January 24, 2014

Extending ‘Hospitality’ in an Unlikely Place

Bus Bank
Asbury UMC member Leah Sarat (Right) joins Restoration Project volunteer Cyndi Whitmore (Left) at the Phoenix Greyhound Station to provide outreach to newly released immigrant detainees. Photo: Leah M. Sarat

By Joya Colon-Berezin

Members of Asbury United Methodist Church in Phoenix are extending ‘hospitality’ in an unlikely place: a local Greyhound bus station. In fact, they join other volunteers every Friday night to welcome the growing number of people released from immigrant detention facilities in nearby Florence and Eloy, Arizona. 

In the course of extending hospitality, volunteers from Asbury learned that many who were being released, particularly women, were forced to wait many hours and even overnight at the station.  Often this required sleeping there in unsafe conditions. 

“We realized that a host space was needed for women to stay 24-36 hours and we worked to make that a reality,” Rev. Stephen Govett said.  With the help of a grant from CWS partner, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Asbury congregation transformed an empty classroom at the church into a small overnight shelter.

Every night, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials release dozens of individuals at the Phoenix Greyhound station, to make space in the detention facility for new arrivals. Most of the people are pursuing asylum cases and are released on their own recognizance to await pending court dates. Although all of these individuals are granted authorization to travel within the United States most of them have little or no time to contact their relatives in order to secure funds for travel. Many are left with no food, water or any way to make phone calls.

Govett and members of Asbury UMC joined The Phoenix Restoration Project, a coalition of faith-based groups and people of conscience seeking to offer support to current detainees and those who have recently been released. According to Govett, partnering with the Project and their hospitality network was a natural extension of Asbury’s mission: ‘to be a place for all people.’

Each Friday, volunteers provide released detainees with cell phones, food, coats and help navigating bus schedules for the journey. They also offer abundant smiles.

Explaining why she volunteers at the bus station and the shelter, Leah Sarat, a member of the Asbury congregation and a core member of the ministry says, “My motivation is to deal with immigrants first and foremost as human beings, and brothers and sisters in Christ.” 

“We go there to offer hospitality, to serve and to help restore dignity to their personhood,” reflects Govett. "Thanks to UMCOR we are able to extend radical welcome in a way we were previously unable to do.”