A welcome mat in Waco planned for families seeking asylum at the border has four walls, a roof and occupants with open arms.
It also has a name, Naomi House, and a mission drawn from the same Bible as its name.
DaySpring Baptist Church members behind its creation see it as a resting place in asylum seekers’ arduous trek from dangerous Central American countries to safety in another country, a hospitality house for peace and healing. What the church and Naomi House supporters hope to provide the first family to move in, expected sometime at summer’s end, is, in a phrase, “simply companioning.”
“We want to be present for those in need,” said Grant Hall, who with his wife, Rachel, will be the house’s first live-in hosts when they move in this month.
Another host, church pastoral associate and speech therapist Bailey Payne will follow late next month.
The four-bedroom house, a 103-year-old, two-story stucco home in an older central Waco neighborhood, is the fruit of several years of dreaming and planning for DaySpring, said Dennis Tucker, chair of the church’s leadership council and a Truett Seminary professor of Hebrew and Old Testament.
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Naomi House takes its name from the Old Testament story of Ruth, whose mother-in-law, Naomi, helps her resettle in Naomi’s homeland of Judah after death and drought force them to leave their country.
The seed for Naomi House planted by the church’s yearslong interest in Central America ministries germinated after some church members traveled to San Antonio in 2019 to visit with former Waco resident John Garland, who now pastors the San Antonio Mennonite Church.
Garland, son of Baylor University religion professor and former interim President David Garland and the late Diana Garland, former dean of the Baylor School of Social Work, has long been involved in work with immigrants and migrants crossing the Texas-Mexico border.
Garland introduced his DaySpring visitors to the work of his church’s Mary and Martha House, or La Casa de Maria y Marta, established to help mothers and their children seeking asylum in the United States, usually from violence or persecution. The house, a former Mennonite mission center, provides space for families as they await their asylum hearings and work permits. Part of the house’s ministry is helping those families deal with trauma, whether from violence experienced in their homeland or on the journey north, or simply from the emotional impact of leaving family and friends behind.
Unlike refugees who come to the United States for resettlement only after a legal process overseen by the office of United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees and the U.S. State Department, people who seek asylum simply can arrive at the border and make that request. They can seek asylum on grounds of being persecuted over religion, nationality, social group, race or politics in their home country. A hearing on their case will determine whether asylum is granted, which allows the seekers to stay in the United States legally, or denied, at which point the process of deportation will begin.
The majority of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years have come from Central American countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Many are women and their children, as well as unaccompanied children, fleeing violence in their communities.
“The reality is no one knows how long an asylum case will take,” said Analí Looper, Waco office director of the nonprofit American Gateways and an attorney in immigration law. “Asylum seekers can apply for a work permit after 150 days, and those first few months (in the United States) are crucial, especially for women as they look for work and safe housing.”
Women and children seeking asylum who have no extended family in the United States to stay with after arrival can become vulnerable to human traffickers, Looper said. There is no definitive number of asylum seekers in the area awaiting hearings, but Looper estimated it might be several hundred, judging from the number of cases her Waco office sees.
DaySpring will work with the San Antonio Mennonite Church and Fellowship Southwest, an ecumenical association working on the border, for referrals to the Naomi House, Tucker said. The church will work with one family at first, then possibly expand to two families, but no men, in consideration of women who may have been assaulted or traumatized on the journey, he said.
The Naomi House hosts, who are DaySpring members, see their ministry not as one specialized for immigration and Spanish language help, but general aid and Christian compassion. Rachel Hall, 31, is halfway through a doctor of divinity degree at Truett Seminary with a schedule that allows time at home. Grant, 33, is a film editor who works from home. The two, Baylor graduates who moved back to Waco last year after years in Los Angeles and the Houston area, presently have no children, which they said opened their availability as live-in hosts.
Payne, a 25-year-old Baylor graduate with degrees in religion and communication sciences and disorders, comes to Naomi House with some personal insight. During a gap year program in England, she lived with a family and worked with a church that was helping asylum seekers and refugees, mostly from the Middle East.
The three hosts hope to connect their visiting family to whatever is needed, such as trips to the grocery store, help in enrolling kids in school, transportation, and social and legal services. They get by in Spanish, but Grant Hall said Garland told them not to worry about fluency as it is more important that the visiting family learn English.
“The goal really is to build relationships,” Rachel Hall said.
DaySpring will hold conversational Spanish classes on Wednesdays and Sundays in July at Naomi House as a way to build relationships and strengthen cross-cultural understanding. The church and its hosts, however, will not be going alone on the project. Other Waco churches, including Calvary Baptist Church, University Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church of Waco and Seventh & James Baptist Church, have promised support in varying ways.
There has also been considerable help through La Puerta, a First Baptist Church of Waco program that assists Spanish-speaking newcomers to Waco with connections to English-as-a-second-language classes, General Educational Development diploma programs, local social and city services, classes in health, cooking, finance and nutrition, and more. The Waco office of American Gateways is at hand for legal issues as well.
Exactly what the Naomi House hosts and their church will be doing after the first family moves in is left to discover in the months ahead, but Rachel Hall said the call to serve is clear.
“We want to be faithful and obedient … to the work that God has invited all Christians into, which is caring for others,” she said.