MC USA: The Immigrant Church

February 1st, 2011 – by Alicia Horst, Editors Blog

What if we saw all of the church as an immigrant church?

In September of 2009 I began working with NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center.  NewBridges was started and is partially funded by the Harrisonburg District of Virginia Mennonite Conference and some of its churches.  As an agency of the church, it seeks “to address the spiritual, social and economic needs of immigrants in the Shenandoah Valley, and to connect people and congregations in building a resilient community that values our diverse cultural groups.”

I have learned a lot about Mennonite identity by moving between the nonprofit context and the church context. Specifically I’ve learned some of the ways the church sees and describes itself. We often shift our language when speaking of immigration issues. We use “us” and “them,” sometimes regardless of our cultural or ethnic heritage. Empathy and compassion are not always the first responses for those of us who haven’t had to immigrate because of crisis.

I spent my childhood in Italy, and as a result, I enjoy multicultural contexts. I feel wholeness and a sense of peace when I am surrounded by many languages and people groups. I celebrate that I have been able to find meaningful work. But as I do that, I am becoming very aware of my background of privilege.  I don’t really know what it means to have to move through several countries out of desperation for financial, physical or religious security.  I haven’t experienced that level of vulnerability.  I have never relied on a guide to take me through a desert or been packed in a shipping container and become an indentured servant for the fee of my passage.  I do not understand what it means to be separated indefinitely from family.

Most persons born in the U.S. have no idea what it is like to work with the U.S. immigration system. Our current system is based on a patchwork of legislation from different phases of our country’s development and is often irrelevant to the current needs of our society.  Because of the current political rhetoric, the possibility of creating a logical immigration process sometimes seems like an impossible dream.

Here is an example: I met with a man from Sierra Leone who married a U.S. citizen.  By all rights, he can become a U.S. citizen too.  However, his process with immigration has been stalled for years and no amount of trying to communicate with the “powers that be” has helped.  He is simply told that his file is in order but for no articulated reason he must wait for the next step in the process.  If he were wealthy, he could hire a lawyer who may be able to help advocate on his behalf.  As it is, he must continue to wait indefinitely.

Sometimes I wonder if projects abroad are easier to support because “we” are helping “them” and not having to deal with who “us” is.  If we saw all of the church as an immigrant church then perhaps our sense of calling or urgency would shift.  We are not all recent immigrants, but our identity is to be empathetically connected to the entire body of Christ, so sometimes we might need to imagine that someone else’s experience is our own. Otherwise, we tend toward selfishness, ignorance, or avoiding discomfort.

As the church, in the midst of complex systems and allegiances, how we engage in hospitality and listen to stories deeply matters.  The church is rooted in an identity that transcends nationality.  The realm of God beckons our ultimate allegiance.

Alicia Horst is a 2006 graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary. She spent the first 13 years of her life in Italy as the child of missionary parents. She identifies herself as an Italian-American and a “third-culture kid,” among other things.

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2 Responses to “MC USA: The Immigrant Church”

  1. Gerald Shenk Says:

    Right on target, Alicia. These are complex issues, and you present them well. I am convinced that if ordinary citizens ever had to deal with the policies recently dished out by our immigration authorities, we would rise up in total revulsion and insist on major changes. I have needed to walk with immigrants from the Balkans, refugees and others, through the system as it grinds on without mercy. If we truly saw the immigrant experience as if it were our own family, we would very quickly gain a better perspective. Thanks!

  2. Gerald Shenk Says:

    Also, give a listen to the commentary on related issues by Pastor Nelson Kraybill for our local public radio station, “My ancestors were illegal immigrants.”

    The station’s policy on listener comments forbids both religion and politics as topics, and they regularly shy away from anything controversial or provocative! So this constitutes a genuine subversion as well, for the sake of public discourse about things that matter.