Justice For Our Neighbors Houston/East Texas
The groves that gave Pecan Park its name are long gone, replaced by tract houses, strip malls and shrubs and trees that don’t demand so much attention in Houston’s humid, sub-tropical climate. Nearly half of all residents in this sprawling East End neighborhood were born in a foreign country. The majority of residents speak Spanish as their primary language at home. Almost a third of the children of Pecan Park are living below the poverty line.
This is the community, these are the neighbors, that Mission Milby—a covenant ministry from the nearby Servants of Christ United Methodist Church—serves lovingly and faithfully. Each week, hundreds of people walk through their doors to use the computer lab, participate in the after-school program, or take classes in technology, ESL, and a myriad of other subjects.
There was one service Mission Milby couldn’t offer their neighbors, many of whom are low-income immigrants: affordable, high-quality immigration legal assistance. It was a lack that the people of Mission Milby and other advocates for immigrant justice felt very keenly. They resolved to do something about it.
Last month, after four years of planning, hoping, praying—and a huge fundraising effort—JFON Houston/East Texas (HETX) finally celebrated its grand opening and its very first clinic. This newest JFON site is not only located in the neighborhood where its clients live, but in Mission Milby, a trusted and beloved institution of Pecan Park and the surrounding East End.
The importance of this trust cannot be overstated. Far too many immigrants have been swindled in their home countries, by employers, by corrupt officials, by the people who may have led them across the border. Once here, they are often victims of the notarios, the so-called “immigration consultants” who prey on the newly arrived and uninformed, promising them green cards and leaving them with empty pockets. Far too many of these immigrants have also experienced tragedy and fear for their lives. They need a place to feel safe.
“Our clients have been through so much already,” explains Joy Green, JFON HETX’s new attorney. “So many are fleeing violence. They are in the U.S. because they need protection. Some of them have seen their family members killed right in front of them.” “Here,” she adds, “they feel safe. They know they can trust the people who work here.” Houston, like all JFON clinics, also offers hospitality—childcare, food, friendly people—so the clients feel very welcome, too. “It’s a safe haven,” Joy says.
JFON HETX had a truly joyous grand opening with plenty of happy faces, good local cuisine, and lively music provided by Mariachi Guadalupano. JFON HETX Board Chair Pat Holmes was present to introduce the speakers, among whom was the Rev. Diane McGehee, Director of TAC Center for Missional Excellence and longtime JFON supporter, as well as the Rev. Will Reed, the senior pastor at Servants of Christ UMC and also a JFON HETX board member and its interim clinic coordinator. Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church characterized the treatment of immigrants in our society as a “core religious value,” adding that “the opening of the Justice for Our Neighbors clinic is a sign of our love for the sojourner in our midst that Jesus taught and demonstrated to his disciples.”
“All our speakers were very inspirational,” confirmed Brenda Diaz, JFON HETX’s executive director, when the party was over and she had a minute to breathe. “They reminded us why JFON HETX exists and the commitment we all have to our most vulnerable immigrant brothers and sisters.” Brenda was equally content with their first clinic—a resounding and, perhaps more importantly for the very first one, a glitch-free triumph. Brenda attributes this seamless success to the hard work put in by board members, staff, and especially the many volunteers. “The operation of this clinic could not have been a success had it not been for the overwhelming compassion and love they have for what JFON represents in this community,” she states emphatically. “All of our first clients left our office with much gratitude and appreciation.”
Not the type of people to rest on their laurels, the JFON Houston team is charging ahead, Texas-style, and is already making plans to add more clinics in East Texas.
“Right now there is just one of me, and I am essentially wearing a lot of different hats, “ says Joy. “But we are creating the systems to be set up for growth in the future.”
Meanwhile, at Mission Milby, Joy already has a very special client—the 5-year old son of a family who arrived from Honduras a year ago. Eddie finished his first year of American school—kindergarten—learning English at break-neck speed. Eddie is now charming everyone in two languages. “I wish you could meet him,” says Joy, chuckling. “He gives me a hug every time he sees me. He looks at my books—he has no clue what’s in there, but he likes to see what I’m doing. He’s just so happy and so cute.” She pauses. “You would never know his family had been through such tragedy in Honduras.”
Joy doesn’t elaborate. She doesn’t need to, not really. She has heard so many horrific stories of tragedy and unimaginable loss. How does she cope with it?
“I don’t think anybody gets used to it,” Joy says carefully. “It’s not a life we see so much in the U.S. But I can’t get too caught up in the emotions of it. I have to take that…” she searches for the word “…passion and use it to do my best as an attorney for my clients.”
Seeing the energy, enthusiasm, and dedication of Joy, Brenda, the board members and volunteers, it’s obvious that everyone at JFON HETX is being driven by a similar passion: working towards justice for all our immigrant neighbors.