Welcome to the Welcome House!
Many refugees need temporary housing until they can get their bearings and become settled and self-sufficient in a new community.
By Wendy Healy
The Welcome House at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in South Carolina, is living up to its name.
For the past 10 years, the former parsonage has welcomed hundreds of refugees as transitional housing for people who are being resettled in the area through Lutheran Services Carolinas. The social ministry organization works to help people who have fled persecution in their homelands and often partners with Lutheran congregations like St. Andrew’s to sponsor families and provide services.
St. Andrew’s Welcome House is home to about 50 to 100 individuals and families a year, said John Trump, St. Andrew’s pastor, with two families at a time often sharing the four-bedroom house. Lutheran Services Carolinas pays the utility bills and the congregation maintains the house.
The parsonage was turned into a resettlement house after serving as offices for both the congregation and Lutheran Services Carolinas. When Lutheran Services moved, the congregation began discussing the idea of other uses for the house, according to John, and since they were already partners with Lutheran Services, it all came together.
Many of the refugees are from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, he added. “We’ve had a Muslim who was fleeing Christian persecution share the house with a Christian fleeing Muslim persecution,” said John. The goal is to give the refugees a temporary place to stay, usually a week or two, until they can find work or an apartment of their own.
“The refugees often come within a moment’s notice,” said John, “and often don’t have time to arrange for housing. We’re happy to provide this house.”
Housing — one piece of the puzzle
The congregation’s social ministry committee is also planning to start a mentoring program to provide other kinds of support and assistance for refugees, in addition to the housing. “We’re just one piece of the puzzle, and our piece is to provide this house,” said John, but the congregation is making efforts to do more.
Charles Dawkins, a retired pastor and missionary, and his wife, Betty, members of the social ministry committee, are heading up the mentoring project. The former missionaries from Japan say they have some first-hand awareness of what refugees go through.
“We were missionaries in Japan until 1970, and we understand what it’s like to be in a foreign land,” said Charles. He hopes that the mentoring program will include English language training, as the house is already equipped with a computer and language programs.
“It’s important to welcome the refugees and help them in whatever way we can,” said Charles, who recalls taking an Iraqi woman living in the Welcome House to a doctor’s appointment because she had no transportation of her own. Charles’ wife collects gifts and toys for the children.
Charles is also part of the congregation’s Lutheran Men in Mission project that does repairs and maintenance on the house.
While they have helped hundreds of refugees make the transition to living in the United States, the Welcome House and Lutheran Services Carolinas partnership has also been rewarding for the congregation and has given the church a good feeling for mission, said John.
“I think it’s been excellent. It’s a constant reminder that we’re part of the broader ministry of the church, helping the hungry, the homeless, the naked — it’s a no-brainer. How could we not do it?”
Wendy Healy is an ELCA member, owner of Griffin Communications in Danbury, Conn., and author of “Life is Too Short: Stories of Transformation and Renewal after 9/11.”