In a season where the government’s openness to outsiders has shifted, many people of faith around the world long to respond strategically. In spite of all the division, a window of opportunity has swung open. Around the globe, communities of faith are abuzz with new questions about how to welcome strangers.
One church in Chattanooga, Tennessee recently leveraged this moment for intentional conversation:
Congregants huddled into the chilly church basement, ESL classes were just wrapping up and the smell of pan dulce filled the room as neighbors trickled in. New City East Lake church, anchored in the low-income neighborhood of East Lake, organized an evening gathering to address fears sparked by recent rhetoric and rumors surrounding immigration.
People of all backgrounds and ethnicities bustled in. The sound in the room was a mix of English, Spanish, Mam and Quiché—Central American languages. Some people who joined were undocumented; others were citizens longing to respond with compassion. Our professions ranged from lawyer to line worker.
That night, we all shared one thing in common: trepidation at our country’s emerging immigration policies. After over a year of divisive discourse at the national level, we were hungry for unity, answers and a safe place to process our feelings in solidarity.
A panel of local leaders joined us to share reflections and take questions: a Latino police offer, a local pastor, an immigration attorney, a Latina student leader at the local high school and even the city’s chief of police.
The new administration has made lots of promises to tighten our borders and take a harsher stance on immigration—like deporting millions of undocumented workers, building a wall along the southern border, terminating executive amnesty and tripling the number of immigration enforcement agents. But the question lingers: What will actually happen? And when?
Immigrants voiced a myriad of concerns to local law enforcement. “I’ve been in the United States for 20 years working as a brick mason,” one older Honduran man testified. “Of all the cities I’ve lived in, the police in Chattanooga are the most helpful and fair. Will this change?”
Fletcher, the chief of police, advocates for equality. “No person is illegal,” he proclaimed to applause. “My research and professional experience shows that immigrants do not contribute to increases in crime. Even if they did, we exist to protect every person in our city—not to enforce federal immigration laws.”
His words energized the people, yet fear loomed. Laws aside, this year’s dogma has provoked harassment for many immigrants post-election. Officer Mercado, a local policeman, exhorted the group to transcend hate. “It’s like my mama always told me: You gotta rise above ignorance.”
Eliza Mendez, a Latina student leader, challenged everyone to tell their stories—especially in the face of discrimination. “If people don’t know who we truly are, we’ll always be defined by derogatory rhetoric.”
In closing, the panel of community leaders charged the church to act in solidarity with immigrants in the community:
Love your brothers and sisters during this tough time.
Ask your immigrant friends how they’re doing. Take special care. Invite them into your homes. There’s no better time than now. Live this out by remembering the command to God’s people: “You shall treat the immigrant who sojourns with you as native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” (Leviticus 19)
Find good legal counsel.
Unless you’re an expert, avoid giving legal advice. You can best serve your immigrant brothers and sisters by helping them access good, accurate information and legal services. Watch out for “false lawyers”—notarios—who may look to defraud and exploit fears in this time of uncertainty.
Leverage your voice.
Use your privilege to speak up for our immigrant friends. If you see or hear about discrimination, investigate and report it. With hate crimes on the rise, we must be a strong source of support for those who may be targeted. If there are people who have been emboldened toward injustice at this time, we must take extra measures of courage.
As the meeting closed in multilingual prayer, participants hoped this would be the first of many such gatherings in the new year.
“Faith communities around the country must host these kinds of conversations,” an energetic Mexican woman declared as we dismissed everyone to break down tables and take photos. “Tonight, for the first time, I actually believe that everything happening will make us stronger.”
Wherever you live, stop and think for a minute about your unique context. Should you stop using your energy to debate on social media, and channel it toward local action? How might your faith community leverage this moment to host a similar dialogue? Who could you invite to join?
In this new and uncertain year, we must thoughtfully organize for reflection and action. Then, let’s lean into every opportunity to stand with our immigrant brothers and sisters.
J. Mark Bowers writes and trains for the Chalmers Center, a church equipping organization focused on breaking the spiritual, social, and material bonds of poverty. Having lived and journeyed extensively in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, he is also the creator of Profit & Pilgrimage, a movement of people who travel and invest with compassion. When the screens are powered down, Mark builds relationships and runs a housing business for immigrant families in East Lake—an under-resourced neighborhood where his own family lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA.