National Justice for our Neighbors supports immigrants by offering legal resources at more than 40 clinics in United Methodist churches across the country.
This past fall, the Department of Education shared that, for the first time, more children in public schools in the United States were minority than white. Schools are now majority-minority and richly diverse, though our churches may not always be so. How do we, as Christians, respond to the growing diversity within our country?
In my role as executive director of the United Methodist ministry National Justice for Our Neighbors (NJFON), I have come to see the powerful effects of actively seeking to know and welcome those who come from a different background than our own.
NJFON supports a network of immigration legal clinics at more than 40 United Methodist churches around the country. At these clinics, staff attorneys and teams of volunteers provide in-depth immigration legal assistance to low-income immigrants and their families so that they can understand and navigate our nation’s complex immigration laws. The outcomes of the legal work often include keeping families together safely and permanently, enabling eligible immigrants to work lawfully, uniting families who have experienced long separation, and helping immigrants escape from domestic violence.
However, there are other results of this volunteer-driven model that positively affect both client and volunteer and that can serve to guide us as Christians in our diversifying communities.
JFON volunteers have learned that when we take the time to truly listen to someone’s story about how they came here, what struggles they have endured, and what hope they hold for the future, we gain a connection with someone who at first appeared as a stranger to us. We realize that while our languages, skin color, history, and journeys may be very different, we share in common deeper traits such as a profound yearning for our kids to be safe and thrive, a desire to support one’s family through work, and a longing to be a part of a community without feeling like an outsider.
These intentional encounters, which our ministry strives to foster into meaningful relationships, create communities of welcome in our churches. Numerous immigrants have told us that the assistance they received through JFON helped them to see the church as a safe, welcoming place. Many of these immigrants also lived within a stone’s throw of the church but had never been inside.
In 2014, we had the opportunity to serve nearly 3,700 immigrants of all faiths, including Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. We hope that these immigrants experienced not just love and compassion at our JFON clinics, but also an eagerness by volunteers to know their stories. For we, as JFON staff and volunteers, have become enriched by these encounters and blessed to better know our immigrant neighbors.
Personally, I’m glad to say I’ve made some friends along the way.
Written by Rob Rutland-Brown; Cover photo by MIchael L. Dorn