As Usman (a pseudonym) was describing his harrowing 10-week journey from Ghana through 10 countries to get to the U.S., Mama Jill was kindly asking the Spanish-speaking children running around the living room to calm down en espanol. It worked for a few minutes. A Guatemalan mother brought me some tea and a snack from the kitchen.
It felt like being in a home where there is a lot of love shared by grateful people.
This is the Lighthouse in Union City run, indirectly, by the Newark diocese of the Episcopal Church. It’s the brainchild of Mama Jill, a.k.a. the Rev. Deacon Jill Singleton, the Lighthouse’s founder and director.
“At the Lighthouse, we welcome our brothers and sisters from around the world who have been forced to flee their countries due to persecution and violence of all sorts,” said Singleton, a Hoboken resident who stepped down last year as the head of All Saints Episcopal Day School. For a petite woman, she is a dynamo. She cares for the 15 residents as if they are her own.
And it was not different for Usman, 29, who arrived the night before I met him after flying in from California. His cousin had just left the Lighthouse after 15 months and so he was able to provide Usman with an address for immigration services to give him a date for his asylum hearing. The Lighthouse paid his airfare.
Usman became active with other young adults in Ghana to protest corrupt government activities and was jailed three times for several days each. The first time he was tortured by “roasting” his lower leg over an open flame so that when released he needed plastic surgery by grafting flesh from his thigh. He rolled up his pants and lifted his leg to show me.
The third time his family was threatened and he showed up where he was told to report only to be blindfolded and driven to an unknown location. He was so sick he could not eat. Good thing. Two days later a cat wandered in, ate the food and became paralyzed. He was able to escape.
Determined to flee the country, he brought his family to a neighboring country and took the $5,000 American dollars he had saved by farming and selling used electronics. He traveled through several African countries before stowing away on a freighter with his own life raft to land on shore in South America. He then walked, took buses, taxis and occasionally waded or took speedboats through Central America, Mexico and into the U.S. through San Diego. Though he entered unofficially, he then presented himself to immigration authorities and asked for asylum.
A “significant challenge,” Singleton said, “is getting people to understand that asylum seekers are here in this country legally.”
The Lighthouse only houses people who here legally.
Singleton enumerated the other challenges. It can take months or years for asylum seekers to obtain working papers, so finding sustaining work is difficult and that’s what Usman and many others simply want. In addition, it’s hard to find legal support that is pro- or low-bono. And there is little affordable housing in this area. Even with work, salary cannot cover rent alone.
The migrant crisis has been poisoned so that “many Americans do not understand the severity of their (the migrants) economic and social vulnerability,” Singleton said.
For example, Juanita and Jose have been here for nine months; their son, Juan, was born here. They had no work in Colombia and simply wanted a better life. The tipping point was when a gang attacked Jose to steal his motorcycle and he was in a coma for three days. He eventually lost hearing in one ear. He lost a job he had in our area because he could not keep up with all the restaurant orders.
“At the Lighthouse, we are able to provide hospitality and a space for much-needed healing, an active acknowledgement that God did not intend for borders to be created between his people,” Singleton said.
But they need help with monthly financial sponsorship of a migrant or family, possible paid work for them and space for people to rent affordably. Singleton and a social worker are both part-time. They also provide English instruction, access to laptops, financial literacy education, technology assistance, social programs and cultural field trips, she said.
They have housed more than 110 asylum-seekers from 30 different countries since they started the Lighthouse in Jersey City back in 2017.
Singleton oversees one big, relatively happy family and celebrates Christmas, birthdays and other special holidays. She recalled celebrating a child’s 10th birthday when he gushed, “This is the best day of my life; I have never had a birthday party before.”
Mama Jill provides the migrants with the love they have heard about the U.S. and also as a Christian.
The Rev. Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, NJ 07030. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @padrehoboken.
How you can help
Donations to help the Lighthouse and its mission can be made by going to St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, stpaulsjc.org, the online giving page of the website for the Episcopal Church of St. Paul & Incarnation in Jersey City.