Their Church Basement Used to Host Quinceañeras. Now It Houses Mauritanian Muslims | Sojourners

Their Church Basement Used to Host Quinceañeras. Now It Houses Mauritanian Muslims

Asylum-seeking migrants from Mauritania pray after walking in the mountains for hours to reach a main road on the U.S. side of the border in Barrett Junction, Calif., on June 5, 2024. REUTERS/Go Nakamura

“They call me Mom,” said Maria Elena Montalvo, pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bell, Calif., as she worked with Dioulde and Jallo, two asylum seekers from Mauritania, to mop the floors of the church basement where they have been staying since September 2023.

Dioulde and Jallo are two of 20 Mauritanians living in a space that used to be rented out for quinceañeras in the largely working-class area of southeast Los Angeles, where the population is 89.1 percent Latino. Now, in a space that families used to celebrate their daughters’ 15th birthdays under the sprinkling lights of a chandelier, there are rows of futon-style beds lined up against the walls, with folded Muslim prayer rugs, gallon-sized water bottles, and plastic sandals neatly stacked alongside. (Sojourners is withholding the full names of migrants in this story, at their request, due to the sensitivities of immigration status.)

Showing Dioulde how to work the mop bucket and telling Jallo to get the chicken out of the freezer so it can thaw for dinner that night, Montalvo cuts the figure of a mom giving her kids directions on their chores.

But her daughter, Jennifer Coria, 24, who works at the church, said with a wry smile, “She’s nicer to them than she is to us at home.”

“Mash’Allah. Thanks be to God I am here”

For more than six years, Montalvo’s church has made space available to migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers arriving in Bell from countries in Central and South America and Mexico. But over the last nine months, Mauritanians like Dioulde and Jallo have come to call the 100-year-old church their home as well.

They arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border last summer, along with an increasing number of Muslim migrants coming from western African nations such as Mauritania and Ghana. The Mauritanians come fleeing violence, enslavement, and a slew of other human rights abuses via Nicaragua, where they are able to procure a “low-cost visa without proof of onward travel,” according to the Associated Press.

Speaking by phone through an interpreter, Dioulde, 29 years old, told Sojourners he wasn’t sure how long he’d been at Grace, but was thankful for Maria, “their mother.”

Mash’Allah,” Dioulde said. “Thanks be to God that I am able to be here.”

While he is staying back today to mop, he is often out with his fellow asylum seekers from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. collecting cans, bottles, and other recyclable materials to turn in for redemption at the rate of 5, 10, or 25 cents depending on the size of the bottles, boxes, or discarded wine bladders.

“It’s not much,” Dioulde said, “but we make enough to buy some food, give back to the church, and send some money back home.”

After a day of tending their new home or out on the streets collecting aluminum, glass, plastics, and metals, they attend free English classes at Bell High School across the street. On Fridays, they are taken to the Islamic Center of Bell about 1.5 miles east or to a mosque farther away in Long Beach. For daily prayers, they set out mats in the center of the basement. “That’s why we are mopping today,” Dioulde said, “so it can be clean for when we do our prayers.”

Dioulde did not know his fellow Mauritanian residents at Grace Lutheran before coming to the U.S. They all met in a privately operated immigration detention facility in Adelanto, in the high desert east of LA, though they left Mauritania for similar reasons: violent racism and discrimination back home.

From Mauritania to California

Mauritania has a deep-rooted history of slavery and oppression of its Black population by lighter-skin Berbers. Slavery wasn’t outlawed until 1981, with Black families passed down as property from generation to generation of “masters” and Black women facing sexual abuse in a relentless hierarchy. Though slavery is no longer legal, there are reports that some Black people are still enslaved, and numerous nonprofits are working to free people trafficked internally in the northwestern African nation.

Just hours after being arrested on Feb. 9, 2023, Souvi Ould Jibril Ould Cheine, a 38-year-old human rights activist, died while in Mauritanian police custody. His death sparked days of demonstrations, with protesters demanding accountability for the deaths of Cheine and other young men. Those who organized or participated — predominantly young, Black Mauritanians — found themselves targeted and endangered, subject to maltreatment by police.

This prompted Dioulde and others to flee Mauritania via a flight that took him to Nicaragua via Turkey and El Salvador. Once in Central America, Dioulde made his way by foot and by bus through Honduras, Guatemala, and then Mexico. He was on the road for 40 days to reach the U.S.-Mexico border before crossing in Arizona last summer, and then was detained for two weeks.

Dioulde, Jallo, and another 123 Mauritanians were transferred to the immigration detention facility in Adelanto. Speaking only Pulaar, a Fula dialect used in northwestern Africa, they had no interpreters to advocate on their behalf or enough money or connections to pay the $5,000 bonds set for their release.

Working with the American Civil Liberties Union, several immigrant advocacy organizations such as Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice worked over multiple months to have them released to different sponsors and shelters in California and beyond. But a group of men had nowhere to go, until Montalvo’s church stepped in to provide them a temporary home.

“Pastor Maria and her church responded with compassion and accompaniment,” said Guillermo Torres, director of immigration programming for CLUE. “It’s a reflection of who they are as people of faith, honoring the dignity and humanity of every human being.

“It didn’t matter to Maria whether they were Muslim or not, she wanted to welcome them, honor them without exceptions or conditions, like Jesus would,” Torres said.

A home in time of need

Though Montalvo and her parishioners struggle with the gap in language — with one side not speaking Spanish, the other not speaking Pulaar — they share a common vocabulary of migration, a shared journey of seeking a new life north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Montalvo herself came from Mexico City 32 years ago with her husband. Many in the church have also come from Mexico and Central America, finding a home in East LA. Montalvo said they know the celebrations and struggles of immigration and seeking asylum. They also know how important a community of support can be along the way.

So, when Torres called, Montalvo said she did not hesitate to say yes.

“I told Guillermo, bring them immediately,” she said. “I called other churches, a synagogue, friends and family, started getting the church set up for their arrival,” Montalvo said. “There was no question in my mind that this church would be their home.

“It’s another chance to give away a bit of what God and this country have given me,” she said.

The church is also used to providing sanctuary, with another two dozen or so other immigrants staying in a building across the parking lot from the sanctuary that used to be the church’s school. They’ve taken in people addicted to drugs and transient youth as well. No one, Montalvo said, is turned away because of who they are or what they have or have not done.

“There is no discrimination in any form,” she said. “We are all children of God.”

The only limitation, Montalvo said, is space and resources.

“If we had more room and more money, we would take in even more,” she said.

Costly solidarity

That was not always the case. Ordained in 2018, Montalvo was called to Grace Lutheran and told by the previous pastor who had served there for four decades that she would heal the church and the community. “I didn’t believe him,” she said. Slowly, she started to build trust with members of the church and establish herself in the Bell community.

But when she brought in a gay couple fleeing anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination back home in Guatemala to live at the church, some at Grace Lutheran felt she had gone too far. The morning she announced they would begin opening up the former school classrooms to more migrants and asylum seekers, her congregation immediately went from 200 people to 150.

“They just left,” Montalvo said. “They didn’t want the change.”

Montalvo said the split, although initially painful, was good in the end. “Now we can accept everyone. This is the work we are called to,” she said.

And on Sunday mornings, as her congregation sings worship songs a cappella and leaves pictures of loved ones in the small chapel in the back dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Montalvo preaches a consistent message of radical acceptance and hospitality.

“I keep telling them, ‘This is not your church,’” Montalvo said. “It’s the community’s. It’s the migrants.’ It’s only here to help people, to be their home in a time of need.”

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