In 2006, “immigration” was exploding onto our nation’s consciousness. In multiple protests across the country, people demanded comprehensive reform that would include a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants. At the same time, I was knee-deep in immigration questions myself.
My wife, Judy, and I had returned to the states in 1997 after 13 years with ReachGlobal in Congo. Our dual passions for missions and urban ministry had led us to the Eastern District, with its high percentage of immigrants. We were excited to be facilitating church planting among Chinese, Hispanic, Arabic and Korean congregations and to see other congregations become more diverse as they reached out to their changing communities.
By 2006, many people in our New York City churches were wrestling with immigration issues. So I invited an immigration lawyer to meet with our New York metro pastors, helping them find some answers. Other Eastern District churches that offered English as a Second Language programs were also encountering immigration questions.
In my research, I learned that more than 700 nonprofit agencies across the country were providing immigration counseling services, yet the evangelical community was under-represented among them. So Judy and I enrolled in immigration training through the Mennonite Central Committee and then received valuable counseling experience through MCC as well as Catholic Charities.
Many immigrants today need immigration services, and when immigration reform becomes a reality, there will be an exponential increase in the number of those needing these services.
Meanwhile, other EFCA leaders were pondering these same issues.
The dreaming and planning that followed led to the start of Immigrant Hope—a ministry that reflects both the EFCA Statement of Faith and the Great Commission. Its intent is to give all immigrants among us—including the undocumented—the hope of the gospel, help in finding a pathway to legal residency if possible, and a home in a church that cares for their needs. It’s compassion with a gospel purpose.
In partnership with Dr. Alejandro Mandes of the EFCA national office, as well as the Eastern District, we are launching a pilot program in Brooklyn, N.Y., because of its rich history of receiving and ministering to immigrants. Several ethnic and multiethnic EFC churches have banded together to form a “Welcome Church” team, which will work holistically in the immigrant community via English as a Second Language classes and Bible classes, mentors, and certified paralegal counselors who follow strict government rules.
For those who have legal status, we will help them fill out numerous forms and answer questions. It is a huge ministry to serve them professionally, with love, and to do it in a local church context. We will celebrate with them as well—welcoming them as legal permanent residents or U.S. citizens by holding potluck dinners and sharing their joy.
For those who are undocumented, we will love them, teach them English and provide solid answers to their questions.
Immigrant communities are surprisingly close to many of our EFCA churches. What a natural way to fulfill a missionary calling, and what a strategic way to plant new churches.
Claudia and Howard Williams are examples of the caliber of volunteers who are being trained as immigration counselors. After serving in Turkey for 16 years as church planters, they’ve been in metro NYC now for 15 years—establishing an ethnic church among Turks in New Jersey and teaching English as a Second Language.
“We have met many immigrants, both documented and undocumented,” Claudia says, “and have walked through the process of asylum with two couples.” Before, when they were asked questions they could not answer, they needed to consult immigration lawyers. Now, they are far better prepared.
“The training is intense,” Claudia admits, “because the law is very extensive. The emphasis is not on knowing everything, but knowing where to find the right information for a particular client.”
For now, the Williamses are volunteering with Catholic Charities and hope that, in the future, their local congregation might be a welcoming church for immigrants under Immigrant Hope.
Through Immigrant Hope, the EFCA is becoming a leader among evangelical denominations in the landscape of immigration ministry. We are not unrealistic: We realize that some legal forms and processes can take years to complete. So with this ministry, we are committing for the long haul.
I am proud to declare that we are a denomination that loves the immigrants. And we are putting that love into action.