Meet the Minister Building Bridges Between Refugee Communities in Westbury

The best way to reach a community? Move in.

By Katharine Shilcutt September 19, 2016 Published in the October 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Reverend Hannah Terry

Image: Charles Ford

"We want this to be a church for all people,” declares Rev. Hannah Terry, clad in a minister’s collar and shiny, black high-top tennis shoes, as she opens the service at Westbury United Methodist Church on a recent Sunday morning. “Because we believe there is enough love to go around.”

It’s a simple declaration of purpose, something that could have been said at any one of the thousands of churches in Houston holding their own simultaneous services. But here, it’s actually true. There’s no distinguishable majority or minority in the crowd—young, old, singles, families, black, white, South Asian, Southeast Asian, men in dashiki shirts, women in skinny jeans—all listening together. Later in the day, services will be held in Spanish; on occasion, they’re also offered in Swahili.

It wasn’t always this way. The gathering is being held in Westbury United’s gym while the air-conditioning in its mid-century modern church, built in 1957, is repaired. At the time of the church’s construction, Westbury, in Southwest Houston, was a sleepy Atomic Era suburb. After the ’80s oil bust, it splintered. The apartments adjoining its parcels of upper-middle-class brick ranchers soon became low-income.

Both neighborhood and church would see their demographics shift drastically, with large numbers of Houston’s burgeoning refugee community, here from El Salvador and Eritrea, Burundi and Bhutan, Congo and Rwanda, arriving in the area over the last 20 years. “It’s been—all its life—a really incredible church, but it’s also changed a lot, too,” says Terry.

Since 2012, Terry has been working to pull the area’s disparate groups, residing in disconnected clumps of apartment buildings bordering Fondren Road, together into a community, both inside the church and outside it, through Fondren Apartment Ministry (FAM), which she founded soon after arriving here with the encouragement of Westbury UMC’s leadership.

FAM provides a kind of unconventional outreach, helping refugees—some Christian, some not—adjust to life in Houston by assisting with practical matters like learning English, learning to read and write, using the bus system, getting a bank account, finding jobs, securing legal aid, and generally functioning as the kind of social safety net so many non-displaced people take for granted. “Even when they’ve received the six-month [post-asylum] support,” explains Terry, “they’re so vulnerable to falling through the cracks.”

Terry, 29, grew up a pastor’s kid in rural upstate New York, in a home she remembers as often filled with down-on-their-luck strangers whom her folks were helping out. She’s much younger than most clergy, bright face beaming from beneath an asymmetrical haircut and stylish glasses that contrast strikingly with her clerical collar.

It was while she was attending Duke Divinity School in North Carolina that Terry was recruited to Westbury UMC, thanks to her fierce curiosity and her intense desire to build bridges—qualities church leaders saw as crucial in continuing their outreach mission to address what they call “the disparities next door.”

Upon arriving here, Terry didn’t just march into the apartments near her new church and start handing out bus passes. In fact, like many of the refugees she works with, she was initially overwhelmed, daunted by the task before her as she adjusted to life in her new city.

To get a toehold, she started small, leading bible study for one group of African refugees in the crowded 516-unit Los Arcos complex, where rent starts at $699 a month. At the same time, she began doing a lot of what she calls “deep listening.” 

As she made inroads into the community, Terry decided to move into a similar complex just down the street from Los Arcos, to live alongside those she served, “in solidarity with our neighbors,” she says. In this way, she got to know the area’s displaced families and single residents, many of them alone for the first time, over potluck dinners and morning prayers, “listening with our neighbors about what they need.”

Terry came to understand why the area’s other social-services programs didn’t always suffice. Those with shift work, for example, aren’t able to commit to regularly scheduled ESL classes; those with unaddressed mental health issues such as PTSD are unable to memorize bus routes; still others have never learned how to hold a pencil. “They’ve never been literate in their own language,” says Terry, “so it’s like an entirely different universe.”

FAM grew out of all these conversations. Today the organization offers not only an ever-expanding roster of social services and bible studies and prayer groups and potlucks, but also easier-to-attend ESL classes, along with employment opportunities through a partnership with Plant It Forward Farms, a local non-profit that also works with refugees.

“The whole area has experienced trauma in some way,” Terry says, whether from falling property values, the 2015 Memorial Day floods, or the years of war and persecution that drive refugees to Houston. “Trust-building and friendship and knowing one another is what this area needs to thrive.”

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Image: Charles Ford

Today, even after families move away from Los Arcos and other Fondren complexes, many take the bus back to the area, week after week, to rejoin their newfound Houston community for dinners and religious events—including one in 2015, which saw four boys from rival Hutu and Tutsi tribes confirmed together, their families having left old feuds behind.

It’s easy to get the sense you’re meeting Terry at the beginning of a big adventure. FAM is today in the process of obtaining 501(c)3 status as a non-profit and has hired its first official employee, while Terry has big goals beyond Fondren Road and even Westbury itself. “We’re talking about owning properties,” she grins, revealing her idea for a community that’s built from the ground up to function for all residents—low-income, refugee, or otherwise.

“What would it look like for us to have a mixed-income sustainable property with a bakery, food truck, gardens, families, young adults—housing that is set up for a mixed economy to thrive? It would be amazing to have this place where people live together and work together.” She laughs, thinking of all the possibilities. “I’ve never seen a Congolese food truck in Houston!”

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