ELCA NEWS SERVICE
June 23, 2009
Lutherans Open their Church Doors to Immigrant Families
CHICAGO (ELCA) -- For Howard Lamont being welcoming to the immigrant population is "simply part of the Christian message."
"Congregations must develop a passion to reach out to strangers," said Lamont, a member of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Houston, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). "Jesus would not have us build walls around our churches," he said.
Lamont said he's been impressed with Houston's growing diversity since moving there in 1977. People from Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and Europe, moved to the city and work across the economic spectrum, he said.
Lamont is co-chair of an immigration task force of the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod. He said the task force contacted Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) to help congregations of the synod welcome and respond to the needs of immigrants.
LIRS is one of the nation's leading agencies in welcoming and advocating for refugees and immigrants. Based in Baltimore, LIRS works on behalf of the ELCA, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There are more than 10 million people who are undocumented living in the United States. People who migrate here come to join their families, work or seek refuge from persecution or violence.
LIRS hosted a "Be Not Afraid" workshop at Holy Cross in April.
The workshop addressed "anti-immigrant attitudes that have become prevalent in our society" and "debunked common myths used to encourage anti-immigrant attitudes," Lamont said.
LIRS' Be Not Afraid program also prepares Lutherans for possible immigration raids, helps immigrant families know their rights and illustrates how congregations can advocate for immigration policies that maintain "good order" while preserving the dignity and safety of immigrant families. The program was initially funded by the ELCA Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission.
"We also learned to appreciate the complexity of the issues embedded here," said Susan Giesecke, a member of Holy Cross since 1965 and co-chair of the synod's task force on immigration. "Everyone enjoys the skills and gifts brought to our society by immigrants, yet are afraid to address the humanitarian and economic issues raised by documentation, family separation and worker abuse," she said.
Giesecke describes Holy Cross' journey in welcoming immigrants as "interesting." "Many of our initial assumptions and preconceived expectations were way off the mark. Looking back, as an individual, I was so insensitive to the challenges faced by our new worshippers and the intense personal struggle each family faces," she said.
One pivotal moment for Giesecke came when a young girl asked at a congregational meeting, "Why do we, the Spanish speakers, worship in the gym when the English speakers worship in a beautifully decorated sanctuary?" "Once the worship moved into the main sanctuary we grew," said Giesecke. "We worship (as) human beings created by God, not 'documented' or 'undocumented' aliens."
In Austin, Minn., immigrants serve to fulfill some of the town's labor needs. While some long-time residents welcome immigrants, others are not always welcoming, according to the Rev. Glenn L. Monson, pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Austin.
"Immigration is complicated," he said. "It has produced stress for people in town, churches and elsewhere."
In an effort to address immigration, Monson met with 30 clergy serving Methodist, Catholic and other denominations in Austin. "We're a fairly small town, and all pastors are impacted in some way. But how do you talk about this? What's true and what's not true?" To help get some answers, Monson said LIRS conducted a Be Not Afraid workshop there.
"We needed to be informed on how to approach and speak about immigration. We made immigration the major topic for the year in the local ministerium," he said. To enhance the overall dialogue, the pastors heard from others in town such as school district representatives, the police chief and mayor, hospital administrators and leaders of Austin's major employer.
"We asked them how immigration has impacted their particular area of influence, and we learned a great deal," Monson said. "I learned that 40 percent of our kindergarten class in our area is Hispanic. This tells me that whole families are moving here, which has made the community much more stable and not so much migratory." According to the police chief, there has not been an increase in crime or incarceration with the expanding community, he said.
"I keep asking the question, can our congregation connect with immigrants and their families?" Monson said. "I want to be better informed, to be a partner with people in some kind of ministry. I'm hoping that we continue to explore the complex issue of immigration and find a way to build relationships."
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Information about Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is at http://www.lirs.org on the Web. "Be Not Afraid" materials will be available on the LIRS Web site in June.
For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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