The task of assimilation into a new culture can be a difficult one. However, the church is uniquely equipped to provide support to immigrants and refugees who are engaged in this process for three reasons: first, because of its widespread nature (there are local churches in literally every populated area of the United States); second, because of its assumed adherence to the basic premise that its members should act according to Scriptural mandates; and, third, because of the type of community that the church body naturally (albeit imperfectly) fosters.
It could be argued that the church may not have the intercultural expertise or training to communicate smoothly or easily with immigrants and refugees. In fact, American churches engaging in cross-cultural ministry will most likely experience miscommunication and difficulties when they begin to engage with groups of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. However, the church has the resources necessary to provide immigrants and refugees with not only material support but also a community infrastructure that can help them achieve assimilation into American culture. Even more importantly, the principles upon which the church was built provide effective motivation to minister and aid. Whether or not we have the expertise, we are qualified simply because of Jesus’ call to love our neighbor as ourselves and care for those among us who can’t do so themselves.
Though the church is grouped into congregations, as with any ministry opportunity, immigrant and refugee ministry must be instigated by individuals. Any individual can instigate intercultural ministries in their own communities. These guidelines provide a concrete starting point for anyone, from the church administrator to the individual with no formal involvement in a church congregation, who wants to begin serving the immigrant and refugee population in the United States.
Before starting any ministry, one must assess the existing landscape to avoid creating an outreach that may or may not prove effective. In the case of immigrant and refugee ministry, it is imperative to find out some basic facts before starting out.
According to Heidi Dessecker, World Relief Chicago’s branch director of resettlement services, “Churches that take the time to learn about refugees and their needs … and ask questions tend to have more meaningful experiences and create more meaningful partnerships.”
It is imperative that you find out who is already engaged in cross-cultural efforts and what services they are offering. Mark Akers, founder of Oasis International in St. Louis, Missouri, advises those interested in starting an immigrant or refugee ministry to “find out who’s doing something and join them.”
A good way to begin looking for this information would be to contact a government or state institution, like the local courthouse. In addition, local offices of large national resettlement organizations like World Relief, Catholic Charities and the Church World Service can provide answers as well. The Internet is also a great place to start searching for information about the refugee population and resettlement services in your particular area.
After determining the nature of the local immigrant and refugee community and finding out what ministries are already engaging them, the next step is to discover what needs are not yet being met to determine how you can alleviate them. Consider carefully how your ministry can provide services without stepping on the toes of other organizations who may be offering similar or identical ones. Overlapping a preexisting ministry is the quickest way to experience conflict, cause confusion and create unnecessary challenges for yourself and the communities you are trying to help.
Jenna Oh, immunizations and medical specialist at the International Institute, explains how churches often jump into immigrant and refugee ministry without adequately completing this step of the process. Oh describes the church as “definitely involved, but in terms of communication between helping groups, it can be insufficient” and often haphazard. When communication between service entities is insufficient, confusion and tension are created for the immigrants and refugees they are trying to serve. In order to avoid this problem, Oh offers the following advice: “Collaborate with already-existing organizations and build relationships with them. Start this very early on.”
The more communication that occurs with already-existing ministries, the better equipped your own ministry will be. Not only can it enhance existing services instead of hampering them, but it will also avoid the process of reinventing the wheel by learning what approaches other ministries may have tried that haven’t worked in the past.
In order to build an effective ministry for immigrants and refugees, communication must also be established early with the people you plan to serve. This step is vitally important. Contact immigrants and refugees themselves. Visit their neighborhoods. Throw a cookout or an event. Speak to them in their homes. Tell them about your intentions and ask them what needs they have that your ministry could meet.
This will ensure that your ministry effectively meets needs instead of basing your offerings on assumptions. These endeavors will also jumpstart your involvement in their communities and begin creating familiarity with your ministry.
Once relationships have been established with existing ministry efforts and with the immigrant and refugee population itself, choose a need that isn’t currently being met (based on your conversations with both parties) and strategize how a new ministry could meet it. Common needs usually range from daily transportation to material goods, home repair and auto care, food preparation, job advice, résumé creation, legal help, English tutoring, driving lessons, child care and more. Because of the diversity of these needs, people with a wide variety of skills, expertise, backgrounds and preferences can be effectively involved in immigrant and refugee ministry. However, the best way to help an immigrant or refugee is to simply befriend them – to actively participate in their life and be available to them to answer their questions. An environment for intentional relationships could be facilitated by church administrators or pastors looking to start an immigrant and refugee ministry program, but also (arguably more effectively) by any service-oriented effort. This has been facilitated by numerous organizations in the form of a “buddy system,” “host family” or “adoption” ministry.
Simply facilitating relationships between recent arrivals with willing citizens of the United States can make an unimaginable impact on the lives of everyone involved. Having a friend they can call who knows how a toaster oven works, can help them pay their bills and show them the nearest grocery store provides more than just material assistance to an immigrant individual or family. It literally provides the gateway to healthy assimilation into the U.S. culture.
Once the type of ministry has been determined, whether it resembles an adopt-a-refugee program or a more focused service like a weekly English tutoring class, facilitating this ministry requires the same actions necessary for maintaining any other function or program within your church body. Raise awareness about the program by speaking to the congregation. Have a kickoff event and host immigrants and refugees to come meet people who are interested in getting involved. Create sign-up sheets and schedules for participants to keep in touch and remain actively involved with the immigrant and refugee community.
Most importantly, make the ministry visible. Set goals. Throw an annual event (an appreciation cookout or dinner, a sponsorship event, or a “Refugee Sunday” to keep the ministry fresh in the minds of the congregation). Keeping the ministry visible will encourage ongoing participation.
Immigrant and refugee ministry cannot be approached as a short-term project.
Immigrant and refugee communities need to be reached through personal, intentional and long-term engagement. Successful immigrant and refugee ministries must incorporate long-term relationship and the willingness to engage with other cultural heritages and values in order to build lasting community. Because of the community the church naturally fosters, it is in an ideal position to help accomplish this feat.
Lauren Schwaar is a 2013 graduate of Greenville College. While a Greenville student, she wrote an honors thesis on the role of the U.S. church in caring for immigrant and refugee communities.
- What resettlement organizations are currently involved in your area or community?
- Where are immigrants or refugees being settled? How many are there?
- What organizations are already providing services for them, and how can your ministry support those available services instead of competing with them?