. More than 17,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago since the end of August 2022.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The migrant crisis in Chicago and other cities brings difficult questions front and center.

How do we decide who needs political asylum? Whose fault is it that we’re in this situation? What are our attitudes about helping those less fortunate than ourselves?

But this may be the hardest question of all as more buses arrive from the South and the crisis escalates:

What are the churches doing?

Chicago Enterprise bug

Chicago Enterprise

That shorthand covers synagogues and mosques too. Religious organizations own substantial property in and around Chicago, much of it excess or used only a fraction of the time. As Mayor Brandon Johnson forges ahead with his plan to put people in tents as the weather cools, why aren’t more religious organizations offering space for new arrivals?

It won’t be ideal. Maybe the radiators bang and the plaster is cracked, but wouldn’t migrants appreciate the heat and indoor plumbing?

The Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago “has been trying to figure this out as well,” said its executive director, Nisan Chavkin. “We don’t have anything official to share yet.” The council represents some 40 denominations and theological schools.

Many groups are involved in assisting individual migrants or families. Some congregations have organized food deliveries to migrants. One is Santa Teresa de Avila, an Episcopal church on the Southwest Side that has provided sandwiches for people at the nearby Chicago Lawn police station, said the Rev. Sandra Castillo, a retired Episcopal priest who assists at the church.

Not to minimize those efforts, but the crisis could demand more as arrivals increase.

The Archdiocese of Chicago has for years closed and consolidated parishes as congregations declined and neighborhoods changed. Its real estate office posts several pages of property available for sale or lease, including churches, rectories, schools and convents. Can they make people more comfortable than at O’Hare Airport or a police station?

The archdiocese directed questions to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, whose chief executive, Sally Blount, emphasized the group’s involvement in getting people into transitional and permanent housing. She said that since last December, Catholic Charities has worked with the state and city to sign leases for nearly 1,900 migrant households.

“We have committed to help up to 6,000 new arrivals find and sign leases for housing between July 2023 – June 2024. To that end, we continue to seek responsible and reputable landlords,” Blount said in an email. She said Catholic Charities is doing more than any other private group to support resettlement.

As for immediate help for new arrivals, Blount wrote, “Representatives of the Archdiocese have walked through many properties with the City over the last year, across both administrations, none of which have ultimately been selected. We continue in those dialogues.” Blount declined a request for a followup interview.

Things get murky here. Volunteers who have worked with the migrants and church officials said the archdiocese wants to make sites available but hasn’t gotten city help to do it. “This is more or less an easy solution,” said Britt Hodgdon, who has volunteered at the Grand Crossing police station. She said the archdiocese has offered property if the city can pay for security, “and the city has just ghosted them after that.”

Meanwhile, matters worsen with each busload, she said. “The stations are full. No new shelters are opening, We have a bottleneck that’s getting worse because people can’t move out to transitional housing,” Hodgdon said.

The mayor’s office could not be reached. A main Johnson ally in the City Council, Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said the lack of response is with the archdiocese, not the mayor. “The mayor has been trying to discuss this. … We need the cardinal to pick up the phone and talk.”

Sigcho-Lopez and others have been calling on the archdiocese to open closed churches for the migrants since last year.

Religious organizations will need help covering security, maintenance and insurance. Somebody needs to bring in cots. Volunteers will bear a burden. Castillo, who chairs the Episcopal Diocese’s Sanctuary Task Force, said many congregations are still recovering from the pandemic and must rely on partnerships with others for charitable work.

“There’s a willingness to help but maybe not the capacity,” she said. But she said it may be time for a stepped-up response by people of faith.

The migrant situation has stirred emotions around town. A commentary by Cardinal Blase Cupich published by the Chicago Catholic addressed that head-on. It said:

“This is happening; it is a crisis, and we cannot wish this suffering away or make excuses for not addressing these needs for political or ideological reasons. Like those in the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan, we cannot turn our backs on them, especially if we claim to be a church that takes pride in being a ‘field hospital.’ The fact is that people are here and need help. End of story.”

Amen, cardinal. You wrote that in May. Now what?

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