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Churches respond to immigration issues

Tim Shenk
January 17, 2008

AKRON, Pa. – In Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches across the United States, recent immigrants are helping their congregations reach out to other immigrants, according to a listening project conducted by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S.

Through the listening project, MCC staff members facilitated discussions about immigration in more than 30 Anabaptist congregations in 10 states and Washington, D.C. About a third of the congregations were made up primarily of people whose families immigrated within one generation.

A report from the listening project, "What the Church is Saying," suggests that Anabaptist congregations with many recent immigrants are the most active in befriending immigrants and helping with needs such as food and housing.

One such congregation is New Hope Fellowship, a bilingual Mennonite church in Alexandria, Va. About half of the church's 60-some attendees are Latino, and many are recent immigrants.

New Hope Fellowship builds relationships with recent immigrants in a variety of ways, according to Kirk Hanger, the church's pastor. Latino members often lead the way in inviting new immigrants to church. As a whole, church members use their community ties and knowledge to help immigrants. That can range from helping connect people with social services to providing occasional assistance for food or rent.

"We know how systems function here, and we can be a bridge for people," Hanger says.

In one case, Hanger accompanied an immigrant couple to court after they were wrongly accused of shoplifting because they did not understand how to use an automatic checkout machine.

The pastor and couple prayed outside the courtroom, asking God to move in the situation. Then the pastor spoke to the prosecutor about the couple's misunderstanding, and the prosecutor ultimately agreed to drop the charges.

"I believe God worked and changed his heart," Hanger says.

According to the listening project report, Anabaptist churches largely oppose unjust treatment of immigrants. However, members of predominantly white congregations without recent immigrants express reluctance about providing support to undocumented immigrants.

Rebeca Jiménez Yoder, the listening project coordinator, says she believes that God calls churches to welcome strangers in their community, including undocumented immigrants.

"We do have undocumented immigrants in our churches," Yoder says. "They are our brothers and sisters."

Yoder says that the purpose of the listening project was to encourage conversation about immigration. If the conversation leads to action, there are many ways for churches to support immigrants, from teaching English to advocating for more humane immigration laws, she says.

The MCC U.S. Listening Project report is available online at mcc.org/us/immigration. The Web site includes a number of other immigration resources for churches, including “Loving Strangers as Ourselves,” a series of Biblical reflections on immigration, and “Welcoming the Newcomer: Doing Advocacy with Immigrants.”