Each day I’m touched and inspired by the actions that leaders in states across the nation are taking to support immigrants and refugees. Today, I’m excited to bring you the stories and perspectives of Pastor Peter Schmidt and his wife, Vicki, who are champions of newcomers in their state and beyond. LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins carried out the email interview.
Clarissa Perkins (CP): How did you become involved in immigration reform?
Pastor Peter Schmidt (PS): We care about reform for a number of reasons. Both of us come from immigrant families; both of us were in childhood churches that worked with immigrants and refugees. Vicki and I did foster care for two unaccompanied minors for several years; Vicki worked professionally in refugee resettlement for a number of years. Recently I have been drawn into a press conference and a talk radio show to talk about immigration reform.
Vicki Schmidt (VS): I have traveled to the Texas-Mexico border many times and have taken groups there to learn firsthand the stories of those who cross the border. We especially look at the “push/pull factors,” and begin to get an understanding of what pushes people north, and what pulls them into the United States. I have been in Central America and Mexico numerous times and as I have lived with people there, heard their stories of pain as their young people “go north” to earn decent wages to support their families back home, I have gained new and important understandings about immigration. I’ve also worked with refugees since I was 12 years old (displaced persons program of LIRS after World War II that my family became active in). These experiences have given me the calling to carry the voices of the voiceless to people of power and advocate for justice for all God’s children.
CP: There seems to be strong support for immigration reform in North Dakota. Why do you think North Dakotans are so supportive?
PS: I can’t speculate…but I’m pleased that the labor movement is behind immigration reform.
VS: I’m not so sure there is strong support, but I am encouraged there is a groundswell of people who believe people should be allowed a path to citizenship in this state. Perhaps one reason is that we have been a very strong state for resettling refugees through the years, and there are many who have sponsored refugees who understand the opportunities offered here for immigrants. Refugees are most often seen as hard-working, productive people with gifts to offer our communities in commerce and education, and many other areas.
CP: How have you fostered a culture of welcome in your congregation and community?
PS: We have worked personally with resettlement of several families over the years. We try to teach welcome/hospitality and model it…it’s a core value.
VS: All the churches we’ve been part of (Berwyn, IL; Bemidji, MN; West Fargo, ND) have sponsored refugees. Some have shared their personal stories and people have responded with compassion. We have sheltered documented and undocumented people in our home, and that has raised awareness in our congregations about the plight of many people from various countries.
CP: What do you love most about the work you do for immigrants and undocumented migrants?
PS: We receive more than we give…we love learning about other cultures and, in doing so, learn more about our culture and ourselves.
VS: I really love seeing the families develop long-term and find their way in a new culture successfully. The short-term relationships have been more difficult because I only see the early struggles. When I can relate to a family long-term and watch their children grow up, I feel great satisfaction and joy, making everything so worth the work and effort to assist them in the resettlement process. In terms of those who are undocumented, it is the personal love I have for individuals that is so rewarding. And then the advocacy work I love very much: standing in front of a congressional staff and proclaiming that I’m there to be a voice for the voiceless, and acknowledging the fact I can make a difference, which is nothing short of my faith calling.
CP: What are some ways in which you’ve seen how a refugee, immigrant, or undocumented migrant has contributed to your community?
PS: They (usually) love our country with its opportunities…they usually take advantage of the opportunities to build a better life for themselves, and in doing so, enrich their communities.
VS: The stories are endless, but a favorite follows:
We lost our home to a flood in 1997. Prior to the loss, and as we continued our long and difficult journey through the waters slowly overtaking our home, a Kurdish refugee family came to help us fill sandbags to try to keep the waters confined. The day found us doing this heavy task during down-pouring, freezing rain. Jamal was standing at the sandpile, filling sandbags, shortly after he had ear surgery for a serious problem. I asked him to be very careful because he was not to be lifting, and to take more rest times. He said to me, “When I come here as refugee, you hallup (help) me; now you refugee (losing our home) and I want to hallup you.” It is a strong symbol of the ways refugees and other undocumented persons living with us have given back. They want to do their share, show their thanks, give an action to show their deep gratitude and love. This story is repeated in many more such stories throughout my life, and I am inspired always to give back to others because of the ways refugees and undocumented have done that for us and for the community.
You can learn more about refugees and how they give back to their community through American Herro, a documentary about a North Dakotan Kurdish woman, Herro Mustafa, who resettled in the United States as a three-year-old and went on to be a high-ranking official in the U.S. government. The documentary includes a clip of the Schmidt family’s church in West Fargo, ND.