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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, Spring Branch, Texas, 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."
- - -
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.



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