By Kevin Lines
American communities today contain more migrants than ever before. The ends of the earth have come to us! You and your church can reach out to the immigrants living close to you.
Within our fellowship of churches, multiple organizations have joined together to form the RISE (Refugee and International Student Engagement) Project. If you are interested in starting a ministry to refugees or international students through your church, the RISE Project website (www.theriseproject.com) has great resources and training materials. Your church can even apply for a grant to help start a new ministry!
If you’re not ready to start a ministry, you can still volunteer in various ways.
A good first step is to find a local agency that helps resettle refugees in your area. See the Office of Refugee Resettlement map at the Department of Health and Human Services’ website (www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/state-programs-annual-overview). Click on the map to access a list of volunteer partner agencies for each state. Many are faith based and willing to work with churches.
These agencies are looking for volunteers to welcome refugees at the airport, provide furnishings and/or set up housing, tutor refugees in English, drive refugees to and from appointments, help them understand the public school system, and help with job interviews. Volunteers can also help refugees figure out where and how to go grocery shopping, explain how to pay bills that arrive in the mail, and help with navigating other unfamiliar things, such as public transportation.
Many churches across the United States have arranged to “adopt” a refugee family through a local resettlement agency. This allows for multiple people in the congregation to build relationships and assist the new immigrant family. Most refugees want to understand America and become Americans, but need help navigating the cultural differences.
• Host English language classes at your church.
• Ask children in your church to help provide games, toys, and school supplies for refugee children.
• Create a welcoming atmosphere at your church. One idea is to have an international potluck where immigrants are encouraged to bring food from their own culture. Another is to invite people from different cultures to read Scripture and pray in their languages during one or more church services.
• Build relationships with an immigrant community. Refugees and other immigrants oftentimes end up in the same apartment complex. Some churches have had cookouts and worship services at those apartment buildings.
• Invite immigrant Christians to use your facilities for their church. Remember that almost 70 percent of all immigrants who enter the United States are already Christians, but because of different traditions, they can initially feel uncomfortable in American worship services.
• Reach out to international students at your local colleges and universities. The United States currently hosts more than 700,000 international students each year. More than 75 percent of these students never enter an American home during the time they are living here! Start out by inviting international students to your home for dinner. International student program offices at colleges and universities can provide information about hosting students for a meal.
• Learn more about immigration law and issues. Visit the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website at www.uscis.gov.
• Be compassionate. Provide a listening ear. Be a safe person with whom people can confide. Don’t make assumptions, but seek to learn the specific situation of individual refugees.
An undocumented immigrant may have grown up in the United States and have no connection to his or her birth country. An undocumented immigrant may also be trying to go to college, a victim of domestic abuse, a victim of human trafficking, or a victim of persecution and oppression in his or her home country.
• Be a voice for immigrants—use your resources, connections, and understanding of the culture to give these folks the same advantages you would expect for yourself.
• Care for immigrants as people. Do not reduce such individuals to their immigration status. Immigrants have good and bad sides, successes and failures, and hopes and fears, just like everyone else. They need spiritual and emotional health, friendship and community, and purpose and dignity, just like everyone else.
Dr. Kip Lines serves as professor of intercultural studies at Hope International University, Fullerton, California. He will become executive director with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, Indianapolis, Indiana, this June.