Step of faith leads to ministry of accompaniment

Georgia community lives out immigrant connections

Jun 8, 2015 by and

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Anton Flores-Maisonet left his tenure-track faculty position at LaGrange (Ga.) College in 2008 for a risk-taking venture of faith that would lead him, his wife, Charlotte, and their family into a life of solidarity with immigrants from Latin America in LaGrange.

Members of the Alterna community in LaGrange, Ga., mostly live on the same street and share lives and resources. – Alterna

Members of the Alterna community in LaGrange, Ga., mostly live on the same street and share lives and resources. – Alterna

Not quite knowing what would come next, he co-founded the Alterna Community, a bilingual Anabaptist community of U.S. citizens and newcomers from Latin America that incorporates cooperative housing and covenanted Christian fellowship.

“For the past eight years I have put my full-time vocational energies into accompaniment and ministry with immigrants in crisis,” Flores-Maisonet said.

His work has included advocating for people caught in the legal system, responding to crises related to health and housing, and visiting detainees at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin.

In April, charges were dropped against him and four other activists — the “Stewart Five” — who had been arrested in November during a demonstration and prayer vigil at the detention center.

“This is what happens when we allow the people we typically dehumanize to enter and penetrate our hearts,” he said. “It’s totally upended my life. The last eight years have been a completely new reality for us.”

Brothers and sisters

When they adopted their son Jairo from Guatemala in 2000, the Floreses felt it was important that he remain connected to his culture and language. In 2001, they began attending La Primera Iglesia, a Spanish-speaking church in LaGrange.

“There everyone was ‘brother’ and ‘sister,’ ” Flores-Maisonet said. “We began to befriend those we normally wouldn’t and to see them as brothers and sisters.”

One family was the Martinez­es. Charlotte Flores and Norma Martinez were both pregnant in 2002, and when Norma’s son was born she went straight from the delivery room to the ICU with renal failure. She needed dialysis to survive but lacked legal status or access to health insurance.

“We reached out to them,” Flores-Maisonet recalled. “They were living in a trailer park community surrounded by alcohol abuse and prostitution. We approached them about purchasing a house cooperatively.”

The Martinez family moved into a house purchased by the Floreses just down the street. The Floreses made no profit and after three years developed an equity-sharing agreement where they and the Martinezes became equal owners of the house.

This initial house purchase grew into the cooperative housing model of the Alterna Community. Today, four families from Guatemala and Mexico pay into a pool for housing, with “rent” typically at least $150 below market prices. With this money, houses are maintained, and each family earns part of the equity.

Interdependence

“Alterna participants have a covenant that Christ is the center of our faith, community is the center of our lives and reconciliation is the center of our work,” Flores-Maisonet said. “We renew the covenant each year.”

The Alterna family — 10 households, all but one living on the same street — is committed to an interdependent way of sharing life and resources. Members share two meals a week and two mornings of prayer in addition to worshiping together on Sunday. As a part of this bilingual community, each member commits to proficiency in their respective second language.

“This level of intimacy with immigrants, where we live interdependently as brothers and sisters, [has] changed my theology and makes me realize how much of the biblical narrative is about people on the move,” Flores-Maisonet said.

Their slogan — “Love crosses borders” — communicates Alterna’s theology of risk-taking and solidarity.

“Whether it is the American Christian crossing the borders of fear into loving one another, or the incarnation of Jesus — love incarnate crossing a border — it’s hard for me to enter into a new encounter and not filter it through that theological lens,” he said. “It’s about trying to be incarnational.”

Flores-Maisonet also serves on Mennonite Church USA’s Interchurch Relations Reference Group and co-chairs the Beloved Community Council of DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection), a ministry of Mennonite Mission Network.

He is initiator and co-founder of El Refugio, a hospitality house for family members and friends of detainees at Stewart Detention Center.


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