Herbie Miller is the pastor of Corinth Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Dayton, OH. He has a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton’s Department of Religious Studies. His academic work centers on historical theology and American Christianity. He has published in U.S. Catholic Historian and is an adjunct lecturer for Emmanuel Christian Seminary.
The 2018 midterm elections are over, finally, and immigration and immigrants played a central role. Fear of immigrants, in particular. Fear that immigrants will take something from Americans (jobs). Fear that immigrants will bring something unwelcome to America (crime, disease). The word “immigrant” was weaponized to elicit fear in the electorate.
We can do better than this.
For over a year and a half, the church where I am the pastor has been actively welcoming east African immigrant families into our community. Last year, I wrote two blog posts for rightingamerica (here and here) that describe how my aging, mainline church has found new life by forming relationships with these immigrants.
Our efforts first took shape last year when we offered English-language tutoring classes twice a week. This year our outreach efforts have changed. The tutoring classes are held in the public schools during school hours, so the students can have easier access to the services. And our church is now offering a weekly, multi-cultural youth group for immigrants and Americans called the Kids’ Club.
The Kids’ Club is my church’s attempt to create a space where the east African immigrant kids we’ve come to know through tutoring have the opportunity to develop friendships with the American kids who come to our church. Each week we share a meal together at 5:30 and then at 6:00 we enjoy youth group for an hour and a half. We do most of the stuff any youth group does—sing songs, have a Bible lesson, pray together, talk about life issues, and play games.
Currently, 25 kids come each week—about half are immigrants and half are Americans. Not only has it been a joy to see the kids make new friends, it’s been heart-warming to see the members of my church grow in their love for the kids and learn about the challenges immigrant families face in the United States. As is common with any mission God calls us to, my church is being blessed by the friends we’ve been called to serve.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate this.
One of the immigrant kids who’s been coming to the Kids’ Club is a middle-school-aged girl. I’ll call her Sarah. Sarah lives with about a dozen other people in her house in a crowded blue-collar neighborhood in Dayton. Across the street from Sarah’s house lives an American family who has a daughter that’s about her age. Sarah and this girl (I’ll call her Melissa) quickly became best friends. One Wednesday, while Sarah was waiting for her ride to the Kids’ Club, she invited Melissa to come with her. Melissa came and loved it. That night Melissa diligently acquired a permission slip to take home and have signed, so she could keep coming back. And she has.
Melissa’s story is not unique. Two other families (one American, one Asian immigrant) have started coming to the Kids’ Club because of an invitation that was extended by an east African immigrant child.
When I first proposed the Kids’ Club to the elders of my church, I didn’t anticipate this happening—immigrants bringing Americans to church! I simply believed our congregation was being called by God to start a multi-cultural youth group as a way to participate in his mission of reconciliation in east Dayton. But our immigrant friends have truly been a gift to us from God, surprising and delighting us by bringing new friends to our doors. And in response, my church’s posture toward immigrants is one of trust — in God and in our new friends – and welcome.
As a Christian, as a pastor, and as an American, I would like to call on the allies of immigrants to do two things to combat the pervasive and politicized rhetoric of fear. First, get to know—or deepen your friendship with—the immigrants in your life. When we get to know a person we stop seeing them as an abstraction and start seeing them as an individual with a unique story. Stories of joy, sadness, hope, anger, and every other emotion. Stories just like our own.
Second, share the story of your friendship in respectful and appropriate ways with people who are suspicious of immigrants. The key here is to speak about the shared experience of friendship between yourself and your immigrant friend. If we frame our discussion of immigrants around friendship, then the conversation more easily moves toward the idea that this relationship is mutually enriching.
As we walk alongside our immigrant friends and neighbors during these turbulent times, we will show the world that they are not taking something from us. Instead, they are bringing us gifts.
I believe this is the better way forward.