Jared Pryer of Ten Mile Baptist Church once expressed to me a burden that God laid on his heart. He explained the overwhelming need of ministering to hundreds of migrant workers who would travel to Southern Illinois and work for three months, before heading back to their home countries. They would come, work, and go home. For Jared this was an opportunity to serve a people group that needs the gospel.
For others of us, the needs of people from outside the United States may not be so obvious. Whether at the barber shop or nail salon, in line at the DMV, or sitting in class next to an exchange student, we all have encountered someone from another country. The busboy whose English is limited. The customer service representative with a heavy accent. Do we think of them in the way Jared considers the temporary residents in his community?
The rise of Afghan refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. and the overwhelming flow of immigrants crossing the border cause us to consider this question again. As we do, we must understand our Christian responsibility. People from all over the world will continue to come, seeking a place of refuge, longing for a better life. How will we minister to them?
Before sharing tangible ways of serving foreigners, we must be clear on one important point. Our view of immigrants shapes the way we treat them. Often what we were taught, how we were raised, or even the political position we affiliate ourselves with becomes the basis of how we view immigrants. This should never be the starting point.
The Bible, which must be the lens through which we view and treat immigrants, says, “‘The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:34 NIV).
Throughout Scripture we read about biblical heroes who were immigrants—heroes such as Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Daniel, and others. Jesus himself can be considered a two-fold foreigner: in his divinity, Jesus left his heavenly home to reside on earth; in his humanity, he lived in Egypt before calling Nazareth his home.
Coupled with the understanding that everyone is an image bearer of God, we can more effectively minister to immigrants as we focus on where they’re going versus how they got here.
Ultimately, everyone needs Jesus. Our main concern should be people’s citizenship status in heaven and not their citizenship status in this country.
Here are some stepping stones toward relationship-building that can eventually lead to more gospel-centered conversations.
1. Assist during the period of transition and adjustment.
Immigrants often come to this country to study or work. One way to help in their transition is by providing classes or resources that lead toward meeting their goals.
Offering English language classes, typing or computer classes, or life skills training including paying bills and developing a resume can help newcomers learn to live in a new country.
2. Show curiosity and respect for the life, culture, and values of the immigrant.
Taking the time to get to know someone’s interests and life experiences is one of the most welcoming things. This fosters connection despite language barriers.
Some examples can be premiering a sporting event of the immigrant group’s country or opening up the fellowship hall to host festivities such as a quincenaera. One way that we do this at Starting Point Community Church is by representing, highlighting, and praying over the different cultures and countries of Latin America during Hispanic Heritage Month.
3. Help immigrants build up their home.
Many leave their country with nothing, only to find themselves starting from scratch. Living conditions are not optimal and many often find themselves just trying to survive from day to day. Churches and individuals can provide temporary housing, and resources such as food, clothing, or household items.
For those looking to minister to immigrants, start by praying for their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Reflect on where you live, work, worship, and play and consider if there are immigrant communities in need of support. Too often, newcomers go unseen. And consider connecting with other churches and organizations, like Jared did, that specifically support immigrant populations.
– Jonathan de la O is pastor of Starting Point Community Church in Chicago.