Last year, church leaders and community members gathered together outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Contract Detention Facility in Elizabeth, NJ, for a prayer vigil to protest and pray for those being held after trying to seek asylum in the United States. The rally was sponsored by the GNJ Board of Church and Society, the Immigration Task Force, Hispanic Committee, United Methodist Women and Black Methodists for Church Renewal and was attended by ecumenical partners, students at Drew University and community members.
Many GNJ congregations have long histories of mission and advocacy for immigrants and refugees.
In August of this year the topic surrounding immigration was a focus of the annual MARCHA Conference held this year in Philadelphia. GNJ clergy and laity have been strong supporters and leaders of MARCHA which is the Hispanic/Latino national caucus within the United Methodist Church. Rev. Lyssette Perez, who serves Oasis in Pleasantville serves as the chairperson and Capital Superintendent Hector A. Burgos serves as the communications chair. In Philadelphia conference attendees clad themselves in aluminum blankets reminiscent of those seen worn recently by immigrants at U.S. immigration detention centers and called recent actions inhuman, immoral, unfair, insensitive and racist.
Many GNJ congregations echo this call to action in their ministry.
Rev. Emad Gerges of Wesley UMC in Bayonne, (also known as the Rivers of Life Church) faithfully serves Arabic-speaking immigrant persons through deeply personal relationship building and programing.
They operate the largest online Arabic Christian bookstore in the United States and Canada. Additionally, Gerges hosts a daily video devotion, spoken in Arabic, out of a production space in the church. The daily devotion is viewed online by an average of 500 people each day.
Gerges shared that 70% of the people he serves in Bayonne are Egyptian and the other 20% are from other countries located in the Middle East.
“I can relate to people who I serve because I came to America too,” Gerges said. “I understand the pain because I know the pain myself. I came here having very little. I had no family here, no friends, no money. I kept asking myself how can I stay here with no protection? I know this about myself and the people who come to me.”
Members of Wesley UMC go to the airport and leave information for people coming to United States. “Now people reach out to us. We are often the first place people come to when they get to America,” said Gerges.
Church members also connect with people in their communities through worship services held in the park. “People have come to know that we will care for you. We will listen to you. Any immigrant no matter color, gender, religion, status in U.S. We listen to you and try to get you help.”
Gerges shared that most of the people he serves work in service jobs. “They work at gas stations, drive-thru restaurants and other places where no one can see them. They get jobs through our networking here at our church.”
“A pastor is often the only help and person they can trust. I have come to know this, and I am humbled to be that person in their life.”
“We have the hope to make our church a center for all immigrants. A place to learn English, get drivers licenses and a Social Security card, job training and how to get a home.”
Also championing driving licenses for immigrants is Rev. Sammy Arroyo First UMC of Hightstown.
“Drivers licenses are crucial for people. If people get or have a job they need to drive themselves. People need to take their kids to school events and doctors,” said Arroyo.
“The population I am working with are central American immigrants and the homeless. People come to the U.S. for many reasons. The hospitals are better here to treat their children. They may be working here to supporting families back home. They hear about the U.S. from American missionaries and decide to come to the country. Or sometimes because there is better education for their children here. Everyone comes here seeking something specific.”
In addition Arroyo has humbly led First United Methodist Church of Hightstown to partner with ARISE to host ESL classes at the church. The coordinators and teachers are college-level professors with ESL training. Eighty people attended the ESL course last year.
“What drives me is 1 John 4: love for my neighbor. God is becoming visible in lives of all of us through this work.”
Lunch time in Palisades Park has become a sacred time. Pastor Michelle Ryoo and members of First UMC in Ridgefield Park have opened a second church location with the aim to care for undocumented persons and those struggling to find work.
Tuesday lunchtime services involve free lunch, a worship service and resources to help people network for employment and housing.
“We are learning every day,” shared Ryoo. “We are all coming from different places. We must keep asking: What are the needs of people? How can we help? How can we do our best to love all people?”
“Every day is a challenge. It is challenging to connect with people because they do not know if they can trust us. They choose to sleep outside of the legal system because they are afraid of being betrayed,” said Ryoo.
“Once they get a job and have money, they live in an apartment room with 15 other people. It is incredibly humbling to hear their stories.”
An increasing trend in stories shared are of people crossing the border with debt they are expected to pay to the groups that helped them. If they cannot pay, it has been shared that their families are at risk.
“I ask God every day, ‘What should I do? I need your wisdom.’ We have blanket drives, clothes drives and keep asking those we serve how can we do better.”
“We contact people using WhatsApp, going up to people waiting for work along the street and showing that we are a safe space,” said Ryoo who added that they have partnered with other churches and pastors to help provide lunches, worship services, networking assistance and job training opportunities.
Morristown UMC is also working on building trust and safe space with immigrant communities. They have organized small groups centered on the needs and experiences of immigrant people.
“In the small groups people are educated on their state and federal rights,” said Brian Lozano who serves as a worship leader and small group facilitator. “Our small group discussions lead to lobbying and actively advocating for policy changes to ensure fair, welcoming, and safe communities.”
“Validating people’s experience by listening to people in the safety of small group space is essential. We respect people through interactive style small groups, no lecture because people know their experiences with ICE and they need to share their stories with people who are willing to listen and support them.”
“We organize our small groups and workshops with the approach of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. People need basic level needs first: food, water, safety. When there are resources that meet the basic needs, it becomes the quickest way to provide trust. It’s difficult but it’s possible.”
“We serve people who are in constant fear. People are afraid to go to health clinics because they do not know if they will be turned in to ICE when they ask for help. People are being threatened at every level of our legal system,” said Brian.
Congregations seeking resources for ministry with immigrants and refugees can visit the websites for the General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Women or General Board of Global Ministries. Information is also available at First Friends of New York and New Jersey, which is a GNJ Advanced Special and Hope Center.