QUITO, Ecuador – At 9 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, Alba Silva, pastor at Quito Mennonite Church and a worker in the church’s MCC-supported refugee project, opens a large metal gate, welcoming about 20 people waiting outside. She distributes numbered slips of paper as people file into the church’s courtyard.
Within minutes, a volunteer brings coffee and cookies. The sun begins creeping over the walls, warming the chilly air.
As numbers are called, refugees come into a large room with two desks set up on opposite sides. The room doubles as a church sanctuary on Sunday mornings. A project worker sits at each desk, ready to invite people to share not only their needs but as much as they want about their refugee journey.
The project is the hands and feet of the church. We are living out the gospel message."
- Alexandra Meneses, part of the pastoral team of Quito Mennonite Church and coordinator for Project for Refugee People
“The project is the hands and feet of the church. We are living out the gospel message,” says Alexandra Meneses, part of the pastoral team of La Iglesia Menonita de Quito (Quito Mennonite Church) and a coordinator for the MCC-supported Project with Refugee People.
Each part of the project is pastoral – from the intake interviews to a monthly education seminar for children and to special events like Christmas celebrations that bring together those handing out assistance and those receiving it.
“We conduct the interviews with the intent of getting to know the concrete needs of the person, so that we can help in an efficient way. But we are also conducting the interviews to get to know people,” Meneses says. “The individuals in front of us are not just statistics, they are humans.”
While the interviews are happening, two volunteers play with the children in a separate room, giving parents privacy and time to share openly. Interviews last anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes, depending on how much the family wishes to share.
Each month, about 100 families receive assistance through the project, including nutritious foods such as rice, quinoa, lentils and eggs. The project gives out donated clothing and a limited number of stoves, mattresses and blankets. It also pays for school uniforms and school supplies for children enrolled in school.
The assistance meets urgent needs for people like David (real name not used for security reasons), who fled from his home in Cauca, Colombia, after receiving death threats.
Despite recent peace accords that ended decades of fighting between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, a guerilla group known as FARC, violence has increased in regions such as Cauca. Now refugees are fleeing violence of armed groups eager to take over illegal trade routes that FARC used to control.
Escape to a colder climate made the gift of warm clothing especially important to David. Traveling by bus with his wife and four daughters, the family could carry little, and temperatures in their region of Colombia were much warmer than Quito. “We did not have suitable clothes for the climate here in Quito,” he says. “Coats and sweaters from the project help us to stay warm.”
And David and his family found another source of sustenance in Quito Mennonite Church.
While church attendance is not tied in any way to the assistance refugees receive, dozens of refugees, drawn by the warmth of their experiences through the refugee project, have started attending the congregation.
“We found the love of God at this church.That is why we stayed,” David says. “This church practices the love of God through service and extends its hands when there is need.”
The church was founded in 2001 by Colombian mission workers supported by a partnership including the Mennonite Church of Colombia, Mennonite Mission Network and Central Plains Mennonite Conference.
We found the love of God at this church. That is why we stayed... This church practices the love of God through service and extends its hands when there is need.
- David, a refugee
Colombian refugees and Ecuadorians alike soon found their way to the new congregation. Church members shared food, sheets, blankets and other household goods with the refugees. Eventually the church asked for and received support from the partnership for their refugee ministry, before being encouraged to seek support from MCC to develop an official refugee program.
Today, about half of the 50 to 60 people who attend worship on Sundays at the church are refugees.
For years, Ecuador has received waves of refugees fleeing conflict and violence in Colombia, and that continues today. In the past year, the project has seen a dramatic increase of people coming from Venezuela, a result of the country's food shortages and political instability.
And project leaders are starting to receive more refugees from non Spanish-speaking countries.
As refugee numbers and needs continue to grow, the refugee project and the church plan to continue welcoming people from all corners of the world – providing a multicultural space and building community with all.
“The refugee project is an important part of living out the message of justice that Jesus gave us,” Meneses says.