Room in the Inn: The Importance of the Shelter and Service Program

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room. (Luke 2:4-7, NRSVUE) 

A nativity scene at a church in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia/Wikimedia Commons. Available under the Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution License 4.0.

It’s a familiar story. A distant government entity orders a census. A young couple, expecting their first child, has to get up and go to another town so they can be taxed. The timing is inconvenient at best, catastrophic at worst. The mother is about to give birth, but there is no room for them. With everyone coming to town for the census, the inn is full. The innkeeper sends the family to the stable to spend the night.  

Much like Jesus’s family, we are living in an era of widespread inequality and conflict. The number of people seeking refuge from their homes rises every year. The United Nations estimates that over 110 million people are forcibly displaced: six million of them are asylum seekers. Watching news stories about the number of asylum seekers waiting at the border and arriving across the U.S. can be overwhelming. Sometimes, it feels like there are too many needs to be met. 

In these times of need, faith groups, non-profits and local governments are welcoming newcomers across the country.  Many of them rely on support from the Shelter and Services Program (SSP), a government program that provides financial assistance to shelters supporting migrants who have recently arrived in the U.S. Often underfunded, these shelters rely on volunteers and charitable donations to stretch their resources as far as they can.   

After journeying and waiting for months, migrants need simple comforts like a hot meal, a warm bed, and a fresh change of clothes. They may also need medical care, help contacting relatives, and mental health support. By funding shelters that provide these services, the SSP supports the humane treatment of asylum seekers and other migrants released from border patrol. Many shelters rely on these funds to meet their clients’ needs.  

The SSP is an imperfect program in a flawed immigration system. The money available for SSP grants is a drop in the bucket compared to the U.S.’s massive spending on immigration enforcement and detention*. SSP funds can only be used for forty-five days after a person has arrived in the U.S., not enough time for asylum seekers to establish themselves and receive work permits.  

Yet in the midst of the hardship that U.S. immigration policy creates, the program is an important expression of the government’s role in humanely receiving and processing newcomers. The international community made a commitment to welcoming refugees after the devastation of the Holocaust and World War II. Humanely providing for asylum seekers is an important part of this commitment that often gets lost in the rhetoric about immigration.    

Responding with Worship and Prayer 

As you celebrate Christmas this year, consider praying for migrants and the shelters that welcome them:: 

Loving God, this season, we remember the baby who lay in the manger because there was no room in the inn. Thank you for the innkeeper who found a place for the child’s parents to rest, even when it seemed like there was nowhere for them to go. Today, we pray for all the children and adults who wonder where they will lay their head to sleep tonight.  Bring them hope and comfort as they journey towards new homes. Thank you for shelters and sponsors who provide beds for them. Give our government leaders the wisdom to understand the importance of sheltering and offering humane and dignified reception. Amen. 

You can also sing one of these Epiphany hymns as you gather for worship on Sunday, January 7. They tie the story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt with current families forced to migrate: 


*In 2023, SSP received only $800 million of the $16.7 billion allocated to CBP.

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