First Step to Ministry with Immigrants: Build Relationships


A group of immigrants and church members in front of a tent, where Victor Gomez stayed for three days to raise awareness about the plight of immigrants. (Photos provided by Victor Gomez)

The jail bars symbolized the immigration detention centers. The tomb symbolized Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

In the parking lot of a church located in the heart of downtown where I live, I set up a tent on Good Friday last year with temperatures in the low 30s.

One side of the tent exhibited jail bars, while the other side exhibited a tomb.

I stayed there until Easter morning and had the opportunity to talk to folks about immigrants and how to be in ministry with them.

Many people are held in immigration detention centers - children and families who have been separated. The bars represented their plight.

The tomb represented a reminder of Jesus being crucified, placed in a tomb and then rising on the third day from death.

I stayed there for three days because in the resurrection of Jesus we find hope.

On Saturday morning, I was praying and reflecting when, right after sunrise, a processional of immigrants came to the tent.

They had gathered about one mile away and walked to the tent to bring me breakfast. They knew that I was bringing a message of hope.

The women led the procession, which reminded me women were the first visitors to the tomb. They brought tamales, scrambled eggs, tortillas, salsa and atole - it was such a feast.

Between the smells of food, the laughter of the women and men, and the children running, we had a great party. We all gathered in a circle and prayed together, thanking God for sending Jesus as our hope, our Esperanza (the Spanish word for "hope," but also a Latino female name).

Building relationships is the very first step for any kind of ministry with immigrants, which requires getting out of our comfort zone.

I am sure you have heard the refrain, "Give a person a fish and you will feed that person for a day; teach a person to fish and you will feed that person for a lifetime."

Churches do these two very well. We provide the fish and we teach to fish.

For example: Providing the fish is what I call social action where we develop programs in which we attend immediate needs, such as food pantries, clothing, furniture, rent or bill assistance and so on.

There is nothing wrong with that, especially when we know there is a need, but we must be careful not to create dependency.

We teach people to fish, which I call social education. We offer English as a Second Language programs, Graduate Record Examinations, Vacation Bible School and so on. Again, these programs are great and will benefit the community.

So, now that we provide the fish and teach to fish, the next step is to make a fishing pole available because we know that without a fishing pole, the person cannot fish. I call this social development.

Here we begin to move out of our comfort zone. Here we really begin to build relationships.

I mentioned before that we do not want to create dependency so we must create ministries that will allow the person to become independent.

For example, finding sources for their income, helping them to understand the interaction between parents and school teachers, reading with their children, attending school and sporting events, telling them how the health system works, explaining how to open a bank account, creating events of trust between the police and the community and so on.

So, now that we have provided the fish, taught how to fish and made the fishing pole available, there is one more aspect we must address.

We must assist in providing access to the lake or river where the fish are; otherwise, anything else we do becomes futile. This is what I call social justice. These are ministries or events that will gain them access to the lake.

When I spent three days in that tent, I was able to educate those that resist doing ministry to immigrants. I learned that most of the time this is due to misconceptions and unfounded fears.

This event created an open atmosphere to express and learn. It also allowed immigrants to have a stronger relationship with me and it developed more trust.

We continue to find ways to raise Esperanzas - raise hopes and individuals.

Christ rose from the dead and gave us Esperanza (hope) where we all obtain access to the lake.

So, I invite you to provide the fish, teach to fish, give a fishing pole and assist in gaining access to the lake.

Victor Gómez is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church serving two congregations in Winchester, Virginia. He also serves as president of LUCHA Ministries, an outreach ministry for Latinos in Fredericksburg, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @Transformgrace1.

Editor's note: This article is part of a series on local churches / Christian organizations and immigration.

Previous articles in the series are:

Catholic, Evangelical, Mainline Protestant Leaders Endorse BRIDGE Act

Haitians, Others Arrive in Tijuana Seeking Entrance into U.S.

8 Reflections from Faith-and-Immigration Documentary

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