For Ole Schenk, pastor at United Lutheran Church in Oak Park, the western suburb has been a welcoming and giving community.
“When you drive the streets, you can see many houses have signs that say things ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and the pride flag is very visible, and that all people are welcome,” Schenk said.
In recent days, Schenk says those progressive values have been tested with the migrant crisis. The village has offered to assist Chicago, whose shelters and police districts are overrun with more than 20,000 people, mostly Venezuelans.
But the process of helping about 160 migrants in recent weeks has not been easy for Oak Park, demonstrating that no one municipality can take on the crisis without more resources and collaboration.
United Lutheran was one of the churches in Oak Park that stepped up to shelter people from the cold for a few nights earlier this month, taking in about 40 migrants. Good Shepherd Lutheran Church was the other, with nearly 120 migrants housed there for several days.
Before that, the migrants had been sleeping in tents outside the 15th District Chicago Police station near Austin Boulevard, the city’s border with Oak Park. Activists and volunteers brought them to the village on a frigid and snowy Halloween night.
“Even though our space is not ideal, it was more like a home than they’d been in for a very long time, and it was warm and it felt safe,” Schenk said. He pointed to a whiteboard with dates and times, as well as names of people bringing meals, cleaning bathrooms and providing translation for the migrants for the four nights they stayed at the church.
Given the crowding, lack of shower facilities and an aging congregation that was not able to help with manual labor, Schenk said he knew his church could not house migrants long term.
“Under normal circumstances, it would be something the fire department wouldn’t allow,” he said, adding that migrants were sleeping in the basement corridors. “The fact that we made it this far safely, I’m so thankful to God for.”
Need for more resources, dedicated coordination
Earlier this month, Oak Park officials voted to declare a month-long emergency disaster. They appropriated $150,000 of the village’s COVID recovery funds to help migrants, adding to the $400,000 they were granted by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus for the cause.
After a few days at Good Shepherd and United Lutheran, most of the migrants were moved to the Carleton of Oak Park Hotel and the West Cook YMCA.
At a village meeting, Board President Vicki Scaman called the situation a reality that the town must face.
“The City of Chicago is overwhelmed. As overwhelmed as we feel right now, they feel — and have felt — for a year,” Scaman said.
Village Manager Kevin Jackson and some trustees have expressed concern over staff capacity and funding. Leaders have also debated at length about whether to extend the emergency order beyond Dec. 4, at which point much of the funds would be spent from the hotel and YMCA expenses.
Church leaders and volunteers say that’s not the only way, and that many groups have stepped up to house people for the medium to long term.
“People are waiting on the sidelines to help,” said Rev. Colin Knapp, who leads Pilgrim Congregational Church. He said through the Oak Park-based interfaith Community of Congregations — of which he is board president — he is aware of several churches that can take a number of families in for the winter months.
Knapp said faith leaders have been meeting since September to discuss how to help migrants, but they need a concrete plan and a point person from Oak Park village to work with on coordinating the churches’ efforts. He added that a stipend for smaller churches could encourage more congregations to help.
“This is a need that we can meet as a village,” said Hailey Braden Lynch, co-pastor at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church. “Right now it’s a jigsaw puzzle of moving around all of the good that the congregations, the people of faith, and others in the community are doing. So we’re looking to the village leadership to help put that together to kind of solve that puzzle.”
Village of Oak Park spokesperson Dan Yopchick said in a statement to WBEZ that staff has been in regular contact with the Community of Congregations “to discuss what assistance is currently, or can become, available.”
Oak Park leaders, community members and activists agree on one thing: More state and federal resources are needed to address the migrant crisis.
Community organizer Betty Alzamora, an immigrant from Venezuela herself, said small municipalities like Oak Park don’t have systems like Chicago’s to help large vulnerable groups, and that there needs to be “healthy pressure” put on state officials to provide funding and help build capacity.
In its October veto session, Illinois did not vote to allocate more funds for migrants; elected officials are continuing to call on the federal government to help.
Ready to help
Meanwhile, the village of Oak Park has received dozens of public comments at its board meetings from residents supporting aid to the migrants. For months, community members have donated tents and blankets to migrants staying at the Chicago police station. When migrants sheltered at Oak Park churches, volunteers brought food and clothing, played with migrant children and even brought families to shower in their homes.
Mika Yamamoto, who lives near United Lutheran, was one of the volunteers. She said inviting a family to her home gave her the opportunity to hear about the migrants’ journey — with the aid of Google Translate.
“They walked for nine months through nine countries,” Yamamoto said. “Parts of it, they were on a train, and when I say ‘on a train,’ they were on top of the train. They showed me videos of that and talked about walking through the jungle. It’s unfathomable.”
She said Oak Park may not be able to take on the bulk of Chicago’s burden, but she and her neighbors are ready to help — and that if other municipalities approached the crisis that way, the impact could be significant.
“We may not be able to take in thousands and thousands of people, but right now, it seems like yes, we can take in 150 people for some amount of time,” Yamamoto said. “If each community could do what they can do, that can be a lot of people.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the grant from the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus was $450,000. The amount is $400,000.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on X @estheryjkang.