Have you ever experienced what it’s like to be welcomed as a stranger? Early in our marriage, my husband and I had such an experience when we spent six months living and working in China as Christian professionals. We couldn’t speak or even read Chinese. We had no idea how to get from place to place. In fact, when we first arrived we just stayed in our apartment because we were afraid that if we left we might never find our way back! A few kind Chinese friends helped us get oriented, introduced us to others who made us feel welcome, and gave us the confidence we needed to thrive in China. After that experience we were resolute: when we got home we would be people who heeded Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger.
Three-and-a-half years ago the Holy Spirit led us to plant a church called “Tree of Life” in our multi-ethnic neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana. For the last 20 years, our neighborhood has been the refugee resettlement area in South Bend. Our neighbors originate from Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, and Latin America. Many come from Muslim backgrounds. As we prayed about this reality, the Lord showed us that our call was not simply to evangelize an American neighborhood, but to extend the welcome of Christ to the immigrants and refugees among us.
We started by simply inviting all these different peoples into our fellowship at Tree of Life. We had several Liberian refugees join our church and were thrilled to have a few Muslim women attend an Alpha Course we held in an apartment complex. As we walked with these dear people, we began to learn about the many heartaches and obstacles they were facing.
One young Liberian man in our church revealed that one of his sisters had been left behind, and without citizenship his family was unable to successfully petition for her to join them. So began a long process of reading government documents and making phone calls to a strange, but surprisingly friendly organization called USCIS. Finally, our brother became a US citizen, and was able to petition for his sister to unite with her family in America.
About 18 months into our ministry, I received an email from the Anglican Church in North America saying that the Anglican Immigrant Initiative wanted to start a series of immigration legal aid clinics around the US and Canada as a way of showing the welcome of Christ to the many strangers among us, and building congregations for the over 40 million immigrants living in our country. As I read those words and considered both God’s call on my life and the neighborhood where God called us, I wanted to know more.
So began our church’s journey to opening the first ever church-based immigration legal aid clinic in the Anglican Church in North America (several more are now underway!). As it turns out, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) of the US Government has a program that authorizes equipped churches and non-profits to administer immigration legal aid to low-income clients. As anyone who watches the news is aware, immigration ministry is in dire need throughout the world. As politicians seek a solution, the main victims are often well-meaning immigrants and refugees who wish to live, work, and be united with their families legally, but cannot understand the complexities of our immigration system or afford the representation they need. Opening a low-cost immigration legal aid center is an amazing way not only to give a cup of cold water to the strangers among us, but also to build deep and lasting relationships with immigrants.
Since opening in March of this year, we have helped over 40 people from more than a dozen countries. Each person comes with a unique story and set of circumstances, but all of them share a common desire: to belong. When they encounter the warmth and enthusiasm at our church, many are often quite taken aback. One woman actually said to me, “Up until now, I thought most Americans just wished I wasn’t here, what makes you so different?” The answer: “When we were strangers, Jesus welcomed us. Now we welcome you.” Several of our clients from African Christian backgrounds have visited our church, and a few clients from other religions have come to ask for prayer and pastoral counseling. We are thrilled to see how the Holy Spirit continues to use this practical ministry to make a way for immigrants not only as American residents, but also members of the Kingdom of God.
If you or your church are interested in learning more about starting an immigration legal aid clinic, please feel free to contact me at Tree of Life Anglican Church in South Bend or visit the Anglican Immigrant Initiative’s website: www.anglicanimmigrantinitiative.com. Tree of Life also covets your prayers as we continue this ministry. Please pray with us that the Lord will provide for the work He has called into being.
-By the Rev. Heather Ghormley