Think of being on your own, still a teenager, leaving family and setting off on a journey through totally unfamiliar and often hazardous wilds or roadsides, hundreds of miles to go and not knowing what tomorrow may bring.
Immigrants seeking asylum in far-off America have suffered those situations, with only the company of maybe some others heading the same way, hopefully with enough money to see them through, and few possessions. But if you ask those who found their way to Viator House of Hospitality, they typically carried one more very crucial thing with them: their faith.
Held by the Hand of God
For many of the then-children, “the only thing they had to hold onto through the long journey, the trauma at home, the detention (once in the U.S), was faith,” said Fr. Corey Brost, Viator House director. “I have asked guys, ‘How did you make it?’ and one of them said, ‘Jesus.’ And I’ve heard, ‘Allah’ . . . “
“That really hit me, because some of our guys have been robbed along the way, our guys have struggled, they’ve had to have money wired to them, sometimes by their family. They’ve had to sleep in jungles and parks—they’ve had nothing. For many of them, the only thing they’ve felt they could hold onto was literally the hand of God.”
For one emigrant from Eritrea, “one of the only things he was able to bring with him was his Bible,” Fr. Corey related. “And he once told me that every time the Bible got wet in the rain or as they crossed rivers, he would lay it out so it could dry.” Later locked up in adult detention in the U.S. because he couldn’t prove his age, “ he would end each night with that Bible, reading and praying. When he brought that Bible out and showed me, it made the power of the Bible come alive to me as a priest in a way that it maybe never did before.”
Viator House, an Interfaith Environment
Now safe within the haven of Viator House, but continuing to hold that faith within them, the young adults find support and reinforcement of their religious traditions and worship in an environment that encourages and celebrates all faiths. They are handed the resources and opportunities to practice their faith, whether a Bible, Quran, rosary, prayer beads or prayer rug, and they are connected to worship at a church, mosque or temple.
“The comfort of the faith community, the comfort of the ritual, the comfort of the prayer, the sense that ‘God has not forgotten me even though I’m in a strange land,’ all that comes with what we’re doing.”
Surrounded by Faith
The active contributions of volunteers as well as faith communities in the surrounding suburbs enable the environment of interfaith living. “It’s important to have someone to guide them in their faith,” said Susana Tellez, a part-time staffer who has opened up her family and daily life to preparing Catholic residents for sacraments and schooling them in their faith.
“I am ‘godmother’ to three of them,” she said with pride, talking about how they go to church and then have lunch together, sitting with her older children of similar age, continuing to learn and practice faith in ways they couldn’t in the survival atmosphere of their home country.
Because more than half of the residents are Muslim, Fr. Corey worked hard to recruit Muslim volunteers to the effort. Particularly active is Imran Khan, whose mosque, Islamic Education Center, last year became a formal Faith Community Partner with Viator House. (See related story) “The mosque saw clearly the need to contribute volunteers and financial support,” he said.
Though the house was founded by a Catholic order, the center “didn’t care who was organizing it or what religion or what affiliation; they just recognized that this is God’s work, and they want to be a part of it.” The way to strengthen spirituality is to be surrounded by spiritual people, he said, “and you just feel the energy and want to be part of this magic.” Bringing the interfaith aspect together concentrates the force of faith, “because we all have the same goal, and that is to help the less fortunate and give back to the community, being a positive role model for people in need.”
Respect for all Faiths
Respect among Christians for Muslim religious activities is reflected in the volunteer contingent. Marilyn Breiding, whose faith is Lutheran, is among those who provide rides to mosque and engage with the guys along the way. “It’s important that they go to something that they are familiar with,” she said. “And fortunately the mosque is close enough that I can drive them over on Friday afternoons.”
She sometimes asks questions about elements of the Muslim faith during the drive and makes comparisons—”so we call it this in our church”—helping the young men see similarities as well as differences in the faith traditions. However God revealed himself to Christians, Jews and Muslims, much of the faith teachings on things like social justice are the same, noted Breiding. She has a background working with different faiths in organizations such as the Children of Abraham Coalition (http://coacpeace.org), a suburban nonprofit that sponsors interfaith learning events between Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Interreligious learning is promoted by celebrating holy days of all the faith traditions represented in the house, including Christmas and Easter, the two summer Eid holidays in Islam, and a Hindu holiday in November. It promotes respect for one another’s faith through opportunities to explain what each holiday is about, Fr. Corey explained.
Faith reinforcement aids in both a feeling of comfort and in physical and psychological healing. “In Islam, we recognize that spirituality actually helps with the coping of life’s stresses,” said Khan. “Once you have that spirituality, you have your faith within you, that tends to lead to a more positive outlook, a better quality of life.”
Sometimes a new resident will feel lost, without religious beliefs, and almost puzzled that people who don’t even know him are trying to help, said Tellez. Little by little the messages of caring and faith start to soften them. “Then they start to accept, and when they accept, they start having a connection with their own faith, their own church, with the other people.”
Volunteers who take time out of their lives to help at Viator House gradually instill in the young asylum-seekers the motivation to act similarly toward someone else, said Khan. “And that’s what we’re trying to teach these kids by example.”
Viator House encourages its residents to become volunteers themselves, a big step for some after years of toiling full-time at their own survival. But when they do volunteer, Fr. Corey said, “they often will identify that they’re doing this because of a faith perspective, that this is what Islam teaches, this is what Christianity teaches.”