3: Helping Immigrant Parishioners through a Safety Plan


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English Show Notes: patticc.com/3

Resumen del Episodio en Español: patticc.com/s3

In today’s program Glenmary priest Fr. Steve Pawelk, shares about his experiences living through three immigration raids in his ministry. He shares what helped and what he has learned so that other parishes can help their immigrant community make a safety plan.

Immigration Enforcement Preparation Resources:

Educating Your Community About Enforcement Actions: Resources For Preparation and Protection Includes Know Your Rights resources, Family Preparation resources and Connecting with Community Resources.

Know Your Rights: A Guide to Your Rights When Interacting with Law Enforcement – from CLINIC, Inc.

Rapid Response Toolkit – a plan of action for communities for before, during and after an immigration raid – from CLINIC, Inc.

Know Your Rights video from the USCCB English Spanish

Resources Recommended during the Show:

Alpha Digital ID Systems

Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC)

Parish Website English-Spanish Templates

Sample ID application form PDF / Excel

Sample ID card

Sample text for back of card

Sample letter to local law enforcement

Sample parish announcement

More about Fr. Steve’s Ministry:

St. John Paul II Catholic Mission

St. Teresa of Kolkata Catholic Mission

Glenmary Home Missioners – Fr. Steve Pawelk, GHM

Want to learn some conversational Spanish on your commute?

Try the Pimsleur Spanish Conversational Course – Level 1 on CDs

It’s also available on Audible. Try Audible and get 2 Free Audiobooks

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my audience.

Transcript of Episode:


Greetings Gente Puente! We are a community of gente puente: building bridges between God and his people, and also between different cultures and languages. In today’s program Glenmary priest Fr. Steve Pawelk, shares about his experiences living through three immigration raids in his ministry. He shares what helped and what he has learned so that other parishes can help their immigrant community make a safety plan.

Si no tienes ninguna idea lo que acabo de decir, no te preocupes. El podcast Gente Puente tiene episodios en Ingles y otros en Español. Si no eres bilingüe, de todas formas, puedes leer la entrevista y ver todos los recursos de hoy en las notas del programa que se encuentran en Patticc.com/s3. No quieres perder la entrevista de hoy porque el Padre Steve Pawelk comparte lo que ha aprendido en sus experiencias en tres redadas de inmigración y cómo ayudar a los inmigrantes crear un plan de seguridad.

OK back to English. I’m Patti Gutiérrez from Patti’s Catholic Corner. We are a team, with experience in ministry, who provide Catholic translations from English to Spanish or from Spanish to English. I am your host for these interviews. This podcast is for you if you are a leader in a Catholic ministry. You will hear interviews about the Hispanic/Latino Ministry best practices from all over the United States to get practical ideas, strategies and resources that can help you in your ministry! You will also receive encouragement from other ministers who understand all the joys and struggles that come with ministry.

But before I start, I want to tell you about a free resource I have put together for Catholic parishes. I have written out bilingual templates for your parish website. You can find it and all the resources mentioned in this episode as well as a summary of the episode in English and Spanish, in the show notes found at patticc.com/3.

If you want to join in the conversation, be part of the Gente Puente online community and see what’s coming in the next episodes, come to our Facebook group! Just look for Gente Puente on Facebook to find us and be part of the group.

As I said at the beginning, we are going to hear from Fr. Steve Pawelk. He is a priest with the Glenmary Home Missioners who work in the South of the United States in counties with very low numbers of Catholics. Fr. Steve has had the misfortune of experiencing three different immigration raids during his time of ministry with Hispanic immigrants in Georgia and Tennessee. He has used his experience and turned it into a blessing to help immigrants in his parish to be better prepared in the case of a raid. I pray that parishes all across the country can learn from his experience as well and start to implement some of the steps of the safety plan he lays out. Now let’s listen to my conversation with Fr. Steve!

Interview with Fr. Steve:

Father Steve, it’s such a pleasure to get to talk to you today. And I’m excited to hear more about the project that you are going to share with us. But first can you tell our listeners a little about yourself, your background, your vocation, how you got connected to Hispanic Latino ministry, and what’s your current role.

My name is Father Steve Pawelk. What I like to tell people that I’m just a pig famer turned priest from Minnesota. I joined Glenmary Home Missioners after exploring Maryknoll. Maryknoll sent me to Guatemala for a couple weeks, and I said “Oh I love missionary work, but I could never learn Spanish”, and here the Glenmary Home Missioners, they work in the deep south, and they work in Appalachians, I said this is perfect! So, my very first assignment in Georgia, the priest there was bilingual, but he became ill, so I had to take over the Spanish Mass, and I didn’t know one word of Spanish. So, that was my introduction, so bit by bit I’ve tried to learn Spanish. Solo hablo poquito. I do preach in Spanish, but it’s country Spanish, as I tell people. Since then, these last 29 years as a Glenmary home missionary priest, it has been a delight. Currently, I am in new missions, both started in 2011, neither one had a Catholic Church when I arrived here. We are in Union County, Tennessee, with St. Teresa of Calcutta Catholic Church, and in Granger, Tennessee, in the Rutledge area, with St. John Paul II Catholic mission and both have Latino populations.

Well thank you! So, tell us a little about the project that you want to share with us, the basic overview of who it’s for, what happened, what is some of the basic information about the project, please.

What I would like to talk about today is to be prepared – a safety plan for immigration, undocumented immigrants, especially in time of a raid. Unfortunately, in my priesthood I have been through three raids, and the most recent one here has reached national focus. The raid in Bean Station at the slaughterhouse, which was the largest immigration raid in ten years. And since then, the current administration has carried out about four to five more significant raids at work places. And so, how do we protect our parishioners, our people, and what can we have done ahead of time? So, that’s the project that I want to talk about, because we did have a safety plan in place and the safety plan did work.

Tell us more about that, what was your plan or what was the main elements?

The first part of the plan was to always to tell people, “if there is any issue with immigration, with ICE or any other agencies, and you are nervous, go to the church.” So, there is a central meeting place, go to the church and we will sort things out. That first step worked very well. When the raid happened, I was on my way over to Rutledge, I live in the other mission in Maynardville, and the first call came at 10:15, when I got to the church there was two cars waiting, all with adolescents who heard about the raid and were trying to figure out where their parents were and came. By midday we probably had 50 people in the church, including U.S. citizens that were helping us locate people who were scared, and by the end of the day we probably had 75-80. And to the good graces of TIRRC, an agency here in Tennessee, we had legal aid assistance available by 8:00 that evening. Because we had people centered together, because we knew what agencies to call, we called Catholic Charities who contacted TIRRC, who then sent people over form Nashville to help us. So that was stage one, just having people know when something happens, know where to go.

And those connections with the legal aid and legal advice, and things like that, you had already set up those connections ahead of time?

Yes, we had been working with Catholic Charities immigration office here in Tennessee and with TIRRC, Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition. We had those numbers beforehand. We knew where you could go for help if something happened and we had previous experience with them. So that allowed us to enter into this quickly.

Ok, so you mentioned that was step one. What were the other steps in the plan?

Step two and then there is a step three. Step two was to produce everyone a legal photo ID. Obviously, I try to inform my parishioners that if you present a false identification, false Social Security Number or anything of that nature, your situation with the legal system changes, from a misdemeanor to a felony. And of course, when you get the felony you get to a whole other ballgame of consequences. The photo ID cards that we give, I sent to 5 counties to their local sheriff office and police stations, showed them the form that people would fill out, showed them what the ID card would look like, so it would give them knowledge that the person that they are seeing lives in their county. It has the address, their age, their weight, the same things on a driver’s license, and on the back of the card it says this is not an ID by the state of federal government, this was produced by the Catholic Church, and you can call this number for background information. One thing really important with the ID program is that the people must present an authentic identification card from their home country, whether that be a passport, photo ID card, a registration card, birth certificate. Then we require the same thing the state of Tennessee does: two mailing addresses that show you live there, like a light bill or phone bill. So, we require the same thing as the state of Tennessee, but we produce the ID. And people did it for a donation. There are many companies, Alpha is one company that we used, you get these machines. These IDs are used at school systems, etc., but by producing them here, if they are ever pulled over, they have a legitimate ID they can give people. Because often times the local police or sheriff just wants to know if you live in the county, are you here, is this your home. The second thing it does is it gives them a second ID, local, is a photo, they can use that at the bank to cash a check, they can use at the grocery store if they are going to use a credit card, or something of that nature. So it gives them a second photo ID, because often times you can get other ID’s without a photo, that will help them in their daily living. We have found this to be very successful and 4 of the 5 sheriffs accepted it and were grateful. The sheriff in Knox county had no interest.

Well, we will jump back in to get more details on that piece of the project, but what was step three in the plan?

Step three, I did not have in place at the time of the raid, I only learned about it later, so we are now implementing step three. Which is very important and one I wish I knew about ahead of time. And that is to have a power of attorney for the sake of children. Any undocumented individual who has children, and if a raid happens, and both parents are taken or one parent is a step parent, Department of Family and Children Services steps in and removes those children automatically, while the parent is in detention. However, if you have a power of attorney, that documents who will take care of your children, in this case, it then gives a legal path for that individual to help you take care of that child immediately. It does not sign away your custodial rights, all you are doing is giving them the power to take care of the child, take them to school, take them to a doctor, it a temporary power while you are going through this process. We have been doing these workshops now for the last month, and they are extremely important and extremely helpful. We have a group of volunteer lawyers, and a group of notaries that come in because the document needs to be notarized for it to be valid. So, we set up an evening for 2-3 hours, the lawyers work for free and they bring in their documents that say that these are their children, they bring in the address. It has to be a legal resident or citizen, not an undocumented individual. With these three steps our children and our families have some protection in the case of a raid and allows them to have that security that their children will not be taken from them and not be lost in the system and that they have a trusted place to be.

You said the person has to be a legal permanent resident or have some kind of immigration status here, preferably a citizen, does that need to be present at this workshop? Do they have to live locally or can they be in another place?

They can be almost anywhere, in the U.S., sometimes the lawyers will make a phone call to verify the information, but otherwise if they have it clear, it’s the parents that are making the decision. Some of our families chose people that live in other states, those family members do not need to come to the workshop to fill out the papers, but they are notified, and so it is helpful to have the phone numbers for communication with the lawyers if needed.

I want to go back. You said you that you started these missions and I’m thinking someone may have the question how do we create a safe space in the church that the people will come to? How did you create the rapport with the Hispanics that they did come when they had a problem?

Well I think having been in this ministry for a while, and in different places, the advantage here was that the church didn’t exist. So, when we began, the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking communities have a common history. They both created the space, they both created the store front building in this case. So, we created that space together, and we’ve worked to develop relationships. We have an English mass and a Spanish mass. The English mass is mostly older people, the Spanish mass is mostly younger people. I always joke that the average age of the English mass is 70 and the age of the Spanish is 7. It may not be literally true, but it feels that way. We’ve done work. We have a Thursday night bi-lingual Mass. Our church building is also used for commodities, we do a back to school program, a back to winter program to give people blankets, so for both the English and the Spanish speaking the church isn’t just a place for worship, it’s a place where needs are met. So we have built up that reputation over the years so they were able to trust our English-speaking population, or whatever you want to call them. But it helps because they have had interaction, they knew each other. We have done joint things with the Methodist and the Baptist Churches. We have over 100 families and both the Methodist and Baptist have very few children, so we have vacation bible school together, we use their building, and their teachers, and we bring the kids. So, they have a relationship and they could trust the local community. Because of the ID cards and the work with the sheriffs, we had a relationship with sheriffs and police departments as well. So, building relationships before it ever happens, and people knowing they can trust us – you are family, this is your home and we will take care of you. The day of the raid it wasn’t just Catholic Latinos, all faiths were affected and they all came to the church because it is a safe place for everyone.

Thank you, let’s go back into the details about the ID. You described the types of requirements that you have to have to be able to give someone the ID, what about the technological side?

The program cost us $3000, there’s an Alpha card company, a little machine that is portable. You need a laptop computer to connect to that and you need a good camera that attaches onto the computer. And you need a white screen background so they can sit and take the picture. It takes about 10 minutes to process each person. We had the back of the cards all produced so we didn’t have to wait for the back to go through too. Then put the person’s photo and information in the computer and print them out. They leave the same with the ID the same day.

Do you do a full day workshop style?

We do it in the morning from 9-12. We have two teams, the team at the door is getting the forms filled out, and making sure everyone has the right documentation. Then two people working at the computer, one entering the information and taking the photo and the other one gives them the ID and that they sign off. We keep all these records on file so if we are called, we can produce for them that we validated the information. The card says on the back ‘to the best of our knowledge at the date of issue this is correct information’. We did it every other week at the beginning because there was such a demand. But now we do it once a quarter because there are always people moving in. I’ve had requests to go to other parishes but I haven’t had a chance to train a team to do that. It’s not hard but it takes some training.

Do you have anything, that would help another parish get set up?

Anyone can contact us through St Theresa of Calcutta church and we can send you any information that you request. We would be glad to assist any parishes looking for this way of protecting their members who need a photo ID. I also found out we had some elderly people come to get an ID because they don’t drive.

Break – Sponsor: Parish Website Templates

We will continue with my interview with Fr. Steve in a moment, but I want to share a little more about the free resource for parishes I mentioned during the intro. I have put together texts for parishes who would like to make their website a little more welcoming for Spanish-speaking Catholics. These are templates that are super easy for webmasters to cut and paste text with very little editing and without knowing a word of Spanish! It includes templates for a welcome page, a page with a schedule of parish activities, a Parish Team page and a Helpful Links page. You can get your free copy today by visiting patticc.com/templates or on today’s Show Notes page.

Now we continue with the conversation with Fr. Steve Pawelk.

What are some things you learned along the way that you could give to someone starting out this safety plan? You said you learned the third step. Is there anything else you learned?

Several things, you never think it’s going to happen to you. I think to be prepared and to build the relationships, with the community leaders. Build those relationships with the local law enforcement and community organizations. You can distribute the Know Your Rights cards about what you have to tell you law enforcement and what you don’t. Think ahead, most important establish the safe place for people to go. Whether it’s a church or parish hall or a soccer field. You have to have a central location and a place to sort through information. It’s like triage at first. Something that we didn’t have set up ahead of time that worked is I called U.S. citizens to go check neighborhoods to see if people were OK. And others brought food which helped a lot. Thank goodness people just responded to my calls out of generosity.

Tell us a little bit about the actual raid and that experience. How did you find the missing people? Did you have to call the lawyers at that time? Or what can people do in that triage stage?

The raid is very traumatic experience, for everyone. It’s something you never want to go through. But because we had connections and people’s cell phone numbers. We have built relationships and overall it worked. What we didn’t count on is finding homes for people to spend the night. I didn’t have any idea we would need to find places that night because people were afraid to go back. We used the cell phones, drove through neighborhoods, to find people. People were just scared. Some ran to the woods, to other people’s homes. But we were able to bring people to a safe place and figure out who was in detention and who was going to be released. I’m grateful for TIRRC and Catholic Charities workers. Because I could calm people down and say somebody’s coming. We’re going to answer that question and figure that out.

Let’s pretend that someone has no idea how the immigration system works and someone comes to them saying so-and-so was taken. I don’t know where they are. What do you do?

It’s hard to get information when you don’t know where they are. In this case we knew from the start where the buses were and where they were going to the detention center. It’s very hard to get information from within the detention center. We had to wait outside. Go on site if you can. One of the things that made a big difference is that since we had legal help quickly, there were Catholic Charities lawyers on site with two hours. You could say they were harassing the agents, making sure everything was being done right. They had to do things by the book and some were released that never should have been taken. Once they know someone is watching.

So the lawyers were at the detention center?

Where they were detained. They forced people into three buses and handcuffed everyone, including pregnant women. And they said they’d sort it out in a holding facility for processing. They took them to a National Armory about 20 minutes away. That’s where they were processed. 97 people taken 54 were held, 10 were held for felony charges because they had been picked up by immigration before and came back. Then they were sent to Alabama and then Louisiana. Since we already had legal counsel on this side we were able to call the Southern Law Association and they were able to help us down there. Having the legal eyes and the Church eyes there right away made a big different. When I was in Georgia I didn’t have any of that in place and it was much more difficult. But that’s where I learned that you have to have a plan in place. In that case we went to trailer parks and found lots of kids alone. Between the Church and the school system we figured out how to take care of them, but there were no plans and parents were taken. Having a plan makes a huge difference.

I can see how the previous raid helped you be prepared for this community. Hopefully what you have learned is helping other people now be prepared. How did you see how God at work during this?

There were two people whose lives changed drastically. We have a volunteer group lead by and ICE agent out of Boston. He had his hat on and he was pointing out what he thought were undercover agents and he was protecting the people. I asked him “what’s changed your heart?” He said, “these are kids and they’re crying. These are women and they’re afraid. That ain’t right. That’s not supposed to happen.” To see a hard-core, by-the-book guy see the human side of this. And there he was protecting our Church building. So that was an incredible conversion. The other was a parishioner who voted for Donald Trump and has questioned me several times about immigration. She wants things to be done by the book. She was there just to bring communion to the sick and saw the children. She asked what was happening, so I explained to her. That night she took in a family of 7 to her home for three days. And now they have an ongoing relationship. She still wants reform but she doesn’t want to see the people here or the children harmed. She had a great change of heart. Those were great signs of God’s intervention. When we meet people, what looks like a hard-core story or cliché becomes a human story. And when hearts touch hearts God comes through.

Thank you so much Fr. Steve. Before we wrap up is there anything in your current ministry that you would like to share?

One political comment, I hope we can take back the word sanctuary, it should mean a place for safety. A place for people to live and find justice. I want to reclaim sanctuary, change the language. Remind people why we don’t use the word illegal – because they are all legitimate. They all have a right to exist. Reminding people that there is no line to stand in. Doing what we can do to bring about change of hearts that hopefully will lead to a change of policy. I hope for a Church of unity, love, peace and justice.

One of the goals of the Gente Puente podcast is to create a community and an encouraging space where we can support each other. Now that you have been in ministry for many years and in Hispanic ministry for many years, is there anything you can share that would be an encouragement for others in ministry?

For my gringo friends, just be honest, we don’t know nothing and that’s ok. We speak the language terribly, that’s ok, if your heart is there they will love you, don’t be afraid of the language barrier, just reach out and embrace your people, whether you are a lay leader or priest or brother. Whatever your role in the parish. There is always a way through the language by the love of heart. May I end with a little story? We were doing a going away party for an associate priest that was here for a short time, and in planning it the Latino women told the English women you don’t need to do anything because you are the Abeulas of the church. Because these elderly women brought bikes and clothes to these ladies that had children. And when that word was used, everything changed, they saw that they have a new role. Because our young immigrants don’t have their families here. The abuelos, abuelas, tías and tíos are not here. See what you have, no language is necessary just a good heart.

Thank you, would mind to close us out with a prayer for ministers for encouragement?

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Lord Jesus in the life of the church we go through difficult times, in the life of our communities they go through difficult times. We are now in a time of immigration that is challenging where there are many misinformation and where civility is sometimes lost for those who are of a different color or race or language. But as Catholics we are all brothers and sisters, may we be the body of Christ and support each other, whether we are members or leaders, may we be the hands, feet and hearts that embrace each other and walk together. Lord help us not lose hope, help us be the light in the darkness. Help us be the path of clarity in confusion. Help us overcome sadness with joy, with You all things are possible. So, Lord we ask you to be with every minister, every leader, everyone who desires to be a part of the Body of Christ, to have faith and confidence in your power over the evil we see in the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen

Amen! Thank you so much Fr Steve!

You’re welcome Patti


What an incredible interview with Fr. Steve! Listening to him makes me laugh and cry and gives me goosebumps. I can just hear the spirit moving as he talks about his ministry. I love it. Here are some my key takeaways:

  1. You never know what is going to happen, but God will be with you and He can bring good out of every situation.
  2. Much more important than language skills, is love in your heart. Even if your Spanish isn’t great or it’s non-existent, focus on what you can do.
  3. Having a safety plan in place for immigrant parishioners made a huge difference. Steve’s plan has three main steps: 1) Agree on a safe meeting place, 2) Provide parishioners with a Photo ID and keep good records, and 3) Assist parents in creating Powers of Attorney to arrange care for their children in their absence.
  4. Takeaway #4: Underlying the success of the safety plan is building on-going, trusting relationships – among parishioners, within the broader community, with local law enforcement, community organizations and with legal service providers.
  5. It would be good to set out a parish response plan in the case of a raid. It would include calling in U.S. Citizen volunteers to help visit neighborhoods, bring food, provide temporary housing and accompany the scared immigrants and their families. It should also include calling legal services right away to come provide assistance and to be present outside the detention facility where people are being processed.
  6. Encounter is the best way for hearts to change. Like Fr. Steve said, “When we meet people, what looks like a hard-core story or cliché becomes a human story. And when hearts touch hearts, God comes through.”

I hope you also received a lot from this interview too.

If you would like to find more information about Fr. Steve or donate toward his Catholic Missions you can find the links in today’s Show Notes or at glenmary.org. Fr. Steve also shared some resources for parishes who are interested in trying the ID program. You can find sample application forms, text for the IDs and a sample letter to local law enforcement as well as all the other resources mentioned in the Show Notes for this episode at patticc.com/3.

Don’t forget to join the Gente Puente Facebook group to be part of our growing family of Catholic leaders who share their experience and encourage each other! You can find us at facebook.com/groups/gentepuente or simply look for Gente Puente on Facebook.

In the next episode, we will hear from a couple who has been leading Retrouvaille retreats with Latinos in California. These retreats have had incredible success helping couples get through difficult times in their marriages and rebuild their relationships. So, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast Gente Puente on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or your favorite podcast apps so you do not miss any future episodes!

Thanks for listening today. May God bless you and your ministry as gente puente!

37 episodes