Intercultural leaders share concern for immigrant members: ‘The fears are real’

Church of the Brethren Newsline
April 8, 2017

By Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

Pastors of intercultural congregations are working to serve church members who are immigrants during a time when the nation’s immigrant community is feeling threatened. Leaders connected with the Church of the Brethren Intercultural Ministries are expressing concerns for the wellbeing of immigrants–documented and undocumented–in their congregations.

No one knows how many Church of the Brethren members are undocumented, or how many congregations have members who are undocumented, said Gimbiya Kettering, director of Intercultural Ministries and staff of Congregational Life Ministries. “We don’t have a way of knowing this or tracking it,” she said.

Kettering’s best guess is that there are more than 20 congregations who have members and attendees who may be undocumented or in deferred status or have family members who are not documented and vulnerable. Most often these are majority Hispanic/Latino congregations, majority Haitian congregations, and perhaps congregations that have been welcoming refugees or displaced Nigerians.

“However, we are also hearing from youth pastors in congregations that we think of as ‘traditional, Anglo’ Brethren congregations because the youth reflect the diversity of their community–in districts as diverse as Atlantic Northeast, Virlina, Atlantic Southeast, Pacific Southwest, and everything in between,” Kettering said. In this she includes youth and young adults who may be “DREAMers” in various churches.

So called because of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act first introduced in the Senate in 2001 as a means for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children to gain a pathway to permanent legal status, “DREAMers” are young people who were brought to the country as children without documentation, but have grown up as Americans, have assimilated to the culture, and have been educated in US schools. In 2012 the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program was introduced to provide some form of temporary relief to the “DREAMers.”

Churches where “DREAMers” are worshiping have become “real sanctuaries” for these young people, Kettering said. Being accepted by a welcoming congregation offers young “DREAMers” a sense of community, she said, and the church becomes a resource for their increased success both at home and in school.

Intercultural Ministries director Gimbiya Kettering (standing at left) leads a training on racism and the church for the Mission and Ministry Board in 2016. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford.

Kettering emphasized that the current anti-immigrant feeling and the uptick in racism and hate crimes is not just affecting undocumented church members but also others. She has heard about Church of the Brethren pastors and congregational leaders who have been racially profiled—asked if they are citizens in both official and non-official settings because of their ethnicity. In one case, the person being stopped has been a US citizen for decades.

Her emphasis at the moment? “Co-creating answers” for dilemmas faced by immigrant church members in cooperation with congregations interested in becoming sanctuary churches. Find an invitation to this effort at

‘Incredible prejudices are being unleashed’

Their congregation is about one-third Hispanic, with a number of families from Guatemala, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. The rest of the church “is a mix,” and includes people with experience of living in Latin America. Some members are US citizens, some are documented immigrants, others are undocumented–with some in a very vulnerable situation because they are in the process of gaining documentation and legal status. Some members of the church have no possibility of a legal pathway to citizenship.

It seems like an understatement to hear these pastors, Irvin and Nancy Sollenberger Heishman, say about their intercultural congregation: “We’re feeling a bit of a pinch.”

And it is not just undocumented people in the church who are feeling the pinch, the Heishmans emphasized. US citizens in the congregation have been affected by anti-immigrant sentiment. “Incredible prejudices are being unleashed,” said Irvin, and church members are suffering the emotional effects. He remembers one desperate call from a church member who was in the midst of “a complete emotional breakdown,” and had to counsel the person over the phone. Another church member, a US citizen who works as a factory supervisor, has been the recipient of racist comments at work, and fears he is being stalked by the police.

The group showing the most stress is the children. A goal for these pastors is to find ways to support the church’s children, and allow them to talk about their fears. “The fears are real, that their parents might be deported,” Nancy said. Undocumented parents have been making plans for “worse case scenarios” by choosing guardians for their US-born children in the event that they are deported, and finding trustworthy people to give power of attorney to safeguard their property and belongings in the US. The church has been arranging for attorneys to help immigrant families understand their rights. Undocumented immigrants “do have some rights,” Nancy said, but the political landscape “is changing so fast that people don’t know what they can and can’t do.”

The congregation is setting up a legal aid fund to help immigrant members. “A lot of Americans don’t understand how incredibly expensive it is to gain legal status,” Irvin said. He estimates a cost of $5,000 to $7,000 per person for attorney fees and other expenses. This is beyond reach for some families. Others can afford to seek documentation for only one parent. Some families have put only the father through the process of gaining legal status, leaving the mother and children vulnerable to deportation.

For one family with a legitimate case to seek asylum in the US–they had fled outright violence in their home country–“the process was brutal,” Irvin said. It included a prohibition on working, and a prohibition on having a driver’s license, among other things that prevented the family from being able to support themselves. In this case, the church stepped up to provide financial assistance. “If it hadn’t been for the church, they wouldn’t have made it,” Irvin said.

“Each story is different,” he added. “The decisions to leave family and homeland to go to a strange place are difficult. We tend to blame the individuals by using the term illegal, but the real fault can be laid at the door of systems created by governments, which make so many people vulnerable.”

The church’s leadership team is considering how to make a solid statement of support for all its members. However, there are worries about making a public statement because sanctuary churches may become targets for immigration enforcement. When the church considered taking down a sign that says “Bienvenidos” on one side and “Welcome” on the other, they decided not to, however. “No, we don’t give in to fear.”

While grieving for members living under threat, the pastors see one bright spot of hope: the opportunity for evangelism through a clear welcome to the immigrant community. “Think about the potential for growth,” said Nancy. Churches across the denomination “could be growing if we are willing to provide the kind of welcome Jesus would offer. There’s a hunger for that kind of welcome right now.”

‘Routinely afraid’

“In reality, someone of a different color or who has a different name could be susceptible” in this anti-immigrant political climate, said Carol Yeazell. She is on the pastoral team of a Church of the Brethren congregation that includes members from a wide variety of national backgrounds. The congregation includes “DREAMers” as well. One of these young church members is “routinely afraid” of what may happen to her and her family.

“Definitely for certain people there’s a sense of anxiety, a sense of concern,” she said, but that feeling is not keeping people from coming to church. She interprets that as a sign that the threat of mass deportations is not yet immediate. “They might voice their anxiousness but at this point I don’t see anyone in real distress or facing [immigration authorities] knocking on their door.”

In her opinion, the nation needs to rectify the whole issue of immigration. “If the law is to be kept, it should be done fairly and justly,” she said.

She herself has been working on immigrant concerns for many years, both locally and as an advocate for intercultural ministries across the denomination. For example, some years ago she helped church members avoid road blocks that had been set up by a county sheriff who chose to aid ICE immigration enforcement although he was not required to. “I didn’t want any of them to have a problem unnecessarily,” she explained.

In another example, her church has helped the family of a church member who was deported some years ago because documentation had been filled out incorrectly. The woman’s family remained in the US, and so she missed her children’s graduations, and a family wedding. When such concerns surface among church members, “we do what we can to assist,” Yeazell said.

Asked whether undocumented people may join the church seeking some kind of “cover,” she asserted, “They’re not coming to church as a cover up.” One man recently brought a friend to church, a co-worker who had gotten into drugs and alcohol and realized he needed Christ in his life. No one questioned his motives, she said. “It was obvious that a major transformation had come to him.”

Her church does not ask about documentation, “because that’s not our purpose. We’re not in the church determined by our race or color or legality, but because of our relationship with Christ.”

‘It is heartbreaking’

The situation of “DREAMers” in his district is heartbreaking, said Russ Matteson, district executive minister for Pacific Southwest District of the Church of the Brethren. In one congregation, half of a youth group numbering about 40 are “DREAMers.” This same dynamic is playing out in other congregations in the district, as well.

He told the story of one “DREAMer” who has been active in the district and at Annual Conference, “a bright kid who wants to go to pharmacy school.” Accepted into a pharmacy program at an out-of-state college where “DREAMers” are welcomed, the decision to leave family and move several states away at this time is a difficult one.

Families of “DREAMers” are experiencing a complicated mix of concerns, Matteson noted. The parents may be undocumented, with older children who are “DREAMers,” and younger children who are citizens born in the US. In some families, there are further complications such as parents who come from two different countries. Often various individuals in the same family have very different immigration status.

How does a district executive serve intercultural congregations at this time? Matteson tries to keep in touch with pastoral leaders to “keep apprised of the ways that families are feeling the impact and effect of what’s going on.” He is concerned to do this “without raising the alarm about things that aren’t happening yet,” for example the threat of mass deportations. He wants to help the district focus on “what we know, rather than what we fear.”

People from majority white congregations in the district have been asking how to help. Matteson emphasizes the need to first listen to the immigrant community and learn from them how to be supportive.

His district also includes people concerned about how undocumented people are breaking the law. Concern about the legalities may change when people “encounter a sister or brother in crisis in the same denomination,” he said. “They realize that they are serving in district positions together and on the same committees. The more people get to know and understand the complexities of the situation the more they understand it is not an easy thing to resolve,” he said.

The only criteria to serve in district leadership is to be a member of a Church of the Brethren congregation in the district, he noted. “The documentation we need is: you are a sister or brother in Christ.”

He knows that some congregational leaders he works with are undocumented, and he feels deeply for their situation. “Your heart breaks, these are people I know and love.”

— Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren, and associate editor of “Messenger” magazine.

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