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In Vassar, a prayer vigil to support Central American children

Kate Wells
Michigan Radio

Everyone in the packed wooden pews - as well as a dozen or so latecomers who squeezed into the back - in the little Grace Lutheran Church in Vassar, Michigan rose to sing what would serve as the evening's main hymn: 

"This land is your land, this land is my land.

From California, To the New York island

From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me." 

At least a dozen local churches sent clergy to the evening's prayer vigil.

As the summer sun set slowly through the stained glass windows, Catholic priests, a Unitarian Universalist minister, as well as men and women of the cloth from Lutheran, Episcopal and United Church of Christ congregations preached compassion and support for children.

Specifically, the Central American children who may soon be transported to Vassar from the Mexican border. 

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Members of the "peace team" from Lansing and Detroit stand outside Grace Lutheran.

And more than one preacher chose to read a selection from Matthew 25: 

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Attendees bowed their heads in silent prayer during the service.

"For 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, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“...Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’"

Supporters of the immigrant housing say they, too, are "getting out in numbers" 

You can only get to this tiny farming town by driving 25 minutes from the highway turnoff, taking gently curving roads that run beside  row crops and neat ranch houses with American flags hanging over the front doors and rider mowers bumping across the lawns. 

But this summer, the quiet community has been abruptly dropped into the bitter debate over what to do with the thousands of unaccompanied children currently flooding the U.S.-Mexico border. 

That's because a local nonprofit, Wolverine Human Services, is applying for a federal contract to temporarily house as many as 120 immigrant boys up to the age of 18.  

Wolverine Human Services has a juvenile housing facility in Vassar, and the organization says it has the space there to house, feed, and educate the children temporarily.  

Since word of the possible contract first spread, protesters from around the state have rallied in Vassar in hopes of blocking any undocumented children from arriving here. 

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A woman waves an American flag during a hymn.

That's attracted the attention of some national media and wide range of politically conservative or libertarian organizations, from the Second Amendment advocates who show up to the protests wearing big guns strapped to their chests,  to the conspiracy theorists who warn that President Obama is creating an "immigrant army" at the border. 

The crowd at Grace Lutheran is broad, too. There are immigration advocates from Detroit and "peace keepers" from Lansing and even a small church group from Saginaw who are handing out free ice cream. 

The ice cream raises money for their youth group, but sometimes they just give it out for free, says Mike Nagel. 

As to why they've come to  Vassar tonight, he says it's "all about the children."

"This whole nation is built on people coming from different lands looking for a better life, and these are children," says Nagel.

Another member of the ice cream group, Dayle Adams, hasn't been following the news out of Vassar too closely, but he has heard about the protestors.   

"I ain't been following it that much, but I don't see why - I mean, I'm sure the people protesting, if they look back in their history, I'm sure they've got people from other countries that came here before they were here. We're all God's children," Adams says.  

Cheryl Lown stands next to him, nodding.

"Kids are kids, you know? They need someone to take care of them." 

Nagel pipes up that so far, the anti-immigrant protestors have been getting all the attention.

But he hopes that will change. 

"Unfortunately they got to the scene and jumped on it before anybody else, and they made their voices heard and spoken out," he says.

"And the ones who support it are coming around and getting out in numbers. But everybody has their choice, they have the freedom to like it or not. And they may have valid reasons for what they feel about it. But I feel I have valid reasons too, and the children are children. And um, we need to do what we can as a faith-based organization to help the children out." 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.