St. Luke’s Cathedral will open three days a week as a warming center for asylum seekers who are new to Portland.

More than 50 families – 207 people, at last count – have arrived in Maine in recent weeks to seek protection from violence and persecution in their homelands. Many are sleeping in a local gymnasium, but they must leave in the morning with their belongings. The city has been scrambling to find a place where those people could go during the day to escape the winter weather.

Mufalo Chitam, the executive director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, contacted St. Luke’s for help. She remembered the churches that donated when an earlier group of asylum seekers sheltered at the Portland Exposition Center over the summer, and she thought about the cathedral’s large space and downtown location.

“Every time people, churches, sent their donations, they asked, what else can we do?” Chitam said.

The Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh said he talked about the idea last week with Chitam and Mayor Kate Snyder. The church’s schedule will not allow the warming center to operate every day, but Shambaugh decided the parish hall could open for that purpose on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The next Wednesday was Christmas Day, and the Episcopalian cathedral is planning to host events and services this week for the holiday.

“My first reaction was that would be really hard to start on Christmas Day,” Shambaugh said. “The second reaction was, that’s fantastic, that’s exactly what Christmas means.”

Shambaugh said the cathedral is also involved in the soup kitchen at Preble Street and runs the St. Elizabeth’s Jubilee Pantry, which provides essentials not covered by food stamps, including diapers and hygiene products. Those programs serve many different Mainers, he said, and the warming center was an opportunity to meet another need in the community. When he put out a plea for volunteers, he had more than 80 people scheduled to help.

Many of those volunteers attended information sessions over the weekend. Chitam said she told them that asylum seekers have often experienced trauma, and she asked them to avoid questions that could cause the new immigrants to relive those terrible experiences. Nearly all are families from the sub-Saharan African countries of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and they made harrowing journeys through Central America and Mexico to enter the United States at the southern border. Many then took buses from San Antonio to Portland, which is known as a  safe and welcoming city.

She also reminded volunteers that many organizations are working with the asylum seekers, who have school and medical appointments and other tasks around the city.

“They are not staying there and doing nothing,” Chitam said. “They are living their lives.”

Shambaugh recalled the Bible story about the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt soon after Jesus was born.

“When we welcome refugees, we welcome Jesus himself,” he said.

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