Four Ways You Can Begin to Minister to Immigrants

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The Bridge, where I pastor, has had a radical journey of learning and beginning to serve our immigrant friends and neighbors holistically. This journey was so transformative that instead of our church closing its doors, it became a healthy, growing, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural church that launched the first Immigrant Connection site. (Here is more information about Immigrant Connection.) Church plants have an opportunity to minister to people in transition times of life, such as immigrants. Here are four beginning steps that we learned in this journey.

1. Practice Biblical Hospitality

I am an extrovert that loves being around people all the time. So I’m constantly forcing my wife to allow me to invite people to live with us in our spare room or host group dinners for any event I can come up with. Because of this, most church people say I have the gift of hospitality. However, the biblical call of hospitality is so much more than enjoying being around people. Hospitality in Greek is the word philoxenos, which is made up of two words: “philo” (love) and “xenos” (alien or stranger). So, when God calls us to hospitality, He is calling us to the ministry of welcoming and loving immigrants. Think about the last 10 guests you had in your home, were any of them immigrants? What about the last 50 guests? There’s a good chance you have an immigrant family living in your neighborhood or going to school with your children or recently hired at your company. Take the first step and invite them for a cup of coffee or tea or a meal. Begin to actually practice biblical hospitality.

2. Listen

As a white male, I love Proverbs 31:8 and its call to be a “voice for the voiceless.” But my good friend Nico (who is an immigrant) often has to remind me that he has a voice and I’m just not listening. If you are a part of the majority and thus one with power and privilege, you need to begin to take very focused steps towards listening and learning, instead of speaking and leading. Listen to the stories of immigrants, not so you can re-tell them in your own way but so you can learn from them. Listen to them share their difficult journey and the labyrinth that is the current immigration system and learn its complexities. (The current “line” is extremely different than what my grandparents waited in at Ellis Island!)

3. Use Correct Words

A crucial step after practicing hospitality and listening is to use correct words. You’ve heard the phrase “illegal alien” or simply, “illegals.” However, simply put, actions are illegal; not people. Further, immigration law is civil law and so if you’ve ever gotten a parking citation or speeding ticket, you’ve broken the same category of law. How would you feel if a person’s first response was to call you an “illegal” for speeding? Try using the correct term of “undocumented” and dropping the term “illegal.”

4. Teach

Only 12% of white evangelicals (2010 Pew Forum Survey) say that their views on immigration are primarily influenced by their Christian faith. This means that 88% of white evangelicals have this important view shaped by factors such as political, economic, personal experience, etc. It is hardly surprising, then, that just 16% of white evangelicals have heard about immigration from their pastor or other church leaders. If you are a pastor, I’d encourage you to become informed and to preach on this topic. The National Association of Evangelicals has produced a very helpful resource for you to get started. Use it in your small group or church. One of my hopes is that within the next few years, more of those who attend church will say that the biblical narrative and God’s heart is their primary influencer for how they view immigrants as people as well as the whole complex immigration issue. I believe that can only happen if we, as pastors and church leaders, begin to preach and teach bibilically even on this very complex and extremely controversial topic.

These four steps should be viewed as only a beginning. Next steps might include partnering with an existing immigrant church and experiencing worship in another language. For others, it might be to do the work of advocacy on the local or even national level. Still others might begin to learn the felt needs of their particular immigrant or refugee community and start to offer conversational English classes or citizenship classes. Finally, some may feel Jesus’ call to go through the process of opening up a Department of Justice recognized immigration legal services office. Whatever might be next, its always good practice to continue to circle back to these first four foundational practices.

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Zach Szmara serves as the pastor of The Bridge Community Church in Logansport, Indiana. He has seen firsthand how God can take a mono-cultural, declining church that was near closing its doors and transform it into a growing, dynamic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual church. He is an accredited immigration legal representative and Director of Immigrant Connection for the Wesleyan Church, for whom he launched the first Immigrant Connection office. Zach is married to Lyndy, a transformative special educator. They have a 6-year-old son, Isaac, who lives up to his name (“laughter”) every day.

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