By Caitlyn Furr
This summer, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship gave me the opportunity to dive head-first into ministry among struggling immigrants with LUCHA Ministries in Fredericksburg, Va.
It’s one thing to sit in a sterile environment and participate in cold, rational discussions about the issue of immigration without putting a human face to it. My Student.Go internship immersed me into a diverse community of Hispanic immigrants and opened my eyes to the real everyday hardships that immigrants face. My experience forced me to look within and face some realities I never considered, such as my privilege and how I have taken it for granted.
Sofia, a 22-year old who graduated from college in May, enlightened me to my privilege.
Upon meeting Sofia, it is quickly evident that she is smart and hard-working. She is the first person in her family to graduate with a college degree, and she serves as a role model for other Latino youth in Fredericksburg. The community is proud of her success in spite of the many obstacles she has faced as an undocumented immigrant.
After talking with Sofia for a bit, I learned that she had a lot of trouble applying to colleges. She applied to almost every college in Virginia, but her legal status proved to be problematic. Universities that were willing to accept an undocumented immigrant usually categorized her as an international student, almost doubling the cost of tuition. She could not pay such high tuition rates and was not eligible for federal financial aid. Finally, Sofia found a small private college that was willing to accept her as a student and help her financially. It required hard work, but Sofia was able to attend and graduate with her Bachelor’s degree in four years.
Sofia’s story was eye-opening for me. Growing up, there was never any doubt that I would attend college and earn at least a Bachelor’s degree. My parents also stressed that I could select any college I wanted. They ensured that I never felt limited academically, and until talking with Sofia, I had no idea what a blessing that was. Not only do undocumented immigrants typically face legal obstacles when applying to college, but because of oppressive laws, they are often also in poorer financial situations, limiting their choices or making it impossible to achieve higher education.
I find the Latino community in Fredericksburg to be incredibly inspiring and caring on a daily basis. This is demonstrated regularly in the hunger ministry that LUCHA supports. Every Monday, Latino volunteers go to the local food bank to carefully select food and household supplies for their neighbors in need. The volunteers sort the food and supplies into boxes and deliver them to the community members they know need it the most. The volunteers are incredibly dedicated and willing to work to help their community even in harsh weather conditions. Many of the volunteers were originally the recipients of this ministry, and now volunteer because they want to give back.
This summer, it has been evident to me that the members of the Latino community in Fredericksburg truly want to support each other and help their neighbors in need. I have been struck by the generosity and gratefulness expressed.
Earlier this summer, a youth group from Vestavia Hills Baptist Church traveled to Fredericksburg to host Vacation Bible School for the Latino children. One of the mothers was so grateful to the missions team that she cooked homemade tamales to feed all 30 of them. I am learning that the community members want to give back, and it is important to allow them to express their gratitude.
The first week that I worked with the Latino volunteers at the food bank, they offered food for me to take home. I thanked them, but declined the offer, explaining that I had enough to eat at my house. I thought the food would be better used elsewhere, but the volunteers seemed disappointed by my refusal. As the weeks have gone on, I’ve realized that my refusal was not helping anyone. The volunteers wanted to give to me because I was helping them and their community. Since that first week, I have been sure to set aside one or two items for myself as we sort the food, and I express my thanks to them for sharing with me.
My relationship with the volunteers has benefited from this decision, and it has helped me to integrate into the community.
Although it has not been easy, my experience with Student.Go this summer has forced me to be aware of my privilege. That awareness has also allowed me to see needs within the community.
While I have not figured out how to help meet all their needs, seeing is the first step. I have also come to realize that the Latino community in Fredericksburg is certainly not looking for handouts. They are caring people who have great needs, but also pride, and they want to contribute to their community. Finally, I am developing my own voice as a minister.
Much of what I learned during my first year of seminary was in the abstract, but this ministry experience has allowed me to put that learning into practice and grow in my understanding of who I am as a minister.
Caitlyn Furr served in Fredericksburg, Va., this summer through Student.Go, CBF’s student missions initiative. She is a second-year student at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and is a 2016-17 CBF Vestal Scholar. Learn more about the 2016-17 Vestal Scholars, Caitlyn Furr and Jared Jaggers in this audio story.