By Brett Hetherington*
America has long been described as the land of opportunity, a melting pot where countless cultures can come together to live, share the best of what makes them unique, and create a grand tapestry of a country. Though this vision is not without its flaws and detractors, people continue to journey to the United States seeking a place to call home – a journey that often comes with great personal risk. The United Methodist Church recognizes the challenges immigrants face and in ¶162.H of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016 advocates for the rights of immigrants as part of the denomination’s Social Principles.
Churches and faith communities across the East Ohio Conference are ministering with and supporting mission partners who are working with individuals, families, and communities who are starting a new life far away from their homeland. On Sunday, January 9, 2022, EOC pastors, congregations, and faith communities are invited, and encouraged, to participate in a Conference-wide Global Migration Sunday. The Order of Deacons has developed a worship resource for local churches to use on that date – or on a different date – should local church leadership prefer to recognize Global Migration Sunday on a different Sunday during the year. This online resource meets the shared vision of Conference clergy and laity to reach new and diverse people in bold and courageous ways so that we together can be God’s agents of transformation in our communities and throughout the world.
Grandview United Methodist Church (Canal District District) has a strong partnership with the Cuyahoga Falls School District providing tutoring for English as a Second Language (ESL) students throughout the school year. The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately put this program on hold this schoolyear, but there are many other ways that the church has found ways to serve their migrant brothers and sisters.
Grandview UMC has invited a Nepali congregation to share its building. “We have our services on Sunday mornings, and they come in the afternoon,” said the Rev. David Hull-Frye. “We have not been able to host a combined service yet. We are just trying to figure out how to do things safely.”
The partnership between the two churches extends beyond just sharing space. Hull-Frye shared that within the space there is care taken to make known it is not just a white American church. “In the front of our sanctuary we put welcome in three language – English, Nepali and Chinese – to help people feel welcome, to see that in their own language. When we started holding in-person services in May we had two banners – one in English, one in Nepali – that said, ‘Welcome back church family.’ We are trying to create a welcoming environment no matter where people are from.”
Even something as simple as a greeting is viewed as an intentional act of connection according to Hull-Frye. “Most people, if you can greet them in their own language, it goes a long way to breaking down a lot of barriers and making them feel welcome. So, we are working with people to at least say hi in their own language to be able to make that connection.”
Pastor Santa Gajmere leads the Nepali congregation and he shared that during the pandemic many members were sick and suffered. “Many were laid off and could not go to their jobs. It was an adjustment finding resources to help them,” he shared.
Adjusting to this new area of the world comes with its unique challenges as well, beyond simply learning the language.
“We are completely in a new world,” shared Gajmere. An immigrant himself, Gajmere grew up in Bhutan, stayed in Nepal for 20 years, and then made his way to America. “The way of life is completely different here. Even the food – in our country you cook and eat whatever you like. There are so many factors for the elderly that we did not anticipate. Couples with children have had to adjust to balance jobs and caring for their children. We must be prepared in everything.”
Gajmere’s congregation is performing its own outreach in the neighborhoods as well. “We are trying to reach other people. There are so many sub-ethnic groups who have their own beliefs and caste systems. It is a real challenge,” he said.
In Cleveland Alison Klocker serves as director of The Nehemiah Mission (North Coast District). In years past, there was a strong connection to Liberian immigrants who had settled in the community. That connection continues, though with the added blessing of being able to serve incoming Afghani refugees.
“We have been providing transitional housing for Afghani refugees,” shared Klocker. “We have had several groups come through, coming from camps, who stay for a little bit and then move on to more permanent housing. Currently we are hosting a family of six, a family of eight, and three individual males.”
Housing refugees is a great blessing for Klocker and her staff, but it also presents some challenges, especially for some of the current tenants who are at the Mission.
“Large families and individual males are some of the hardest groups to find housing for,” said Klocker. “And the three gentlemen who are here don’t speak any English. This makes for a much more challenging transition. But we are happy to have them.”
The Nehemiah Mission continues to offer its after-school programming to neighborhood children ranging from knitting, sewing, indoor soccer and basketball, homework tutoring, and providing a space for those students who simply are not ready to go home yet. There is also a husband-and-wife team who lead a Sunday morning worship service in the building for the many Congolese refugees in the area.
Klocker added that the Nehemiah Mission has also been partnering with Refugee Response to provide even more assistance. “We have been renting out our former free store space to Refugee Response, and we have become a central hub for community donations for transition into houses for Afghani refugees who are coming through. They can come in and get everything from pots and pans, giant bags of rice and flour, oil, cleaning products, towels, sheets, and such. That’s been really nice to be part of that and support that.”
Klocker echoes Gajmere’s thoughts on the difficulties that those who are immigrating to America face and adds a dimension that might not come readily to many.
“Trying to adapt to a culture that is not dominated by religion is a huge shift for these refugees, and it takes time to adjust. And then there is what we might consider small stuff like accessing simple day-to-day supplies. And even simple things that we take for granted – such as a court summons – a paper with instructions written in letters that are not in their native language with instructions on where to go and when can be stressful and confusing.”
The Rev. Dave St. Aubin serves at Dover First United Methodist Church (Tuscarawas District), and he paints a picture of a more intimate connection with immigration.
“We have ‘adopted’ – and I use the term loosely – a family from Guatemala, setting them up with the first few months of rent for an apartment, food, appliances, and clothing for the kids,” he said.
In addition to this act of love, Dover First UMC partners with two other area churches in their efforts to connect with the local migrant population.
“One church is a Mennonite church, and the other is a Hispanic Pentecostal church from the Canton area,” St. Aubin said. “One holds services in Spanish for the Central American community – which is primarily composed of those coming from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – in our church twice a week, while the other church hosts a kids ministry for about 100 kids or so – worship services, Vacation Bible School, that kind of thing.” The churches chose to pool their resources and work together across denominational lines for this massive Kingdom work.
But what has seemed to stick the most for St. Aubin is what he has learned from the family the church aided in its season of desperation. “The situations that a lot of immigrants have coming into the country safely – the problems they face at home are broader than just coming into a new place for a new start. It’s trying to be safe too,” he shared.
These are just a few of the churches and missions in the East Ohio Conference that are reaching out and serving the newcomers to their communities. Often the bridges that connect these communities starts with a simple question.
“We thank Pastor David and the church all the time for stepping out and saying, ‘how can we help?’” shared Gajmere, stating how much impact just asking to serve can have on an immigrant family, or an entire community of immigrant families.
“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 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. Leviticus 19.33-34 (NIV)
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at email@example.com.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.