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Love Thy (Immigrant) Neighbor

Women leaders play a unique role in helping refugees and immigrants settle into the community.

Today’s headlines say a lot about refugees and immigrants. Yet not much of what we read adequately prepares us to effectively facilitate their transition to American life once they settle down in our neighborhoods. What can we as church leaders do when they come to us for help?

Because many immigrants hail from patriarchal or machismo cultures, it’s vital that women leaders reach out to the women and children. First of all, it is the immigrant woman—not the man—who struggles the greatest in setting up a home, finding schooling options for her children, and feeding her family. Second, an immigrant woman will likely not respond, or be permitted to respond, to men trying to help her. Third, it is the woman and her children who are most vulnerable in this type of transition—and it is we as women whose help will likely be accepted and trusted more readily.

To best help immigrants in our communities, we must first set aside political opinions on the matter, and view our immigrant neighbors as fellow human beings, created in the image of God. Each one, regardless of accent, culture, or skin color possesses a God-breathed soul. Any help or service we offer must flow from the springs of compassion and love that are fed by God’s own supply. Along with prayer, there are several practical things we can do for the immigrant next door.

Practical Soul Needs

“People migrate with their cultural beliefs and practices.” —​Kenneth Guest

Anyone who has ever moved, especially cross culturally, can to identify with, or have empathy for, a newly displaced immigrant neighbor during the process of adaptation and acculturation. At times, frustration, sadness, confusion, and a deep sense of loss may accompany her as she navigates life in a foreign culture. The more we can understand her reality, the better we can assist her.

Whether we are Mexicans or Americans, Syrians or Egyptians, language, values, and cultural traditions connect, identify, and give us a sense of belonging. The first step in reaching out to the immigrant is learning to appreciate those elements that have been woven deep within her soul.

Everyone longs to communicate, to be heard and understood. Language is key. Even if your new neighbor does have some ability to speak English, take a chance by learning a phrase or two of greeting in her native tongue. She will be grateful to hear you speaking her heart language (even if imperfectly). Perhaps she’ll also be more receptive during future interactions.

Beyond language, each culture contains other types of non-verbal communication: kinesics (gestures and body movements) and paralanguage (noises and tones) through which “up to 90 percent of emotional information is communicated,” writes Kenneth Guest. Pay special attention in order to read people well.

Further, take time to learn about the culture and society she comes from. What values does she hold? What traditions are important to her? Every culture observes rites of passage, like birth of a child, death, and marriage. Some cultures have additional celebrations, such as the quinceañera in Latin America. Ask the immigrant about her unique holidays and how she celebrates birthdays or anniversaries. Invite her and her family to your home to experience your food and festivities on your special days, or involve them in a US holiday celebration. Your genuine interest in her customs will not only show you care, it should also help you avoid making ignorant or hurtful comments.

Practical Survival Needs

“Acculturation—the process by which individuals acquire the knowledge and skills that enable them to more or less function in a second culture.” —​Stephen Grunlan

What we and immigrants have in common is the need not only to survive, but to function in society. Cultural institutions such as education, health, transportation, and banking can cause intense anxiety and stress for non-natives readjusting to life in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar protocols. Here is where the body of Christ can and should serve in a hands-on way; here is how we fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:3). Consider the following list of practical tips for serving immigrants:

  • Help enroll children in the local school and accompany them in buying school supplies.
  • Introduce them to a local doctor or dentist. Show them where the closest hospital is and provide phone numbers in case of an emergency. If applicable, explain how insurance works. (Note: many cities have volunteer clinics for undocumented immigrants. Investigate this in your area.)
  • Accompany women when help is needed for personal issues.
  • Teach them how to navigate public transportation, or provide rides.
  • Go with them to open a bank account.
  • Show them where to buy groceries and where to find ingredients for their native meals (if possible).
  • Locate the local immigration office and the closest embassy; show them where to obtain necessary documents.
  • Teach them how to properly address envelopes and use the postal system.
  • Explain how and where they can pay bills.
  • Because many areas of the world have no climate control inside homes, show them how the heating and cooling systems work.
  • Point them to local recreation, like parks and sports facilities.
  • Explain trash and recycling pickup days and guidelines.
  • Help them find and enroll in ESL classes.
  • Learn basic immigration laws.

Don’t be surprised if there is agitation, complaining, anger, or tears while they are (re)learning to function, but don’t take it personally. They are now in a world where things are strange to them! We all are inherently ethnocentric: what we think is normal and easy, to others is weird and difficult; what others believe about how things should work, we may find bizarre. We overcome prejudices as we appreciate differences. Because culture is a social heritage, not a biological one, the immigrant will begin blending practices from the homeland with those of the new land, further helping her learn to function in her new environment.

Practical Spiritual Needs

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” —John 3:16

All people, including immigrants, need the Lord. And women leaders have a unique role to play in sharing the life-giving message of Jesus Christ with immigrants, especially women and children.

In time, it may be appropriate to give her a Bible in her language, or introduce her to an online source, like www.Bible.is. But please be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in this; typically you must first earn trust. I’ve witnessed people hearing God’s Word for the first time in their language; it is a profoundly spiritual and touching experience. “I didn’t know God speaks my language!” exclaimed one teary eyed woman.

In his article “Thinking Theologically about Immigration,” Dr. Alex Mandes exhorts the church, “We have an opportunity in terms of our mission. Many of these people are outside of their home countries, separated from their families, and outside of their own governments’ systems. They are prime for the gospel!”

Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church testifies, “As we’ve ministered to immigrants, many have come to know Jesus. Immigration presents an opportunity to ‘make disciples of all nations’ right in our own neighborhoods. … My hope and prayer is not only that many of the undocumented immigrants in our country would eventually be allowed to become US citizens, but—that many more would embrace the God who invites them to be citizens of his eternal kingdom.”

As women in ministry, we must reach out because we have been raised up by God to do so; we must lift up our eyes and see the new harvest in our neighborhood. Carolyn Custis James, in her book Half the Church, says, “God created his daughters to be kingdom builders—to pay attention to what is happening around us, to take action and contribute. … this is how God’s kingdom advances.” And helping women and children immigrants in our communities is a great way to build the kingdom.

The gospel challenges us with the task of reaching out to our immigrant neighbor. Let’s love her through our prayers and serve her in practical ways as she adapts to her new surroundings. As a result, may she come to believe in the Son and find eternal life.

Ilona Hadinger, together with her husband and youngest child, live in Mexico, where they have served as missionaries among ethnic and indigenous people groups for nearly 20 years. A member of the Redbud Writers Guild and an award-winning photographer, she blogs and posts photos at www.ikhadinger.com.

February23, 2017 at 8:00 AM

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