Donations at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Donations are packed and ready in the sanctuary at Good Shepherd Lutheran | Photo by Erika Hobbs Credit: Erika Hobbs

I pointed to the white streak in the jet-black hair of a little girl in a Catholic school uniform, who was hanging onto the side-door handle of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

“I’m a sucker for white stripes,” I said half in English, half in Spanish, pointing to the white streak dividing my bangs. 

Shy, she looked away. Her mom laughed.

Another tot in a pink stroller and pink T-shirt wore black mittens three sizes too big for her. Hace frio? I asked. Is it cold? She grinned. “For us it is,” her mother said.

Then there was the thin boy in a tank and slides hopping down the church’s basement stairs, never looking up from the hip-hop video he was watching on his phone.

I followed him down.

These are the asylum-seeking refugees sheltering at Good Shepherd.

I met them on a blue-sky day under the sharp autumn sun only November can bring in Oak Park, a stark contrast to the gray snowstorm that drove them here on Halloween.

They’re sheltering at the church Rev. Kathy Nolte described as “small.” Not small in heart, but inside the slice of church on the narrow plot at Randolph Street and East Avenue, the space is tight. Tuesday is shower day at St. Catherine-St. Lucy Church, so many folks headed over there. 

Julio Ruiz and Katherin Alvarez of Venezuela pose with a teddy bear | Photo by Erika Hobbs

Still, every inch of common areas and what were once Sunday School classrooms have been converted to sleeping spaces, cafeterias and donation tables. Every inch is stuffed with air mattresses, suitcases and piles — jeans and sweats and camouflage T-shirts and hoodies. And teddy bears. Like the giant one Katherin Alvarez, 20, and Julio Ruiz, 21, posed with when I asked if I could take a photo of the slumping stuffie with a sequined heart. The couple grinned as Julio puffed out his chest telling me they were from just outside Caracas, Venezuela. Katherin wrote her name in my note pad, topping her  “i’s” with circles instead of dots.

As Nolte said, the church and its volunteers are making it happen. 

“We start with a yes,” she said. “And then we work it out.”

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church | Photo by Erika Hobbs

It got worked out after village officials, the church, community organizations and volunteers came together to get medical treatment for styes and coughs. When they came together to drive people to laundromats so they could have clean clothes. When local residents translated for free so the asylum-seekers would not have to wait in line to be understood. When community groups intervened to help the migrants with immigration services.

The Collaboration for Early Childhood stepped up when the 25 children staying at church needed to play. Five-year-olds need to stretch their legs, too.

“We’re working not just to get them off the streets,” Nolte said. “We’re trying to get them to a place of wholeness.”

As conditions in Venezuela continue to deteriorate and the oppressive regime of Nicolas Maduro persists, more people are fleeing the country. The Associated Press reported in mid-October that monthly pensions dropped to $3.20 a month, only 20 cents more than a bottle of water. The hairdressers, avocado pickers and landscapers are leaving. At least one hairdresser is living at Chicago’s 15th District police station because she’s been hosted by a congregation and will move into an apartment later this month.

I looked at the stacked suitcases, the worn copies of Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, the stray green Crocs. “What would make you pick up and leave like this?” I say aloud.

Rev. Nolte looked at me. 

“If my kids were at risk,” she said. “I’d do anything to protect my kids.”

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