Inviting the stranger in: Casa Mateo
There is no doubt that the migrant situation at our southern border is complicated, but as Christ Cathedral parishioners Kristin Johnson and Susan Reedy say, there is one aspect of the issue that is crystal clear. And it is this calling that has led them to spearhead the establishment of a respite center for refugees in Houston, called Casa Mateo.
In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”
“The work is actually pretty simple,” Johnson said. “And this is what we feel like we are called to do.”
The seeds of Casa Mateo were sown when Cathedral members made trips to the border to get a sense of what was happening there. Johnson, Reedy and Canon Simón Bautista were among them. Dean Gary Jones, along with Episcopal clergy from around the country, also made a trip the same year as Johnson.
“We wanted to see for ourselves and learn from people who were taking care of immigrants who were in the country legally at various intake centers,” Dean Jones said. “There was a great interest to contribute in a compassionate way to the care of people who were obviously distressed and being marginalized and sometimes demonized in the press.”
The pandemic caused a slowdown of efforts but when Dean Jones came to Cathedral in September of 2022, he discovered that Johnson and Reedy had indeed been busy.
“They had been carrying the ball ever since, at the behest of Dean Barkley Thompson,” he said. “They developed quite a deep and insightful knowledge about what was going on at the southern border and the tremendous needs that various social services had just to keep up with these families who didn’t have any place to go.”
From the perspective of Johnson and Reedy, it was an effort that once took root, blossomed, in large part because the Cathedral had already prioritized the care of migrants in its last vision action plan. The Mission Outreach Council, which both women served on, also made migrant assistance a focus.
“At the border, we spoke to a variety of people, from volunteers at respite centers to clergy to asylum seekers to border patrol,” Reedy said. “We were praying about the next steps and then one of our colleagues told us about a shelter here in Houston that was in need.”
That center was Casa Juan Diego and while Johnson and Reedy went to talk to the co-founder and director, Louise Zwick, about ways to volunteer with them, soon the scope shifted.
“Louise was very grateful, but she said ‘I don’t need volunteers and we don’t need donations, what we need is another respite center,’” Reedy remembers.
Johnson clearly recalls the date, April 1, 2022, and she remembers what Reedy said to her - “We can do this. Christ Church does things like this.”
From there, they met with Canon Simón Bautista who told them about a vacant church facility that might be used for a respite center. Northshore Episcopal Church, located in East Houston, is about 8,000 square feet.
"I am amazed by the faithfulness and courage of members and leaders of the Cathedral, such as Susan Reedy and Kristen Johnson,” Bautista noted, adding: “I think God wanted me to witness this when sending me and my family to Houston. Casa Mateo is the answer to the prayers of many, and I am thankful to God for making the Cathedral community the vessel where these prayers found a nurturing home. This is God at work and God's kingdom breaking through!"
Johnson continued: “We have been riding the momentum from so many different organizations and people really wanting to figure out a way to help this population in the city of Houston.”
One of those major supporters was Texas Bishop Andrew Doyle who offered the 6-acre Northshore campus, rent-free.
“The Bishop said that it was something that he had wanted to see in Houston for a long time,” Reedy said. “His encouragement and offer of support further motivated us to pursue this opportunity to address a growing need.”
Another piece of the puzzle for Johnson and Reedy fell into place when they heard about a respite center in Austin called Casa Marianella.
“We were blown away by the work they are doing there to serve migrants and asylum seekers who are coming from all over the world,” Johnson said. “They have a 90-day program where they not only provide shelter but also programming that we think is transformative in how it sets people up for success.”
Reedy said their affinity for the 90-day model came from the realization that there is currently nothing like this in the city of Houston.
“It takes time to minister to people,” Susan says. “In seven days a family can just start to catch their breath. They’ve experienced so much trauma. They’ve got small children and most have a language barrier. Once you provide initial relief - a bed, a roof over their head, a hot shower, a warm meal and a sense of safety - then you can start trying to address some of the dire needs they have.”
The 90-day model includes case management, access to legal services, referrals for medical care, ESL classes, and help with job placement, school enrollment and permanent housing. Johnson and Reedy say that Casa Marianella director Jennifer Long has been an incredible partner in sharing her 30 years of knowledge and introducing them to a network of other shelters across the country.
One of the key points that Johnson and Reedy emphasize is that the migrants who will be housed at Casa Mateo aren’t just coming here to make a better life for themselves, they are often fleeing persecution and violent situations.
Johnson said that the referrals for Casa Mateo will likely come from other non-profits working with immigrants. The facility will be able to accommodate about 50 people at a time. Current plans are to open in about a year from now.
“The vestry and the endowment of the Cathedral granted us a financial gift to cover the majority if not all the capital improvements needed to retrofit this space to convert it for these purposes,” she said. “We can now focus on raising funds for our programming.” Johnson said there will be numerous opportunities for the Cathedral community to get involved, whether it is creating a children’s library, helping with ESL services, and beautifying the space through a community garden. The Cathedral website will also be a resource for respite center updates.
Dean Jones notes that Matthew is also the only Gospel in which the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and tells them to take their baby to Egypt.
“From the time Jesus was born, he was a refugee,” says Dean Jones. “Some wonder if Jesus is remembering in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats how his very life depended on the hospitality of the Egyptians to take care of him when his family had to flee.”
Senior Warden Guy Hagstette said that caring for the refugee is the type of work that God calls Christian communities to do.
“Over the past 200 years, it is also the kind of work that Christ Church Cathedral has been about,” he said. “You can look at the Beacon, you can look at New Hope Housing.”
Hagstette said the vestry as a body has been aware of plans since May of 2022, and that there have been a number of extensive reports and discussions since then. “We are seeing here the results of two very committed Cathedral members, but we’re also seeing evidence of the strength of our Council system,” he said. “There has been so much momentum every day driving this project,” Reedy said. “Amazing people have been put in our path and so much has just fallen into place.”