The Ministry of Welcoming
by Zach Szmara
One of the defining marks of the people of God is their care, compassion, and active love towards the triad of the oppressed: the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. Jesus said that his sheep would be known by the fact that “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).
As of January 1, 2006, there were 17.6 million legally resident immigrants and an estimated 11.6 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. In 2008, the delegates to General Conference made a historic decision, when over 96% of the delegates united together and affirmed The Wesleyan Church’s Position Statement on Immigration (quotes from the statement are found in italics below). This was an amazing show of unity that affirmed that immigration is a contemporary issue that beckons Wesleyans to act as agents of Spirit-filled outreach and compassion in North American society.
The statement expressed gratitude for the steady leadership of Wesleyan districts and local churches that are setting the pace for dynamic ministries of evangelism, church growth, church multiplication and ministries of compassion that include newcomers and strangers as our neighbors. Yet, the reality is that there is much more that we can and must do as Christ’s messengers of hope and as examples of holy living.
Our First Two Action Steps
Part of the statement on immigration contained action steps which challenge us to move beyond professing our love and care for the stranger in our midst to actually practicing it tangibly. We are called to encounter this as a learner seeking to understand our actions from a Biblical perspective. The first two actions steps declare that we are called to an understanding that all are made in the image of God. . .so we will seek to treat all people humanely and with dignity, regardless of race, class, nationality, gender, or legal status. This belief works itself out through the giving of ourselves in wholehearted love to others without intolerance, judgment, favoritism or disrespect, and in spite of who they are or what they have done to live among us.
We said that as Wesleyans, we will encourage one another to engage in acts of kindness and compassion toward immigrants who are in need regardless of their immigration status (documented or undocumented). Many of our churches have gone beyond encountering the immigrant communities in their midst and have actively engaged them in acts of service. Local churches have shared their facilities and planted immigrant churches within established churches. Other churches have offered English classes or citizenship courses to meet a felt need of the immigrant community. Some are even in the process of becoming certified to help immigrants with legal concerns.
Each of these ministries is having a great effect on churches. Why? Because the reality at the heart of our action steps is the foundational truth that we view immigration as an aspect of God’s larger plan to bring salvation to the world. Immigration can be used through God’s wisdom to introduce many to Jesus who might not otherwise hear the gospel message. Immigrants are one of the most receptive groups to the gospel message. Many churches and pastoral leaders that are actively practicing the ministry of welcoming have seen new individuals and families become a part of the family of God. In a recent immigrant ministry meeting, Frankie Rodriquez, a Wesleyan pastor in South Carolina, said, “Even if some of our church family has to return to their place of birth, I have the opportunity to send a missionary, and ambassador of Christ, to have an impact on areas that have no witness for Christ and his Church.”
We as Wesleyans in North America must stop waiting for American culture or policies to impact immigrants and instead make personal efforts to encounter and engage the immigrants around us with the holistic gospel.
The full statement and action steps, can be read here:
Zach Szmara is pastor of The Bridge Community Church, a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual Wesleyan church in Logansport, Indiana. He volunteers as the Wesleyan Immigrant Ministry Explore Director.