‘Nag-vocating’ for migrants in Chicago - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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The rectory kitchen opened up for migrant women to make arepas, a typical Venezuelan dish.

I am so glad the Holy Spirit is ever present in our ministry to the asylum seekers. At first, I did not recognize Her presence, but now I am so glad She is by our side!

The first intervention of the Holy Spirit was in an abrupt change of plans. For a long while, I had been anxious to be more actively involved in border ministry. My husband, Don, and I were following the development of the Maryknoll presence along the border, hoping that we could volunteer there starting this spring.

Then, courtesy of Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, Venezuelans began to arrive by bus in Chicago in very large numbers. The border was now here.

Venezuelan children playing outside a Chicago police station after having been bussed from Texas.

The city-run shelters soon filled and the overflow asylum-seekers were sleeping on local police station floors. That’s it. For those in the police station, the city provides nothing — no food, no bedding, no change of clothes, nothing. The migrants, mostly Venezuelans, stay in the station until a space opens up for them in a shelter.

Through a connection with Catholic Workers, I joined an ad hoc group forming on a WhatsApp chat to meet the needs of the migrants sleeping on the floor of a Chicago police station less than a mile from our house. Over the last several months, I have been deeply involved with the group and have been able to make further connections, not only with our local Catholic parishes, but also with other faith-based organizations and individuals, to assist in the ministry.

Communicating needs and responses through the WhatsApp chat, we have created a system to arrange meal deliveries, deliver bedding and clothes, and organize trips to the laundromat.

Both medical and dental care have been set up. Another important ministry is obtaining cell phones and SIM cards for our brother and sister migrants so that they can be in contact with their families back in Venezuela. The phones also help them find day jobs and allow the migrants to alert us when there are new arrivals or a specific need at the station. With up to 45 migrants at the station (a third of them children), there are always emerging needs. Outings to nearby parks help boost morale.

A new word I have learned in this ministry is “nag-vocate,” nudging the powers-that-be to achieve what is needed. It works! The migrants now come twice a week to a former rectory to take showers. There the migrants also enjoy a hearty breakfast, select new underwear and donated clothes, and visit with a social worker. An area has been set up for children with games, toys, and art projects.

Recently the rectory kitchen opened up for the women to make arepas, a typical Venezuelan dish. How wonderful for them to prepare their own foods for their families! How evident is the Holy Spirit in this new use of space!

It’s going pretty well, but our efforts are not sustainable and are barely making a dent in this humanitarian crisis. Over 12,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago since last fall; almost 6,000 are in shelters, and over 900 languish in police stations.

Our parish has been accompanying one Venezuelan family since last fall and will be working with Catholic Charities to accompany two more families. In various ways, we are assisting migrants who have managed to move out on their own to apartments, but we recognize that we need to develop a broader, more systematic and sustainable approach to addressing this issue.

We’re working on it. We’re nag-vocating. And the Holy Spirit is guiding us.

For more information, email me at immigrantministry@gmail.com.

Celine Woznica
Celine Woznica and her husband, Don, served as Maryknoll lay missioners in Nicaragua and Mexico from 1981 until 1992. She has worked in child rights promotion, global and community health in both Latin America and Chicago, and the formation of community-based health promoters.