Church Orchestrating Holiday Festivities for Migrant Residents

December 6, 2023

Scores of volunteers from Lexington-based Grace Chapel are planning a “Peace and Love Holiday Dinner” for migrant families on Sunday evening at the Bedford Plaza Hotel, an emergency shelter for more than 90 families.

Highlights of the event, which is not open to the public, include a Haitian Creole dinner and dessert, holiday gifts, and visits with Santa Claus. The families will be joined by several dozen others who reside in a Lexington emergency shelter. 

For Bedford resident the Rev. Richard Rhodes, pastor of community engagement at Grace Chapel, this is a normal response by his church. “From my perspective, faith informs us to care for people that are marginalized, that are vulnerable,” he explained. “Scriptures talk in many places about justice, about caring for marginalized folks. This is a response from our faith.”

Rhodes emphasized that this “outpouring” stands on a foundation built by the Bedford community: “Schools that care, town leaders that care, churches that care. We are part of a larger team. Everybody worked together. That’s the only way to do this.”

The minister said when he was contacted several weeks ago by Superintendent of Schools Cliff Chuang looking for translators, “We feel fortunate that we have a number of Haitian Creole-speaking folks that come into Grace Chapel. I immediately went to our folks. They got very involved. And Dinna was the first one.”

Dinna Louissaint, a Burlington resident, has been the driver behind Sunday’s planned festivities. “I have been helping with translation, going with parents and kids on their first day of school, parent-teacher meetings. I developed a relationship with a few families.” She wanted to prepare a culturally appropriate holiday meal, and “I tried to enlist a few friends. Everything stemmed from that.”

Grace Chapel has a location on Worthen Road in Lexington. About 177 volunteers members are helping with the holiday effort this weekend. Image: John Phelan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Louissaint arrived in the U.S. from Haiti in 1985. Three years ago, she started an interior design business, Visions of Home, “and that’s how I got involved with the church.” Grace Chapel volunteers were readying apartments for some refugees from a region of Africa, and “I offered my services.”

This week, Louissaint said, the response for volunteers was “so overwhelming. I thought I could do it myself with a few friends.” But after the plans were mentioned at services, “we got about 177 volunteers.”

They have responded to a variety of assignments – food preparation in the Grace Chapel kitchen, gift purchases, set-up, and other pre-event logistics. On Sunday, food servers will work in shifts, Louissaint explained, because there’s no space large enough to accommodate everybody at once.

Other volunteers, equipped with coloring books and crayons and crafts, will spend time with children, she said, and still more will meet with teens. “I have a pile of volunteer worksheets in front of me and they keep coming,” Louissaint exclaimed. Church members respond to the leadership and to religious teachings. “It’s such a blessing to be part of that group.”

Santa Claus may be a new experience for many of the children, she said, and “I’m really looking forward to seeing the joy on the faces of those kids.”

Louissaint said she has met with municipal leaders, including Heidi Porter, the Director of Health and Human Services, Police Chief John Fisher, and Nahomie Georgeon, case manager at the shelter for the Youth and Family Services office, as well as National Guard personnel assigned to the shelter.

Volunteers have been collecting gifts for the residents to meet immediate needs like winter clothing and basic hygiene, as well as children’s books and gift cards to local businesses. There’s not a lot of room for families in the shelter, Louissaint said, so “we don’t want to overwhelm them with a bunch of things.”

She noted that a school recently donated 26 computers for children, and some bicycles also were received. 

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to reach out to these new neighbors at the Bedford Plaza. God loves us. So, we want to turn around and love those on the margins. That’s the motivation,” Rhodes declared. “When Jesus Christ was on earth, he primarily reached out to people on the margins. We are just trying to follow his example.”

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