Understanding the Immigrant Experience

During the fall of my sophomore year of college, I began volunteering to teach ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) with a church in Richmond, VA.  Unlike many of the ESOL teachers, I started teaching not out of the goodness of my heart but as part of a class assignment.  This also meant that I had the “privilege” of writing a term paper on “The Role of the Community in Overcoming Language Barriers for Immigrants.”  The “community” I studied was the ESOL learning family.  Community formed in the classroom as people from all walks of life came together to pursue a common purpose.  

After my assigned volunteer service ended, I continued teaching.  It was wonderful not to write term papers about it anymore, and it was a great break from my own studies.  I loved the students, and I loved knowing that I was making a difference in the lives of “the least of these,” just as Christ calls us to. In many ways, my call to ordained pastoral ministry was nurtured and articulated through my call to lay service.

I taught the basic beginner course.  This meant that I started with “Hello, my name is___” and worked from there.  We learned the days of the week by singing the “Happy Days” theme song (“Sunday, Monday, happy days”).  We did skits, played games, made New Year’s Resolutions, celebrated birthdays and talked about children, families and jobs.  We were a community.  They teased me for being young and for getting chalk dust all over my face.  I teased them for deliberately fudging their ages when asked how old they are. 

Once, we were discussing the word “middle”—middle class, middle-aged, middle child—and they insisted that they were all “young,” except for the retired couple, who claimed they were “middle aged.”  “Middle-aged!” I exclaimed.  “If you are middle-aged, then what am I?”  The class considered this for a moment and then decided: “A baby.”

Then we discussed the rich/poor dichotomy, to which they all said they were “middle class.”  I had initially suggested that Bill Gates was rich, but they told me that no, I was rich.  And I realized that I couldn’t argue with that.  I am.  But then one of the other students spread his arms out and said, “We are rich.  We have homes, jobs, families.  We are here.  We learn English.”  I was so happy with his statement that for once I didn’t correct his grammar.

Teaching in a church-based outreach for migrants gave me a new perspective on community, and the role of the church in creating community.  This was especially stark when I worked in a context that was trying to create change outside of the church. 

Before my senior year of college, I interned in Washington, D.C., with Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).  Part of my Senate intern duties included answering the phones during the 2010 debate on immigration reform.  I heard some of the most hateful, xenophobic comments I have ever heard in my life. All I could say was, “The Senator appreciates your call.”

What I wanted to say was, “You need to talk to the people at my church!  They know what it’s like to help the people you complain about, the ones you ignore and stereotype.  The people at my church remember that Jesus’ first few years were spent as a refugee in Egypt.  Surely Mary and Joseph didn’t know the language or have any family connections!”   Mostly, I wanted to say, “Come.  Come with me and listen to the hopes and dreams of these immigrants.  Come and help to make those dreams come true.” 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this experience as I prepare for the partnership that University United Methodist Church is embarking on with the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action (MICA) Project.

This Sunday, you can listen to hopes and dreams of many immigrants—and see how we can together help to make those dreams come true.  We will watch a moving (and short!) documentary on one family’s journey through deportation (Sin País: Without Country), and then talk together about tangible opportunities to make a difference.  We’re thrilled to have the co-founder of the MICA Project there to lead our discussion.  Please join us on Sunday, October 12 for “Immigrants... Real People, Real Issues” at 5 p.m. in the Youth Zone downstairs.