They arrived bright and early Saturday morning, not sure what they signed up for – seven confirmands and a group of parents from St. James in Upper Montclair. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect to be so moved as I was,” said parent Jamie Pagliaro at the conclusion of the day.
The guests were greeted by Xavier, a seven-year-old boy who had arrived at The Lighthouse from Colombia just five months ago. Proud and eager to use his burgeoning English, Xavier opened the door wide, and flashing a smile powerful enough to melt any heart, said “Welcome to The Lighthouse. It is so nice to meet you!”
The day began with a brief introduction to The Lighthouse ministry, providing context as to the purpose for the ministry and an overview of services provided to the 109 guests from 28 different countries who have found safe haven there since 2017. The group learned about the difference between refugees, who apply for immigration status from a safe place, and asylum-seekers, who are fleeing imminent danger. And of course the orientation stressed the fact that all of the asylum-seekers at The Lighthouse are strictly following the legal process set out by the US government – a process providing historic and constitutional protection for individuals and families whose lives are in danger due to persecution of all kinds in their home countries.
But the real story of The Lighthouse came into sharp focus when Usman shared the harrowing details of his 10-week journey from Ghana to the United States earlier this year. “I was captured and tortured for speaking out about the government,” said Usman, who participated in several peaceful demonstrations against the government's land-grabbing corruption and LGBTQ policies. “I was a wanted man,” he said. On one occasion, Usman, who earned his living as a yam farmer, was captured and tortured and left for dead on the side of the road, and on another was kept in a room for days without food and water before surviving an attempted poisoning. In a providential twist of fate, one of the captors showed Usman an exit, and he escaped with his physical life intact. However, it was clear that he could not stay in Ghana, so after getting his wife and child to a safe place, Usman began the dangerous journey to the United States as a stowaway on a ship – a trip that would take him through 13 countries (Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico) before making his way to US immigration officials at the Mexican border, where he declared his desire to seek asylum.
As Usman’s story unfolded, there were tears in the eyes of young and old alike, and it was clear that the Holy Spirit was present, doing the work that only the Spirit can do – knitting us together and reminding us that we are One people, that we are all children of God deserving of compassion, dignity, and the ability to become the person that God created us to be. Helping us to see that the geographical divisions that separate and divide us were never a part of God’s plan for his gift of Creation.
“You see people on TV and you don’t really see who they are,” said Jackson, one of the confirmands. “You think they’re just coming because it’s a better life here in the United States, but being at The Lighthouse you realize they are people and they’re doing it for their families.”
“More people should know of the struggle,” said Melissa Legters, a parent accompanying her daughter for the day. “I had no idea about the difference between refugees and asylum seekers. I had tears in my eyes the whole time.”
The story was all the inspiration needed to motivate the 15 people from St. James roll up their sleeves and join with the 15 guests from The Lighthouse to engage in the stated purpose of their visit: cleaning, scrubbing, planting, and decorating the house for Thanksgiving. The children of The Lighthouse were immediately enamored with their new and older friends from St. James, and when the work was finished, a lively soccer game broke out in the backyard. Confirmand Ian especially enjoyed this part of the visit. “It’s been very fun – especially playing soccer with the kids. It’s nice to see them enjoying their time here, especially after having to go through a lot to get here.”
Rev. Melissa and Rev. Audrey, who shared that they hadn’t really gotten to do this kind of mission-related work with the group due to COVID, were grateful for the experience. “When we arrived, and that little boy opened the door to welcome us, I knew that I was looking at an old soul,” said Rev. Melissa. It was as if he was saying, ‘Come into our temple, into our kingdom. We are going to share it with you.’”
“What touched me was seeing the same things about the youth and their parents,” said Rev. Audrey. “Even church people themselves who hadn’t spent time with each other now feel like they have new buddies and support groups. I saw them living out their faith – and that’s all we really want for confirmation. What good is it if they can name all the books of the Bible but can’t put their faith into action?”
“I went with hope, but no expectations,” said Rev. Melissa. “But these kids stepped right into the relationships without question – and to see how generous they were, how kind they were, how accepting they were. I was blown away. They made me really proud and hopeful.”
The meaning of the day was not lost on the teens. “Even though we’re not changing the immigration system forever, we’re doing what we can.” said Jackson. “It’s good to see the kids here and out of the dangerous situations they could have been in if not for The Lighthouse. I’ve been grateful for the chance to help out when I can.”
Amelia was so impacted by the day she committed to starting a club at her high school to raise awareness about the plight of asylum-seekers. “People should know more about the struggles, and the difference between refugees and asylum seekers.”
And while the parents were happy to see their children engaged in the project, they, too, were changed by the experience. "I thought it was an eye-opening experience to spend the daft with people who truly struggled to come to the USA in hopes of a better life,” said Christine Samuels. “The Lighthouse is a place that lives up to its name. I wish there were more Lighthouses.”
“The sense of family that has been created here is really beautiful,” said parent Lyndsay Cooney. “The people are lucky enough to find the place – a safe and happy place. It’s important for our kids to see. They have it pretty good, and they need to share it.”
The guests at The Lighthouse were enriched and appreciative by the day. “We were able to socialize and we worked together as a team,” shared Abina, one of the guests from Ghana. “I got to share our local drink – Sobolo. It was good to see my children playing with the older kids. They are very nice people, very accommodating.” Like Usman, Abina and her husband and two children – ages 4 and 6 – made the dangerous journey over land and sea, ultimately surviving the trek through the Darien Gap in the Colombian and Panamanian jungles.
Usman, who shared the story of his journey with the guests when they arrived, was grateful for the experience to do so. “The day was good,” he said. “I got to be with good people and to share my story. They know that I am not a bad person – I even got to introduce my family to them over Facetime. It was an experience I have never had before and we can do it again. We would love to receive them again.”
“I want to highlight the admiration I feel for those people who do their bit to make us feel special and thank everyone for dedicating their time to us,” said Maria, a young mother from Colombia who came to The Lighthouse when her daughter was only 14 days old. “I am surprised by how humble and noble they were at all times with us and I want to highlight a young man who saw me super busy in the kitchen and helped me feed my baby. It was a very nice thing he did.”
When asked if he enjoyed the day and the chance to meet so many new friends, Xavier, the seven-year-old who welcomed the group at the front door, flashed his award-winning smile and gave an enthusiastic double-thumbs-up. It was clear that he, and everyone who had participated in the day, were united and embraced by the Holy Spirit, had been changed forever.
The Rev. Deacon Jill Singleton is Director and Chaplain of The Lighthouse.
Note: To protect their privacy, the names of The Lighthouse guests have been changed, and the Confirmands are identified by first name only.
All photos by the Rev. Deacon Jill Singleton.