Zach Szmara, Pastor of The Bridge Community Church in Logansport, Ind., was on a conference call when a young man entered the church. He put the call on hold to walk out of the office and meet him. In broken English, the man said, "Are you the people that help immigrants?" The man had driven more than 20 miles because he heard rumors of a church that loved the stranger.
Szmara said, "In that moment I was both humbled and convicted. I was humbled that our small church had such a reputation. Yet I was convicted that it was only very recently that I could answer 'yes' to the burning question of this young immigrant who came to me."
"I have lived overseas, and there my eyes could easily see the marginalized and the stranger in my midst. But at home in the states, I almost missed it, and almost missed how God has enriched my life because of it," Szmara continued.
The issue of immigration has dominated the headlines for much of this year. As Christians, we believe that – regardless of where we each may stand on the political spectrum – God’s heart for the immigrant is clear. In fact, the Hebrew word for an immigrant appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone, and the New Testament says in no uncertain terms that however we, as Christians, treat the stranger in our midst, is how we are treating Jesus himself.
We believe that every person has God-given human dignity and that we have a moral obligation to address the needs of immigrants in our country. We also recognize that immigration presents a God-ordained opportunity to “make disciples of all nations” right within our own country. And the reality is that immigrants are already transforming the face of the church, planting new churches, strengthening and even revitalizing some churches whose most significant growth has come from immigrant members.
Many denominations and individual churches — like The Bridge — are taking action to ensure their members don’t miss out on welcoming and serving immigrants, who in turn will help U.S. churches embody and reflect the kingdom of God. In 2013 an immigration alliance of like-minded denominations formed to develop church-based ministry sites offering immigrant legal services throughout the nation. The effort is modeled on a similar denominational coalition facilitated by World Relief called “Houses of Hope” that was formed in 1986 to respond to immigration law changes.
However, since the last mass legalization processing of immigrants occurred in 1986, the geographic location of immigrants has shifted dramatically (as in the case of small towns like Logansport, Ind., pop. 18,000), but the legal service infrastructure has not kept pace. For example, nine metro areas saw a doubling or more of their foreign-born populations between 2000 and 2013. These nine communities (Scranton, Pa., Cape Coral, Fla., Knoxville, Tenn., Indianapolis, Nashville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., Louisville, Ky., Charleston, S.C., and Raleigh, N.C.) are very different from the communities that saw the majority of growth following the 1986 reforms. In 53 metro areas, the suburbs now account for more than half of immigrant growth, including nine metros in which all of the growth occurred in the suburbs: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Mich., Jackson, Miss., Los Angeles, Ogden, Utah, Rochester, N.Y., and Salt Lake City.
According to an article in Leadership Journal, Elmbrook Church in suburban Milwaukee several years ago assessed its outreach to neighbors and sought to answer two questions: If our church were to disappear, would the community beyond our congregation weep? And what were the gaps in services to the under-resourced in our community that we could help fill?
Aware of a growing Latino immigrant population in nearby Waukesha, Wis., the church tasked Paco Cojon, Latino Ministry Director at Elmbrook Church, with finding answers to these questions. Cojon was a recent immigrant himself. His wife, Jenni, whom he had met in his home country of Guatemala while he was in seminary and she was a missionary, had filed an immigration petition so that they could move together to her hometown in Wisconsin.
After spending a year befriending and listening to members of Waukesha's Latino community, Cojon reported back to the Elmbrook Church leadership that, at that point, few of Waukesha's Latinos would likely even notice if the church were to close its doors. Cojon also discovered a significant gap in services to the immigrant community in Waukesha: There was nowhere to turn for affordable, competent immigration legal advice. He heard multiple stories of people who had spent immense sums of money on attorneys (or sometimes non-attorney "consultants") to try to resolve their legal status issues or to be reunited with family members abroad — often with no results.
Waukesha's dearth of immigration legal services is not unique. More than 22 million non-citizens reside in the United States, almost all of whom will need to interact with the federal immigration bureaucracy at some point, not to mention U.S. citizens and corporations who wish to sponsor non-citizen relatives or workers. To navigate the morass of U.S. immigration law, which rivals the tax code in terms of complexity, there are only about 12,000 immigration attorneys in private practice, many of whom charge fees that make their services inaccessible for low-income immigrants.
National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson has said, "There seems to be a unique 'kairos' moment that is upon us as the Church awakens to the needs of the immigrants among us." Churches are often a trusted presence in immigrant communities that can help address the critical shortage of legal services. The Immigration Alliance assists these sites to go through a recognition process with the federal Board of Immigration Appeals in order to become authorized (even without an on-site attorney) to provide immigration legal services.
Would your community weep if your church moved? Will your church become, “the people who help immigrants?”
For more information about The Immigration Alliance and to get a copy of the 85-page “Church Leaders Guide to Immigration,” visit www.TheImmigrationAlliance.org.
Damon Schroeder is the Executive Director of The Immigration Alliance and lives in West Chicago with his wife, Crystal, and their four kids.
Image: Open church door, Dutourdumonde Photography / Shutterstock.com