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‘We have plenty of room here’ Woodlawn group welcomes migrants to community amid local and political opposition – Chicago Tribune


When news broke that the old Wadsworth School building in Woodlawn would be turned into a migrant shelter, some residents of the predominantly black neighborhood spoke out against the plan, citing the needs of their underserved community on Chicago’s South Side, and increasing racial tension between the two groups.

But amid the turmoil, a group of residents has quietly organized to welcome the migrants, developing a plan to help them integrate into their community after the shelter opens.

“They’re here, they’re hurting, they’re human,” said the Rev. Kenneth Phelps of Concord Baptist Church, 6319 S. Kimbark Ave., about a four-minute walk from the shelter.

Last month, Phelps hosted the inaugural bilingual service and luncheon for asylum seekers at the church, where he told attendees — who are mostly from Venezuela — about their efforts to provide them with a safe place to meet their neighbors and resources to help them settle. They dubbed the mass movement “All 4 Chicago”.

The group also seeks to change perceptions of black-Hispanic relations by encouraging neighborhood unity and allaying fears migrants have expressed about their safety since moving to the new shelter in the face of community opposition.

“Tell all your friends, your family at the center that they are welcome and we have plenty of room here,” Phelps told those in attendance during the service. Yolanda Cruz, pastor of Father’s Heart Church in Belmont-Craigin, served as his translator.

For Luisangelis Rodriguez, 31, the pastor’s message was comforting, she said in Spanish. When she moved, people protested outside the shelter, she recalls. “We knew they didn’t want us here, so we were afraid to go outside.”

Those tensions boiled over at City Hall on Wednesday, when some City Council members tried but failed to reject a motion to accept $20 million from the state that would go toward housing migrants, voicing their displeasure with outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration’s handling of the situation.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, whose ward Woodlawn is in, urged her colleagues to join her in voting against, which she said was not because she did not want to help migrants, but because her pleas for better communication about the , where to shelter them, were ignored. Taylor then proposed repealing the legislation, but it failed before the general appropriation passed by a 32-15 vote.

Black Caucus Chairman Jason Erwin, 28th, said before the vote that he was frustrated by his opposition to the $20 million distribution because he didn’t think it was reasonable to return money that the city couldn’t find otherwise, but that black Chicagoans had been ignored for too long. .

“We are a welcoming city; I understand that, Erwin said. “But we also have to think about those who are here. We also need to think about refugees and immigrants who have a darker undertone. … I’m not trying to make it a race issue. But, unfortunately, it is so.”

More than 200 migrants living in a school-turned-refuge moved in the first week of February, despite some residents protesting that Woodlawn is already struggling and unable to accommodate the new influx of people living in need, citing homelessness, a lack of mental health resources and economic development in the area.

The uproar comes shortly after the city confirmed in late January that the school would be renovated as a temporary shelter to help address a recent surge in asylum seekers, and as the city reached “maximum capacity” after residents questioned the construction in this area.

For the black volunteers at Chicago 4 All, racial tension “shouldn’t define how people are treated,” said Linda Smith-Williams, who helps prepare food for their Saturday service.

Jennifer Chinchilla hugs during a bilingual Mass at Concord Missionary Baptist Church in Woodlawn on February 18, 2023.

When more than two dozen refugees who now live in the former school arrived for the first service, they cautiously entered the church and asked if everything was OK. Attendance has grown every Saturday since then, said Paula Ginn, a Woodlawn resident who organized the meetings, connecting various church leaders, residents and city officials.

A few days before the first service, Gene stood outside the shelter handing out flyers and inviting migrants to church.

Gene’s vision is ambitious but not impossible, she said with a smile, hoping that eventually the group will be able to offer yoga, meditation and English classes at the shelter or elsewhere in the neighborhood. According to Gene, the conversation about how and if they will be allowed into the shelter is ongoing. The initiative’s first beautification project is scheduled for Saturday, where migrants are invited to join other Woodlawn residents to clean up the streets, meet neighbors and learn about local resources.

The cleanup team will meet at 9 a.m. at Light of the World Church, 840 E. 65th St.

A statement from the administration, Laura Lightfoot, said the mayor’s community engagement team worked with Chicago 4 All coordinators as they provide an opportunity to bring residents and asylum seekers together. But he clarified that the initiative is not financed by the city.

“Since the arrival of asylum seekers this summer, community leaders and residents have been supporting these individuals and families. Chicagoans reinforce our values ​​as a welcoming city, and that’s what this group does,” the statement said, whether helping through formal community organizations or as individual donations or volunteering.

In the

In the meantime, Phelps said they will work with what they have and are looking for donations and funding from anyone who wants to help. They also plan to find a way to allow migrants to use the church’s kitchen “so they can cook the food they like,” he said. The community kitchen will be part of their Home Away From Home Center at Concord Missionary Baptist Church, where they also plan to offer an Internet cafe and English classes.

They also collect donations from members and other community members to make the care packages available.

But they want their efforts to go beyond simply providing resources to asylum seekers. Cruz said they want to make them part of the community.

“We believe that there is a hidden talent. So that everyone has something to give. “Maybe there are singers, teachers or musicians in the group that we don’t know yet,” Cruz said. “I hope we’ll see it grow not only here, but in the community as well.”

Phelps said he encourages visitors to engage and participate in other activities or services at the church.

“These people are not only people, they are talented and they have skills that they want to use. Several of them told me, “I want to do something. How can we help?” ” Phelps said.

Myron Daniel Pulido, 23, attended a recent service and lunch with his girlfriend. It was their first meal in weeks, they said.

“We want to get a work permit because we came here. We don’t want to be a burden for this country,” he said during breaks.

Daisy Linares addresses Myron Daniel Pulido during a bilingual service on Feb. 18, 2023, at Concord Missionary Baptist Church in Woodlawn.

Smith-Williams said she was touched by the migrants’ curiosity and interests.

“We have more in common than we think,” she said. “They had nothing to do with the politician’s decision to put them there. We don’t know their struggle and their suffering, why should we make their situation worse?” – she added, getting ready to serve the food.

Smith-Williams, executive chef at Concord Missionary Baptist Church, added that “the voices that came out against the shelter don’t necessarily reflect the sentiment of the majority of residents.”

Although Woodlawn is a predominantly black neighborhood, there are other races in the area, and “we’re welcoming,” Smith-Williams added.

“I think residents fighting for what they believe in should continue to hold the city accountable,” Jean said, adding that the shelter controversy opened the door for that.

Phelps agreed, saying he will continue to advocate for his community by finding a way to help migrants. While he has received some backlash for his involvement in the effort, “I prefer not to focus on that,” he said.

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The City Council debate also touched some nerves, as alt-rights asked their colleagues not to punish migrants because they feel disadvantaged, and that Chicago should help all those in need, regardless of skin color. Taylor ended those remarks by addressing the board again before the vote to admonish those who had implied that the black alts who opposed the funds were anti-Latino.

“Don’t make it about black versus brown,” Taylor said, noting that she leads the Latino community in her ward.

Taylor told the Tribune that opposition from neighboring neighborhoods shouldn’t be seen as anti-immigrant sentiment, but rather as locals feeling disrespected by the city’s plan to repurpose a school the community fought to keep open.

Jean said she and other organizers are concerned that the new mayoral administration may not support their efforts to ensure that migrants living in the area are welcomed into the city and given other resources, but that the team will continue to work with the Lightfoot administration. to the last. day in office, and “we’re definitely going to push the envelope with the next mayor.”

Jean said the group welcomes any donations and volunteers. For more information email: info@chicago4all.org.

The Chicago Tribune’s Alice Yin contributed.



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