A few weeks ago, I wrote about a challenging situation in the neighborhood in which I live, the Parkside Apartments. My wife and I—and each of our neighbors, most of whom are refugees or other immigrants—received a letter notifying us that the local government intended to include our apartment complex in a redevelopment zone, and that this process could “reasonably be expected to result in the displacement of residents.” I was concerned, not only because we personally did not want to be forced to move, but also because our neighborhood represents one of very few reasonably affordable housing options within our town, and most of my neighbors would not be afford to stay in the same school district and within proximity to their jobs if they were forced to relocate.
On June 17—as it happened, as my wife and I were at the hospital, awaiting the arrival of our little daughter, Zipporah—the Village held a public meeting to discuss the proposed redevelopment process. Our neighborhood mobilized like I’ve never seen before: more than one hundred people gathered in the courtyard of our complex and walked together to the Village Hall for the meeting. The local newspaper snapped pictures as they marched—it was quite a scene: people from a dozen different countries, many of them children, waving little American flags and chanting, “We love Parkside.”
But it wasn’t just our neighborhood that mobilized: the larger community showed up as well. Word had spread through local churches—many of which have worked with World Relief and other ministries to assist newly arrived refugee families who live in my neighborhood—who announced the meeting from the pulpit the Sunday before the meeting or blasted out information via email or Facebook to their members. A group of teachers from local schools, many of whom have taught the kids in my neighborhood over the years, were there, too. The message was consistent: we love the Parkside community, with all its diversity and vitality, and we want to ensure that its residents remain part of our larger community.
The public meeting stretched well into the evening. From our hospital room later that evening, in between contractions, Diana and I Skyped with some of our neighbors to get their sense of how the meeting had gone: they were energized by how our neighborhood had come together and by the strong support from the larger community, but discouraged by what they heard from the Village officials at the meeting. While there was no specific plan to displace residents and no immediate intention of doing so, Village officials also would not rule out that possibility in the future, and they also made clear that they did not intend to redraw the lines of the proposed redevelopment district to exclude our neighborhood.
In the coming days, the public meeting was featured on the front page of the local newspaper, on the radio throughout Chicagoland, and even in RELEVANT and Christianity Today, which highlighted the role that folks from local churches had stood up for the immigrants within their community. Small groups of our neighbors gathered frequently to pray over the situation and in particular to pray for the Village staff and elected officials. We sent cards inviting each of the Village Board members to come have dinner with one of the families in our community—we wanted them to understand why our neighborhood, though perhaps not the most aesthetically exceptional set of buildings, is actually a pretty remarkable place. But it seemed that the decisions had been made and that our efforts were not having any effect.
A couple weeks ago, the Village President (who hadn’t been at the public meeting) asked a few of the folks from our neighborhood to meet. It was a very positive meeting. He seemed genuinely interested in hearing the concerns of the community’s residents. And then, last week, I got a phone call—actually from the local newspaper, looking for a comment, before I heard it from anyone else—informing me that the Village Board had decided to remove our neighborhood from the proposed redevelopment district. While there are still long-term sustainability issues at our apartment complex and larger challenges with a lack of genuinely affordable housing, the immediate situation was over. The Village had very graciously reconsidered their position. We had won.
As I and many of my neighbors turn our attention to a much larger, federal issue that directly affects our community—the urgent need for immigration reform, which we hope the House of Representatives will consider in September when they return from their August recess—I draw a few lessons from the experience of our neighborhood. The first is that most of our elected officials are pretty decent people, trying to discern the right thing to do when faced with limited information; they need to personally hear from the people that their policy decisions affect—in this case, the residents of our community. Secondly, while it was instrumental that our community got organized and spoke up for itself, it was also incredibly important that the larger community, particularly local churches, added their voices and their influence. Not only was this strategic—most Village Board members are themselves members of churches, after all—it also meant that the churches were faithful to their biblical mandate to stand with those who are vulnerable. Finally, this experience served as an important reminder that God really does hear our prayers.
Drawing on the lessons of our recent experience at Parkside, there are three specific things you can do this month to help pass immigration reform. First, if you are an immigrant, we need you. The movement for immigration reform has to be led by immigrants, those who are most affected by dysfunctional immigration policies. So, please, tell your stories. In particular, track down your Member of Congress. If he or she has public events this month, they may be listed here, or you could look up their local office and call to ask if any town halls or mobile office hours are scheduled, or if you could just schedule an appointment. Tell your Representative your own story. If you’re not an immigrant, but you are a Christian, we need you to track down your Representative, too, and let him or her know that you’re praying they will support just and compassionate immigration reform. The church has a powerful voice in this debate both because we represent a large and strategic voting bloc and because we can remind our legislators (many of whom are fellow believers) of the moral authority that we find in the Bible, which has much to say on this topic of immigration. Finally, don’t just say you’ll be praying: make sure you really do. You can pray on your own, of course, but Scripture also tells us that Jesus is present with us “where two or three gather in [his] name” (Matthew 18:20), so consider pulling together a prayer gathering, whether that’s a small group who already meets for Bible Study or your whole church gathering to pray. If you let the folks at the Evangelical Immigration Table know about your event, they can help let others know, and even help you invite your Representative to your prayer gathering, if you’d like.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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