by Esther Brown | Arts & Culture Editor
Abranna Romero-Rocha distinctly remembers her first day of kindergarten. A 5-year-old who only understood Spanish, she arrived at school only to be met with confusion from the teachers: she was at the wrong school. Her mother, using her limited English, had mistakenly placed her on the wrong school bus.
Now a senior in college, Romero-Rocha says she still remembers the vivid, overwhelming feelings of fear and uncertainty as she was surrounded by an unfamiliar environment and language.
As a daughter of an immigrant, Romero-Rocha understands the challenges of entering the unknown. This summer, she worked with individuals and families from similar backgrounds, all who are experiencing these struggles amid COVID-19.
“I could see myself in them. The struggles that they face, my mom faced them; the struggles that they face, I face myself,” Romero-Rocha said. “They’re facing that fear now during a pandemic.”
Serving in a Pandemic
Romero-Rocha’s 3-month internship at First Presbyterian Church of Hayward (FPCH) in California involved working as a case manager for immigrant families, helping manage a food bank and assisting unhoused people.
“We have to care for each other. Jesus himself was like, ‘listen, we have to get all the lambs,’ and all the lambs includes people that aren’t housed, includes people who are sex workers, includes people who society frowns upon. We shouldn’t frown upon them, we should be getting to know them,” Romero-Rocha said.
As a case manager, Romero-Rocha said she helped legal and undocumented immigrants with “anything and everything,” whether that be applying for government assistance, making a medical appointment or getting food stamps. Most of her work was with individuals who only spoke Spanish, an experience that she said was more language-immersive than when she studied abroad in Costa Rica and Guatemala.
The church also runs a food pantry that receives around 200 to 250 families each day. COVID-19 has had a significant impact on its procedures. To limit physical contact, people have to drive through in cars, and every car receives the same prepackaged food. This makes it difficult for people with food restrictions, who used to be able to roam the pantry pre-pandemic and choose food they could eat.
Romero-Rocha said safety guidelines also made the food pantry lose its “personal touch.” Not only do workers need to limit close contact with people, but they have less time for conversations because of fewer volunteers at the pantry.
Each day, Romero-Rocha would work from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in case management, then from 2 to 4 p.m. at the food pantry. “It was just tiring, not because they’re asking for so much. It was never tiring because of that. It was tiring because I knew how much support they needed and I can’t give them everything,” Romero-Rocha said.
When the pandemic first started, FPCH’s immediate thought was of unhoused people. According to the Associated Press, COVID-19 safety guidelines for public places have meant that unhoused people have less access to food, water and restrooms. FPCH opened an emergency shelter to provide for people in this situation.
“The homeless shelters were immensely impacted by COVID-19 because we were only scheduled to be open as a winter shelter. This meant that we stayed open additional months and had to adhere to the health standards to prevent the spread of the virus,” wrote Aaron Horner, the program administrator of FPCH’s Homelessness and Creative Housing Division. “We were stretched thin and struggled quite a bit, but were able to see tons of love and growth with our unhoused neighbors.”
Romero-Rocha said there is a big issue with how we perceive people who are unhoused. Instead of saying “homeless people,” which implies that homelessness is more important than the person, Romera-Rocha encourages saying “people who are unhoused.” This emphasizes the person first, and then their specific situation.
There are many misconceptions about homelessness that affect the treatment of people who are unhoused. During the month she worked at the homeless shelter, Romero-Rocha said she found that many of the people there had forgotten what kindness felt like.
“Nobody wakes up and decided to just be unhoused one day. There had to be some traumatic experiences, there had to be certain situations that happened,” Romero-Rocha said. “And we forget that, we forget that empathy, we forget that story, and we forget there’s a person behind that. And there should be kindness and there should be care… they are a person.”
Faith-Rooted Social Justice
Romero-Rocha was placed at FPCH through Whitworth’s Summer Fellowship Program. Every summer, the Office of Church Engagement matches students with internships in different ministry areas.
“A lot of our students come back with a more expanded knowledge of who God is and just feel encouraged about the work that God is doing all over the world” said Lauren Hunter, the assistant director of Summer Ministry Fellows.
Though the 2020 Summer Fellowship Program was cancelled because of COVID-19, ministry sites had the option to independently hire students. Romero-Rocha, who didn’t have stable housing for the summer, was one of the few students who had this opportunity.
“My expectations for myself were just: ‘I hope I grow spiritually.’ God gave me so much more than that. He was like, ‘not only will I do that, but I’ll give you life lessons, and a job and free housing,’” Romero-Rocha said. “It’s just blessings on blessings… I came out with —honestly — a family, and I came out with a whole new life there.”
Romero-Rocha said it was hard to leave the work she was doing when her internship ended, but realizes that the solution is collective, rather than an individual accomplishment.
“The people before me, they broke the ground,” she said. “I can lay down the brick and somebody else can come back and put in a window. And then eventually, hopefully, we’ll have a house.”
As a passionate advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement, Romero-Rocha says she sees social and racial justice work as an extension of her Christian faith. “If you are not fighting for social justice then I do not know what Bible you are reading, because it is not the Bible I am reading. The Bible is filled with social justice,” Romero-Rocha said.