For the past 10 years, our church has been on a journey, trying to understand how the gospel should shape our response to the contentious issue of immigration.
Redemption Church is a multi-congregational church in metropolitan Phoenix that seeks to show that “All of Life Is All for Jesus.” The issue of immigration is almost unavoidable for a church in Arizona that strives to be “gospel-centered” and “outward-focused.”
Immigration has presented incredible opportunities and complex questions. We have asked questions like:
- What does it look like to love our immigrant neighbors?
- What does it look like to respect our state and federal government?
- How can we, as a church, seek the shalom of our city?
- What does it look like to glorify God as we engage this issue?
The complexity of these questions has driven us to prayer. We’ve found that God rarely presents us with great opportunities without mixing them with significant challenges. This seems to be God’s recipe for keeping us dependent, for apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5).
We first sensed that God was calling us to respond to the self-giving love of Christ by tangibly loving our immigrant neighbors. As we encountered the Lord in the Scriptures, we were convinced that God sovereignly determines when and where people will live for the sake of his redemptive purposes (Acts 17:26-27). We awed at our omnipotent God who determines the placement of peoples and is bringing the nations to our city. Compelled by the love of Christ and the sovereignty of God, we concluded that our church’s approach to witness should be shaped by our geography, the needs of our community, and obedience to Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.
Desire to love and serve our immigrant community notwithstanding, we didn’t have the experience or expertise to move forward on our own. We didn’t want to make hasty decisions and carelessly start programs that might ultimately be detrimental to our church and the people we were seeking to serve. So we called and sought counsel from our resident expert, Kit Danley, and Neighborhood Ministries.
Three Areas of Service
Kit has served faithfully in Phoenix for the past 30 years. She advised us to look for what God is already doing around us and to join in on it, rather than starting our own ministry. This led us to engage in three primary areas of service.
First, we connected with a Baptist ministry in our community already serving migrant workers. We approached this ministry as learners and servants. We did not take on leadership roles but consistently served in whatever capacity was needed. We made meals, shared meals, and devoted ourselves to prayer for the gospel work happening within the community.
Second, we partnered with a local food and clothing bank. Our church started a monthly collection of food and clothes to stock this ministry. It wasn’t long before our people began donating more than food—-they started to donate their lives. They served in many capacities, including such roles as collectors, workers, and board members.
Finally, we connected with a Latino church that had a big dream of starting a day labor center. A decade ago, just south of our Gilbert, Arizona, congregation, the streets were lined with immigrants looking for work. Sadly, many of these men were picked up and put to work only to be returned without pay. Some were even abused by their so-called employers. Something needed to be done to protect these workers, so we partnered with the Latino pastor of this church to bring to life his bold vision of using the church parking lot to provide a safe place for a day labor center. The center would provide a unique level of protection for the day laborers by requiring potential employers to register with the center by giving a license plate number and ID. This would ensure they upheld their commitment to payment and fair treatment.
This initiative was supported by a broad coalition of people from many domains of society, including local businesses and the city government. Our partnership with this local church was both financial and relational. We provided construction workers to build, financial support to sustain, workers to operate, and advocates to promote the center.
Taking It to the Next Level
The work that began a decade ago continues today. Some of our partnerships remain, and some have changed, but our commitment to the immigrant and refugee populations only continues to grow. Three years ago we started a community center in the heart of a Latino neighborhood about five miles where we offers English classes, after-school programs, Young Life meetings, Bible studies, and life-skills training. When the center opened in 2009, we were ministering to about 15 Latino immigrants each week, and now that number has grown to more than 85.
We always intended for our work within this community to lead to the planting of churches, as it is the church that will have an ongoing, sustaining effect on the community. Our work among Latinos has led to two church plants in the last five years. One is a Spanish-speaking congregation, and the most recent is a bilingual, multi-ethnic congregation. Through these two churches, we are starting to see the multi-dimensional power of local ministry.
We’re also working in similar ways with the Somali Bantu and Uzbek refugee populations throughout our city. Hundreds of people from the church have served as volunteers. They have welcomed newly arrived refugees at the airport, helped with English tutoring, volunteered with the Women’s Refugee Health Center, taught entrepreneurial skills, and participated in monthly dinner clubs called “Peace Feasts” to financially support restaurants owned by our refugee friends. We have enjoyed hundreds of opportunities to engage in conversations about Jesus with the refugees, and we’ve seen God change lives. They have told us that they have felt so welcomed, so served and cared for, that when they are able to return home, they want to implement the same practices they have experienced here as Muslims—-to treat the Christians in their homeland with as much love as they have received from Christians in Arizona.
Kind Words, Harsh Words, and the Word that Became Flesh
Immigration is a deeply polarizing and contentious issue, both nationally and locally in Arizona. Our work has been affirmed by many but has also been met with criticism from both inside and outside the church. This weighty issue has both real life consequences, and has also become a symbolic issue in our struggling political discourse.
At times feedback from outside the church has been constructive and helpful, but at other times it’s been harsh and scathing. Because of our support of these communities, we’ve been accused of contributing to the breakdown of and economic drain on our educational and medical systems, and even to violent crimes like rape and murder by undocumented immigrants.
It’s easy to brush off irrational phone calls, but we’ve found that it’s important to pause and listen to the critiques of respectable people with legitimate concerns. We especially need to listen to those who challenge us on the grounds that our work counteracts the common good. If their concern is valid, we should respond and adjust accordingly. If, however, they are misguided, we should clarify our intentions and continue the work to which we have been called.
How do we deal with this type of critique and complexity? We listen, reflect, and pray. We take it seriously but also balance it with the substantial affirmation we’ve received from within the church, local ministries, the immigrant community, and local and state government leadership. Many governmental leaders know they are not the final answer to the communities’ problems, and they often welcome participation from the church. In a recent conversation with a state employee, he told me the community is essential to the process of addressing and answering the problems of immigration. The government helps foster a system that enables the common good, but it cannot do it alone.
We have also received positive feedback from the recipients of our service. We have been intentional about working with a “hand-up” rather than a “hand-out” philosophy. The people we serve are gaining greater competency in English, computer, and other life skills, all of which help to propel them forward in pursuit of employment, citizenship, and the ability to take greater ownership of their community’s issues.
We recognize these immigrants are made in God’s image, and therefore should be treated with the same dignity and respect due all of God’s children. We listen to them and walk with them, as they take responsibility for their communities. We frequently hear stories of gospel transformation that comes about through service, love, and empowerment.
Much of the affirmation we receive and the gospel transformation we witness is actually coming from within our congregations. The gospel-motivated love for our neighbors is pushing us across the boundaries of culture, comfort, and convenience. We frequently hear testimonies of how prejudice is being crushed, idols are being confronted, and joy is being made full. The people who serve these communities are finding that when they interact with members of the immigrant community—-face-to-face in relationship—-it personalizes the immigration issue. We, as a church, are learning the meaning of these words from our Lord Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
As we serve, we’re growing in a deeper understanding of God’s love and our admiration of Jesus. He was the young child who lived as a refugee in Egypt, was treated unjustly by the authorities, smashed sin through his suffering on the cross, was resurrected as a first fruits of the New Creation, and pointed to the day when the nations will be healed and tears will be wiped away. He also knows what it means to be a King among a rebellious and sinful people.
In a follow-up article, we’ll discuss some of the key lessons we’ve learned on this journey.