For our week on “Believe,” we are sharing a piece entitled, “The Church: A Place of Belonging” which is a chapter from local author Daniel Montanez’ book entitled, “The Church and Migration: A Theological Vision for the People of God.” The book seeks to transform the narrative of immigration by approaching it from the larger lens of human migration. By exploring the theme of human migration throughout the grand narrative of Scripture, this resource sets forth a theological vision for understanding migration from a Biblical-theological perspective. Read below to hear some practical ways in which Christians can get involved in serving migrant and displaced communities.
The Sojourner, the alien, the foreigner, the exile, the refugee, the immigrant, or whatever name is used to refer to those who may not be like us or from among us, still refer to persons who are created imago Dei and deserve the treatment afforded to everyone created as such. Just as the Temple in Jerusalem, with its imposing structure and radiant splendor, stood as a representation of the God to whom it is was constructed and dedicated, so also is the Body of Christ, the Church, the representation of God in the world today. It is, therefore, the responsibility of the Church to be Christlike in its actions and treatment of people. And the church, as a building or locale is to be equally welcoming to those who may not be part of the Body of Christ—the “other.”
Immigrants make the move from one country or location to an other because they might be seeking safety from a dangerous situation in their own land, looking for employment to help provide for their families, looking to start a new life in a foreign land, etc. Despite the variety of those mainly extenuating circumstances in which the immigrant population finds itself, the Bible gives only one way in which to treat them—with love and compassion—because the God is the One who loves them, and the Body of Christ follows the Head of the Church. Additionally, Israel was constantly reminded that they, too, were sojourners: “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt”(Deut 24:14). When they went to the temple to make their sacrifices they were to “declare before the LORD your God: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous'(Deut 26:5). In Leviticus, Israel is commanded, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God (Lev. 19:33-34).”
Creating Places of Belonging
How does the church become a place of inclusion for immigrants? What are their needs? How are they to be treated, and how can the church effectively minister to them? The parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:23-37) is a powerful example of inclusion and ministry and answers the question about how to practice inclusion. That is done by showing compassion to the other when the other is a stranger and even an enemy. The actions of the good Samaritan are non-judgmental and carried out only in compassion for the person in need. There is no questioning of the legality of travel, or intentions at point of destination, or even of the moral character of the wounded person, i.e., whether or not he is a “bad” person and not worthy of assistance. Help is rendered based on the need of the person and goes way past the bandaging of his wounds to his healing and wellbeing.
Miroslav Volf, in what is probably his most popular work, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation shows his own wrestling with showing compassion to the other: that as he tries to answer the question posed to him by his Professor Jürgen Moltman about embracing his enemy—the Serbian fighters: “But can you embrace a četnik?” After giving it some thought, he knew that his response would be: “No, I cannot—but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to”(9). The church in this country has not always been a place of inclusion. It is a reflection of the society in which it finds itself. But there is hope that we can become a place of belonging. Tex Sample has said that in dealing with those who are different to us we must “deal respectfully, authentically, and transformatively.” To do so “could lead to a quantum leap in the way the church understands the faith, reckons with and makes moral decisions, celebrates Christian faith, and moves in a mission to the world” (139).
That mission to the world is to minister to its needs. Faith is not detached from providing tangible ministry to those in need, as so clearly explained in James 2:14-26. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his book Strength to Love argues that “A religion that professes a concern for the souls of men and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion” (250).
A church can do the following to become a welcoming place of belonging to immigrants:
- Be a welcoming by opening its doors to them. Have programs and resources that they need even without preaching to them: ESL classes, GED classes, computer classes, child-development classes, after-school classes, and care, etc.
- Help with their specific needs. To do so effectively, the church needs to know who lives in the community, town, or city. Who are they trying to reach? Who can they reach most effectively with their resources and human capital (members and workers)? Immigrants in the neighborhood need access to immigration assistance and information, child-care, translation services, food and nutrition, clothes, furniture, etc. As a church in a neighborhood that is 73% Hispanic with a majority being first generation immi grants from Central America and Mexico, our church aims specifically at reaching that population and those who help ministering to their needs. We share resources with the “Clínica Santa María” next door and try to minister to their staff also as caregivers.
- Adopt a family, mentor parents, teens, etc. Recently arrived families can be paired with families who have been in church for a while and who can help them during their adjustment period. Mentoring programs for family members and, especially, teens are very effective.
- Make church a host site for workshops, conferences, community action and meetings on issues that have to deal with immigration, social justice, racism, etc. Offering the use of the local church building and facilities is a good way to get the community to feel welcome and have a sense of belonging to this important house of faith in their community. There are always social work organizations, educational institutions, various non-profits, etc., that are looking for spaces in the community to offer their programs.
- Be a friend and loving neighbor. Recognize important dates in the community and celebrate the heritage of the members of the community. Celebrating Hispanic Heritage and Black History Month, Independence Days, etc. help the community see the church as a place to which they belong, and which shares their moments of joy and celebration.
As a recently arrived international student in a small southern town which has its history of struggles against racism, I was welcomed by a church and a family that “adopted” me and helping me get acclimated to life in this country demonstrating the love of Christ. In difficult moments, they served as advocates helping to fight for justice and even opened their home when I was unable to afford to live in campus housing. The “Adopt-a-Student” program of that church gave me something to which I could belong—a family, a church, a denomination, and the Body of Christ. It was a tangible way for a local church to embrace an immigrant.
Churches must continue to envision and embrace a world and their communities with more immigrants and accept their mandate to represent Christ and be a place of belonging for sojourners, aliens, and immigrants.
But Wait! There’s More…
This is a chapter from Daniel Montanez’ book “The Church and Migration,” which serves as an accessible and educational guide for pastors, church leaders, and parishioners to better understand what the Bible says about God’s heart towards people on the move and how these truths can be applied in our modern world. It is available for purchase in English and Spanish.
Our page “A Sanctuary for Strangers” also has a variety of other pressing action steps that churches can take to support our new neighbors.
There have been two other articles written by UniteBoston Staff exploring themes in the Good Samaritan: Rev. Kelly Fassett invites us to consider, “To whom must I become a neighbor?” and Rev. Devlin Scott challenges us to consider how we might inadvertently seek to justify ourselves instead of fully embracing Jesus’ radical acceptance.