Karen Danielson is a retired English teacher and a member of Salem Road Covenant Church in Rochester, Minnesota.Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s a challenge for those of us in local churches to keep up with all the things that are happening at the denominational level. We’re all busy trying to keep our own congregations up and running—serving coffee after church, teaching Sunday school, organizing mission trips, going to Bible studies and small groups, reaching out to our communities with tangible help and the message of the gospel. Oh yeah, and we have families and jobs and all that too. All good things! But it’s quite understandable that we may not have time to visit CovChurch.org every day to see what’s up in Chicago and around the Covenant.
Last June, when my husband, David, and I attended the Covenant Annual Meeting in Detroit, we were reminded of and inspired by many things on the broader denominational landscape. Like most people who attend this gathering (now officially called “Gather”), I left so proud to be a Covenanter, so aware of the resources that the Covenant works hard to provide for its pastors and for parishioners, and so convinced that I needed to bring some of that home to my local church.
In particular, I felt convicted to start a conversation about immigration. This is an issue about which I knew virtually nothing until last June when I heard a presentation by the Commission on Christian Action that included a resolution on immigration to be voted on at the Annual Meeting this June.
Our small church in southeast Minnesota is full of really good, smart, and godly people. And they like to learn. When David and I returned from the Detroit meeting, we were given permission to plan an adult Sunday-school class on the topic of immigration that we would offer from Thanksgiving to Christmas. In September, we started to prepare by familiarizing ourselves with the commission’s resolution, exploring the resources it listed, and diving into that glorious black hole of information called the Internet.
We had no idea what we were getting into. September and October sped by, and our family room became a schoolroom with stacks of books on every table and articles spread across the floor. Both our desktop and laptop computers were set up there so that we could read and research simultaneously in the evenings. It seemed the more we studied, the less we knew, but it also became clearer every day that this was an issue we had to take on as a church. And we became increasingly grateful for the Covenant’s leadership that asks us to engage, learn, and see what we had not seen before.
We set out to build interest in our congregation by doing a few pre-class promotional activities. To encourage everyone to realize their own status as “sojourners in the land,” we conducted a survey to determine our ancestors’ countries of origin. Though our average attendance is only about 120, our people trace their roots to twenty-five different countries. We took the results of the survey and posted a large world map in the foyer with flags labeled and placed to show each person’s origins. The map became a focal point for hallway conversation (and then later, a place for our teenagers to surreptitiously move flags for comic effect). Seventeen church members then wrote about their family immigration stories that we collected in a booklet, stories that included some memorable events like the ancestor who was almost buried at sea until she woke up coughing, and the forefather who had the distinction of participating in the first duel on New England soil!
We prepared five class sessions. David started each class with a lecture using a PowerPoint presentation and then followed by discussion, which got less time than we planned because there were so many facts, figures, and angles to present. We played a simulation game that we found at welcomingthestranger.com called “Immigrating the Legal Way,” which uses real-life scenarios and a giant flow chart to illustrate the many barriers to lawful entry into the United States.
In three of the sessions, we heard from three people in our congregation who had particularly unique immigration stories: a physician at the Mayo Clinic who emigrated from Ghana in order to be able to continue his research; a husband and father who, thanks to the 1986 Reagan Amnesty Act, was able to emigrate from El Salvador at age sixteen and join his mother whom he had not seen in ten years; and a Vietnamese nurse who was able to get a seat on the last plane out of Saigon in 1975. These stories were the most emotional and effective parts of the class because they were the stories of people we know and love. Our family of faith is richer because they are part of it.
In the end, that was the point of our class—to make it personal, to help us all understand that immigration is more than an “issue,” more than a headline, more than another dividing line between the right and the left. Immigration is people—real people like Lewis, who still works for continuing medical education in his native Ghana and Western Africa; like Denis whose nuclear and extended family, all from Latin America, have experienced all the permutations of relocating in this country, legal and illegal; and like Nga, a grandmother like me, whose tears of relief at her rescue all those years ago are still fresh and heart-rending.
At the end of the five weeks, we came to the following conclusions:
We were ignorant; now we have scratched the surface of this complicated dilemma that our country must address.
Overall, immigration is good for the U.S. economy. (We know there are those who disagree.)
Most immigrants are our Christian brothers and sisters.
Those who aren’t are a tremendous mission opportunity.
Our responsibility as U.S. citizens? To become better informed. “Desire without knowledge is not good” (Proverbs 19:2).
Our responsibility as Christians? To be salt and light. To extend grace.
God is in charge: “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27).
Certainly we are not the only church to heed the call of the denomination and the Commission on Christian Action to look into immigration. I know of several others, and each church’s approach has been unique. If you haven’t done so already, take the time to go to the Covenant website and read the resolution (CovChurch .org/resolutions/2013-immigration). Good work has been done there, and if you, like us, are new to the complexities and the human impact of the issue, it’s a great place to start. You are also welcome to visit our church’s website where we’ve posted the PowerPoint presentations that we created for the class (salemroadcov.com/adults.html).
The Evangelical Covenant Church is doing great things, providing great resources for us all, and endeavoring to help its people be the hands and feet of Jesus wherever they are. But we are so busy, and it’s hard to see beyond our own local church schedule, needs, and priorities. I encourage you to make the effort and take the time to visit CovChurch.org, and start to explore all that’s there. Plan now to attend Gather ’14 in Chicago at the end of June. And if that’s too soon, then get to Gather ’15 in Kansas City, Missouri. You’ll meet great people, learn so much, and be motivated to bring things home to your congregation that will help you do God’s work where you are.