Zach Szmara, Pastor of The Bridge Community Church in Logansport, Ind., was on a conference call when a young man entered the church. He put the call on hold to walk out of the office and meet him. In broken English, the man said, “Are you the people that help immigrants?” The man had driven over 20 miles because he heard rumors of a church that loved the stranger.
Szmara said, “In that moment I was both humbled and convicted. I was humbled that our small church had such a reputation. Yet I was convicted that it was only very recently that I could answer ‘yes’ to the burning question of this young immigrant who came to me.”
“I have lived overseas, and there my eyes could easily see the marginalized and the stranger in my midst. But at home in the states, I almost missed it, and almost missed how God has enriched my life because of it,” Szmara continued.
Many churches, like The Bridge, and denominations are taking action to ensure their churches don’t miss out on welcoming and serving immigrants, who in turn will help U.S. churches embody and reflect the kingdom of God. In 2013, an immigration coalition of like-minded denominations formed to develop church-based ministry sites offering immigrant legal services throughout the nation around the rallying cry, “Every Church, Every Immigrant.” The effort is modeled on a similar coalition that was formed in 1986 to respond to immigration policy changes.
This denominational coalition is eager to see churches be places of hope for immigrants, and for churches to be enriched by relationships with immigrants. NAE President Leith Anderson stated at the first convening of the coalition in early 2013, “There seems to be a unique ‘kairos’ moment that is upon us as the Church awakens to the needs of the immigrants among us.” Evangelical denominations have already seen their most rapid recent growth among immigrants, and except for Native Americans, we all have an immigrant story in our origins. However, if evangelical churches and denominations do not prepare and act in this hour to welcome the stranger, we could miss the most important demographic and social change of our time.
Several key partners have greatly contributed to igniting this new effort. Among those have been the NAE, which was instrumental in convening the coalition, and World Relief, which has been a generous resource by offering ongoing legal expertise. The coalition currently has 21 pilot sites in operation and is formally organizing in 2014, incorporating a separate organization with a branding effort underway. The coalition is working to include new denominations in its membership and electing a board of directors representing national, regional, and local churches, and immigrant groups. The founding board currently includes representatives from eight denominations and organizations that are already engaged in immigrant services. Dozens of others have participated in coalition meetings in the past year.
On behalf of our newly formed Coalition for Immigrant Legal Ministries, we have a deep desire to see our NAE churches and ministries leading the way in our nation as champions for the poor and vulnerable. We have both seen firsthand how ministry activities and priorities change when we discover that the margins are at the center of God’s love and concern. When churches and their leaders develop a burden for ministering to the least of these in our society, new efforts arise to love and impact the widow, the orphan and the stranger for the glory of God.
Today, God is stirring up a movement among evangelical leaders to stand with our immigrant brothers and sisters who are seeking an opportunity to be fully integrated into the fabric of our U.S. society, and into our churches as followers of Christ. We pray that many more denominations and their churches will join this Spirit-led movement that nurtures partnerships among immigrants and churches by equipping and enriching one another in this journey of grace.
This article originally appeared in the NAE Insight.