My Swedish last name, Kindberg, is about as difficult for Spanish speakers to pronounce as “ferrocarril” is for English speakers. The approximations I’ve heard are many: Kinder, Kimberly and Kindergarten, to name a few. I’m 6’1” and as pasty white as they come. I’m also an Anglican pastor of a primarily undocumented-Mexican congregation in the western suburbs of Chicago.
In many ways, I am an unlikely immigrant church pastor, until you learn that I spent most of my growing up years in Latin America as a child of missionaries. My being an insider-outsider, with one foot in both the Anglo and the immigrant worlds, while belonging fully to neither, gives me a certain vantage point from which to describe each to the other. Facilitating Mosaic, a network that seeks to bring immigrant and non-immigrant pastors together in my county, has given me the opportunity to build relationships with immigrant pastors from all over the world within my own community.
What is it like, then, being an immigrant church pastor, and one in which a significant percentage of your congregants are undocumented? It’s like being invisible. Many less established immigrant churches don’t own their own building, don’t have a large flashing sign along a major road and don’t have a church website. Thus, they are virtually unknown and invisible to the surrounding community. This invisibility also stems from awareness gaps within the Church at large. “So what do you do?” Joe asked me. We were at a neighborhood block party put on by several local churches and had just met. “I pastor a Hispanic congregation just down the road from here,” I responded. What followed was highly unusual and sadly rare: he asked me the name of my church. I’ve had this conversation over and over with people and as soon as I reply with “immigrant church pastor” their eyes haze over and they change the subject as if it hadn’t been brought up. Perhaps they simply have no categories for this and don’t know how to relate.
In my own county there are an estimated 150 immigrant congregations, but most, even by name, are unknown to the broader Christian community. I’ve seen this over and over around the country both within my own denomination and others. Our immigrant brothers and sisters are invisible to us. As an immigrant pastor, myself, I can say from experience that this hurts. Being an Anglo, however, I know that these experiences of invisibility are nothing like those faced by my Hispanic congregants on a daily basis within their lives and work places, especially those who are undocumented.
Beyond feelings of invisibility, being an immigrant church pastor is to be a jack of all trades. One moment you are helping fill out college applications for one of your youth who is the first from his family ever to apply to college and the next you are driving a parent to a PTA meeting to translate for them. You are giving advice on immigration status issues (while fending off sketchy lawyers and notarios) and advice on disciplining kids and keeping them out of gangs. You are getting that middle of the night phone from one of your parishioners whose husband was just pulled over for having a headlight out and is now in jail facing possible deportation. (This is a phone call you start getting used to.) Then you are visiting him in jail.
You are doing home blessings for families whose homes have been hexed by a vengeful coworker and praying with families after the death of a loved one. As an immigrant pastor, you are a jack of all trades, but master of none. You are the primary advocate and voice for your people many of whom have little voice and power due to lack of language and legal status among other factors and you are stretched in a million directions. I, as a bi-vocational single person often feel overwhelmed. I don’t know how many bi-vocational immigrant pastors with families do it.
So, what can we, as non-immigrants, do to help and support those immigrant congregations and pastors in our community? First, build relationships. Change starts here. Seek out the immigrant pastors and congregation in your city or region. I assure you they are there, though they may have been hidden from you until now. Visit one of their services. Be a learner of other cultures. Ask good questions! If you are a church network leader, finds ways of highlighting the immigrant congregations already in your network or find ways of including those who aren’t.
If you are a non-immigrant pastor, invite an immigrant pastor to speak at your congregation. Find tangible ways of upholding and supporting immigrant pastors’ heavy ministry load by asking them how you or your church can come alongside them. You will be surprised at the richness of blessings you will receive from these relationships.
Jonathan pastors Iglesia de la Resurreccion and is a church planter within the Anglican church. He also facilitates Mosaic, a collaborative network of immigrant and non-immigrant churches and pastors in DuPage County, IL.
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