CHICAGO (ELCA) – As a church that pursues justice, peace and human dignity for all people, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is committed to helping the thousands of unaccompanied children coming to the United States to escape violence and difficult situations in their home countries. To address this crisis, ELCA members are working through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to help find foster care for these children.
“As people of faith, we are reminded that among the children who had to flee across borders because of threat of life was our very own Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. When children flee across two international borders alone, the community of Jesus – the church – must accompany them,” said the Rev. Stephen Bouman, executive director, ELCA congregational and synodical mission.
“Children on the Run,” a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, states that the number of children “making the treacherous journey alone and unaccompanied, has doubled each year since 2011.” According to the report, one of the main factors contributing to this increase is the rise of violence in Mexico and Central America.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service estimates that 80,000 children will seek safety in the United States during this fiscal year. The agency, based in Baltimore, is one of the nation's leaders in welcoming and advocating for refugees and immigrants, working on behalf of the ELCA. It is one of two organizations called upon by the U.S. Office of Refugee Settlement to help place unaccompanied children in foster care.
“The ELCA, through its partnership with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, is already involved through its congregations, social ministry organizations, advocacy, and Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service affiliates on the ground,” said Bouman. “We are pursuing both the short-term efforts at achieving safety and relevant social services for these children of God, as well as long-term systemic solutions to stem the flow of children cast adrift.”
“When Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service started working with unaccompanied migrant children in 2005, it was unthinkable that several thousand children would make the dangerous journey across the border on their own,” said Linda Hartke, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “To see that number skyrocket, potentially up to 80,000 children this year, is truly a humanitarian crisis.”
“The children making this arduous trek north are fleeing violence, abuse and deep poverty and hunger, and are in desperate need of help and protection,” said Bouman. “Many are trying to reunite with family members here in the United States. By the time they cross the United States border, many have been robbed, raped or abused. The need is so large and current resources cannot keep pace.”
Hartke said the causes behind this “new exodus out of Central America are complex, with escalating violence and death an overwhelming threat. It’s time now for action.”
In April members of the ELCA Conference of Bishops Immigration Ready Bench joined other Lutheran leaders in Washington, D.C., for meetings with congressional leaders and the Obama administration to advocate for “humane and comprehensive immigration reform in our country and for fair treatment and adequate support of those who come to this country as refugees,” said the Rev. H. Julian Gordy, bishop of the ELCA Southeastern Synod and chair of the ELCA Conference of Bishops Immigration Ready Bench – one of six ELCA ready benches. “This year we focused our attention on unaccompanied minors and on immigration detention.”
“We were particularly concerned about the large numbers of unaccompanied refugee minors from around the world that come to the United States hoping for a future free of hunger and violence,” said Gordy.
During sessions with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Gordy said the bishops learned “that foster families play a key role in giving refugee children the care and security they need to make a new life in this country. But there are not nearly enough foster families to meet the need.”
At St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., information sessions are held for members interested in becoming foster parents. The sessions are led by Bethany Christian Services, a nondenominational family preservation and child welfare agency that helps place many of the unaccompanied youth with foster families in the Grand Rapids area. The Rev. Paul Kuhlman, pastor of St. Luke’s, said the agency’s “passion is contagious, and I believe that the members of St. Luke's will become greatly affected by their vision as some of our members become involved with Bethany Christian Services.”
“We’ve seen a huge influx of children coming through the system, especially from Central America. Our referrals come through daily,” said Marie Simon, Bethany Christian Services licensing supervisor and foster homes recruiter. “The work never stops because the need is so great.”
“We confess with the wider church that all Christians are responsible to attend the needs of the lost, forgotten and lonely,” said Kuhlman. “St. Luke's has this as a central part of our mission statement. Foster children, wherever they are, need love and care and a family to help them become what God can make them to be. Christians in the United States must help children in other countries find places free of violence and abuse where they can experience loving support and new opportunities.”
“Our Lutheran church members could help here by becoming foster families or by supporting those who are able to give this gift to these young people,” said Gordy. “Along with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, our Immigration Ready Bench bishops continue to push our elected officials to fix a broken immigration system and to support those who come here as refugees.”
To help address the influx of unaccompanied children coming to the United States, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has launched a national advocacy campaign led by youth and young adults. The agency announced the “#Act of Love” campaign at a May 27 press conference in Washington, D.C., where, according to a press release, “young people from across the U.S. expressed their concerns for the refugee children and detailed plans for a social media campaign which includes a petition written and signed by young people and addressed to President Obama, Speaker John Boehner, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.” The petition “urges lawmakers to provide adequate emergency funds to address this humanitarian crisis, improve protections for children and collaborate with UN agencies, other NGOs and faith communities to offer safety to children.”
About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with about 4 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of “God's work. Our hands,” the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.