Kriss: Immigrants are the church
Soong Chan Rah’s The Next Christendom points out that most immigrants to the United States are already Christian. This ongoing influx of Christians bolsters our churches and keeps an abundant percentage of our country Christian. Meanwhile, the percentage of Euro-Americans who regularly engage in church life continues to decline. If we’re really interested in maintaining a Christian majority in the U.S., this will mostly be achieved by continuing to have hospitable policies for immigration.
I grew up in a household where my grandfather spoke Slovak. While he was born here, he held many practices that I recognize now as more European than American. We listened to the polka shows on the radio on Sundays. I never doubted my American-ness but always knew my people hadn’t been here all that long. Neighbors spoke Polish, Italian, Hungarian. I learned Spanish in elementary school. It was all part of our story together.
Since the election, I’ve spent much time contending with issues around immigration and immigrants. I’ve found that the stories I’d normally tell about our growing immigrant communities now have more of a politicized bent than before.
Over the past decade, I’ve walked closely with numerous Mennonite immigrant congregations in Philadelphia. I’ve learned a lot about immigration law and a lot about global realities. Philadelphia has one of the country’s fastest-growing immigrant populations. Our city would grind to a halt without their presence both publicly and behind the scenes.
Our universities, pharmaceutical research and hospitals rely on an ongoing influx of immigrants to study and teach.
Much of our construction in this heavily unionized city relies on union workers, but smaller projects are often staffed by immigrants.
The service industry is permeated with immigrants who cook and clean in restaurants, hospitals, bodegas, hotels, dry cleaners. These are sometimes the most visible people to the nonimmigrant world.
And then there’s the entry-level world of temp agency jobs that might be in a factory or a meat-packing plant or a mail-processing facility. Crew leaders speak English, but workers often do not. This is where workers are most vulnerable to harsh conditions and unjust payment practices.
The truth is that for us in Franconia Conference to maintain stable numbers in our conference membership over the past decade, we’ve relied on this influx of immigrants. They are refugees, asylees, brain-drain and economic migrants. Some are formally educated; others struggle with English; some are documented; others are undocumented. Some parents come with a sacrificial hope that their children’s lives will somehow be better. Others come because they are running from violence or running toward what is perceived as prosperity and peace. All of these reasons exist within Mennonite communities here in the city and across the country.
If we want our church to continue to flourish, we’ll posture alongside immigrants in the struggle. The future of the church in the United States depends on our ability to continue to welcome Christians from other countries into this land with open arms, to put aside the politics of fear and to embrace newcomers with the love that casts all fears away.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.
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