When news broke that the old Wadsworth School building in Woodlawn would be turned into a shelter for migrants, some residents of the predominantly Black neighborhood loudly opposed the plan, highlighting the needs of their underserved community on the South Side of Chicago, and intensifying racial tensions between the two groups.
But in the midst of the turmoil, there was a band of residents quietly organizing to welcome the migrants, creating a plan to help them integrate into their community once the shelter opened.
“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 lunch for the asylum-seekers at the church, where he informed attendees — who are mostly from Venezuela — of their efforts to provide them with a safe space to meet their neighbors and resources to help them settle. They’ve dubbed the grassroots movement “Chicago 4 All.”
The group also aims to shift perspectives about Black and Latino relationships by encouraging unity in the neighborhood and mitigate the fear that migrants have expressed about their safety since moving into the new shelter in the face of community opposition.
“Tell all your friends, your family at the center, that they’re welcome and we have a lot of space here,” Phelps told attendees during the service. Yolanda Cruz, pastor at Father’s Heart Church in Belmont Cragin, served as his interpreter.
For Luisangelis Rodriguez, 31, the message from the pastor was comforting, she said in Spanish. When she moved in, people were protesting outside the shelter, she recalled. “We knew that they didn’t want us here, so we were scared to walk outside.”
[ 2 Woodlawn residents block bus as migrants move into temporary shelter at former Wadsworth Elementary School ]
On Wednesday, those tensions boiled over at City Hall when some City Council members tried but failed to kill a motion to accept a $20 million appropriation from the state that would go toward housing migrants, stating their displeasure with outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration’s handling of the situation.
Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th, whose ward includes Woodlawn, urged her colleagues to join her in voting no, which she said is not because she doesn’t want to help the migrants but because her pleas for better communication on where to shelter them have been ignored. Taylor then motioned to rescind the legislation, but it failed before the overall appropriation passed in a 32-15 vote.
Black Caucus Chair Jason Ervin, 28th, said ahead of the vote that he was torn over his opposition to the $20 million allocation because he did not believe it prudent to return money the city would not be able to otherwise find, but Black Chicagoans have been ignored for far too long.
“We are a welcoming city; I understand that,” Ervin said. “But we also have to think about those that are here. We also have to think about refugees and immigrants that have a darker hue. … I’m not trying to make this an issue of race. Unfortunately though, it is.”
The more than 200 migrants who live in the school-turned-shelter moved in the first week of February despite some residents protesting that Woodlawn is already a struggling community and cannot take on another influx of people in need, citing homelessness, lack of mental health resources and economic development in the area.
The uproar came soon after the city confirmed in late January that the school would be refurbished as a temporary shelter to help address the recent surge of asylum-seekers and as the city reached “maximum capacity,” after residents questioned the construction in the area.
For Black volunteers with Chicago 4 All, tensions about race “should not dictate how humans are treated,” said Linda Smith-Williams, who helps cook the food for their Saturday service.
When the more than two dozen asylum-seekers now living at the former school attended the first service, they cautiously entered the church asking if it was OK. Since then, every Saturday the number of attendees has increased, said Paula Gean, a Woodlawn resident who organized the meetings by connecting the different church leaders, residents and city officials.
Days before the first service, Gean stood outside the shelter passing out flyers and inviting migrants to the church.
Gean’s vision is ambitious but not impossible, she said smiling, hoping that eventually the group can offer yoga, meditation and English classes inside the shelter or in a different space in the neighborhood. According to Gean, the conversation about how or if they will be allowed in the shelter is ongoing. The first beautification project as part of the initiative is set to take place Saturday, where migrants are invited to join other Woodlawn residents to clean up the streets, meet neighbors and learn of local resources.
The cleanup crew will meet at 9 a.m. at Light of the World Church, 840 E. 65th St.
A statement from Lori Lightfoot’s administration said the mayor’s office community engagement team has worked with Chicago 4 All coordinators as they provide opportunities to bring residents and asylum-seekers together. But clarified that the initiative is not funded by the city.
“Since the arrival of asylum-seekers this summer, community leaders and residents have supported these individuals and families. Whether helping through official community organizations or as individuals providing donations or volunteering, Chicagoans are reinforcing our values as a welcoming city, and that is what this group is doing,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, Phelps said that they will work with what they have and are looking for donations and funding from those who wish to help. They also plan to find a way to allow migrants to use the kitchen in the church “for them to cook the food they love,” he said. The community kitchen would be a part of their Home Away From Home Center at Concord Missionary Baptist Church, where they also plan on offering an internet cafe and English-language classes.
They are also collecting donations from members and other community members to make care packages available.
But they want their efforts to go beyond just providing resources for the asylum-seekers. Cruz said that they want to make them part of the community.
“We believe that there is hidden talent. That everyone has something to give. Maybe there are some singers, teachers, or musicians in the group that we are yet to discover,” said Cruz. “My hope is that we see that developing not only here but in the community as well.”
Phelps said that he encourages attendees to get engaged and participate in other activities or services at the church.
“These people are not only human, they are talented and they have skills they want to use. Several of them said to me, ‘I want something to do. How can we help?’ ” Phelps said.
Mairon Daniel Pulido, 23, attended a recent service and lunch with his girlfriend. It was the first meal the couple has had in weeks, they said.
“We want a work permit because that’s what we came here to do. We don’t want to be a burden to this country,” he said in between bites.
Smith-Williams said she was touched by the curiosity and interests of the migrants.
“We have more things in common than we think,” she said. “They didn’t have anything to do with the decision of a politician to put them there. We don’t know their struggles or their suffering, why should we make their situation worse?” she added as she got ready to serve food.
Smith-Williams, a lead chef at Concord Missionary Baptist Church added that “the voices that opposed the shelter did not necessarily reflect the sentiment of the majority of the residents.”
Though Woodlawn is a predominantly Black neighborhood, there are other races in the area and “we are welcoming,” Smith-Williams added.
“I think the residents that are fighting for what they believe in, should continue to keep the city accountable,” said Gean, adding that the controversy over the shelter has opened the door for that.
Phelps agreed, saying that he will continue to advocate for his community while still finding a way to help the migrants. Though he has received some backlash for participating in the efforts, “I prefer not to focus on that,” he said.
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The discussion at City Council also touched some nerves as aldermen implored their colleagues not to punish the migrants because they feel shortchanged and that Chicago should help all in need regardless of skin color. Taylor capped off the remarks by again addressing the council before the vote to admonish those who insinuated Black aldermen who opposed the funds were anti-Latino.
“Don’t make this about Black against brown,” Taylor said while noting she presides over a Latino community in her ward.
Taylor has told the Tribune that the opposition from the neighborhood should not be seen as anti-immigrant sentiment but rather as local residents feeling disrespected by the city’s plan to repurpose a school that the community had fought to keep open.
Gean said that she and other organizers worry that the new mayoral administration may not support their efforts to ensure that the migrants living in the area are welcomed into the city and receive other resources, but the team will continue to work with Lightfoot’s administration until their last day in office and “we will certainly push to work with the next mayor.”
Gean said that the group welcomes all and any type of donations and volunteers. For more information email: [email protected].
Chicago Tribune’s Alice Yin contributed.
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