“Let brotherly love continue.2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hebrews 13:1-2
Most Americans know that our immigration system is ineffective. Those with direct experience of the system also know that it is illogical and inhumane. In 2007, polls showed over 70% support for a bi-partisan, moderate proposal for immigration reform, but the calls to Congress were 50 to 1 against the proposal. Why the difference? The average American does not call their Congressional representative unless the issue affects them directly. However, there is one group in our society that is mandated to care passionately about people who are not us – disciples of Jesus Christ.
While our faith calls us to respond to the pain of families who are suffering under the burden of a broken immigration system, both immigrants and non-immigrants often hold back from participating in advocacy for immigration reform. On their own, the immigrant community can easily feel too discouraged to try. On their own, the non-immigrant community can easily lack the passion necessary to stay involved. When immigrant and non-immigrant Christians come together in intimate solidarity, we have experienced an exchange of hope and passion that galvanizes ongoing engagement in pastoral ministry and advocacy for change.
The new Welcoming Congregations Network, a joint project of the ELCA Synod Mission Teams for Justice and Global Missions, of the Southwest California Synod brings immigrant and non-immigrant Lutherans together not only within our Synod but also across national borders. The Welcoming Congregations Network is a response to the request of Bishop Medardo Gómez of the Lutheran Church of El Salvador to their companion synods. Bishop Gómez and the bishops of the companion synods signed a concordat in November of 2012 agreeing to a joint migrant ministry. In July of 2013, Bishop Gómez clarified his request – specifically asking for the creation of a Welcoming Congregations Networks which would: (1) welcome and minister to Salvadoran Lutherans who arrive with a letter of introduction, resulting from a discernment process with their home church. (2) Advocate for trade pacts, which support the development of local industry in El Salvador. (3) Advocate for a sane and humane immigration system. In September, our Synod Council voted unanimously to support the program and to encourage congregations to participate.
Seventeen churches in the Southwest California Synod have committed to join the Welcoming Congregations Network, providing information about their ministries and a contact person who speaks some Spanish for a guidebook to be given to migrants. An additional four churches are accompanying the Network while in the process of internal conversation. Waiting on these churches, we expect to have a Welcoming Congregations guidebook available to Bishop Gómez by April 15th. Roughly a third of the churches are primarily immigrant, a third are primarily non-immigrant larger churches with a history of contributing to missions overseas, and a third are smaller churches with justice-minded pastors. A number of the liaisons from primarily non-immigrant churches are Hispanic – one of the few Hispanic members of their respective churches – and are eager for this opportunity to build bridges.
The Welcoming Congregations have agreed to meet quarterly for fellowship, education, training and mutual support. The first meeting, on March 15th, was attended by representatives from 16 churches. We broke bread, prayed and shared our stories. We also received training from community health partners and clinics in health care resources available for immigrants as well as an update on immigration reform, resources from LIRS, and information on the potential for individual advocacy for prosecutorial discretion and deferred action. Finally, we distributed a list of Spanish-speaking pastors in the Synod who could be available to our Salvadoran guests and other immigrants for pastoral care.
The next quarterly meeting will involve faith-rooted advocacy training to help members advocate for individual immigrant families as well as reaching out to their legislators together. We hope to be ready and willing to participate in LIRS advocacy activities in the summer and fall.
At the beginning of Saturday’s meeting, we shared what it means to each of us and each of our conversations to be a Welcoming Congregation. The same statement echoed around the table: “This is just another way of welcoming our community as God calls us to – and I am so excited to be involved in it!”