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Welcoming newcomers to the U.S.

Iowa congregation stands up for immigrants

"All Are Welcome" reads the sign in front of Bethesda Lutheran, Ames, Iowa, signaling the way members go out of their way to extend a warm welcome to newcomers to the church, to their community and to this country.

Through participation in a local grassroots advocacy group and with a growing presence of immigrants in the area, Bethesda's members became interested in learning more. Randy Gehring, a pastor of Bethesda, sought information about the Lutheran position on immigration reform, which led him to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

The mission of LIRS, a ministry of the ELCA, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is to "welcome the stranger." LIRS:

• Champions uprooted people.

• Helps people seeking safety from persecution.

• Reunites families torn apart by conflict.

• Resettles refugees.

• Protects children who arrive alone in the U.S.

• Advocates for compassion and justice for all migrants.

On the LIRS Web site, Gehring found bulletin inserts, fact sheets and a three-session Bible study on immigration issues. He signed on to LIRS' Stand for Welcome campaign and began to receive regular e-mails about immigration reform.

One e-mail invited recipients to host a Stand for Welcome Sunday, a time when congregations can learn about immigration reform and put their faith into action.

In March, Bethesda hosted three such Sundays in a row. Sermons reflected on immigration-related themes. Members sent postcards to their elected officials. They studied the word as it relates to newcomers. And they explored their congregation's sense of hospitality and how they extend welcome to others.

The congregation's ministry team used a nonthreatening "mythbuster" piece to provide facts about everything from the number of immigration visas available each year to the amount of taxes paid by immigrants.

Bethesda member Freddy Miranda, an immigrant from Ecuador, shared his story at the first Stand for Welcome Sunday. Miranda, an international admissions officer for Iowa State University, said he was warmly welcomed in 1997 by an American family while a college student in Dubuque, Iowa:

"After a few years, the economy back home took a downturn and my parents could no longer afford to help me. I really had nowhere to turn. When I was just one week from having no place to live, a friend from work invited me to meet his parents. He and I both played soccer and tutored each other. He helped me with English and I helped him with Spanish....

"When I went with him to his house that night, I couldn't believe it when his parents invited me to stay....They let me live there, as a part of their family, while I continued to go to school. They fed me. They took me on trips. They treated me like family.

"I learned so much in the time I stayed with them — culture, behaviors, English language. And I learned that I want to give back. I want to welcome. I want to be able to do the same with someone else."

Gehring said: "Our Stand for Welcome Sundays were a big success and filled the congregation with a renewed sense of 'holy hospitality.'"


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