Brooklyn Church Offers a Warm Welcome to Hundreds of Immigrants
by Melissa Hinnen
When Pastor Pauline Wardell-Sankoh came to John Wesley United Methodist Church in 2000, she did not realize the extent of passion for immigration justice that had begun to take root a year earlier. The church, with a membership of about 200, is located in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The 92-year-old church was founded by immigrants from the Caribbean and African Americans from the deep south who had come to New York City to make better lives for their families. While the congregation is small and made up mostly of senior citizens, they have a huge heart for service.
One of John Wesley UMC's strongest and most powerful ministries is Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), a program of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) that provides a network of immigration clinics. Based in the Methodist tradition of the Five Points Mission, which served immigrants in New York City in the 1850s, JFON offers free legal assistance to sojourners who are trying to navigate the complex US immigration process as it affects their lives in the United States. It is a ministry that welcomes the stranger and operates in partnership with annual conferences and local congregations such as John Wesley UMC.
A Heart for Service
Diane Larrier, who has attended John Wesley UMC since birth, exemplifies the servant culture of the congregation. Her grandparents were from Barbados, and she was raised within American and Caribbean cultures. A former teacher, she eventually changed careers to become a paralegal.
When there was an announcement at church in 1999 that a JFON clinic was opening and those who were interested in volunteering should attend a planning meeting, Larrier was not interested. "I went to the meeting simply so that I could pass the information along to my aunt, who could not attend," Larrier explains. She continues, "After that meeting, the coordinator kept asking me to come back to help, and eventually, in 2000, I became the clinic coordinator and paralegal." Hearing the stories of hardworking people seeking a better life for themselves and their families in the United States continues to be a motivating factor for her to advocate for the clients that come to JFON.
Through JFON, Larrier is able to connect clients with other resources that the church offers. Outreach
Serving the Vulnerable
As newcomers to the United States, many immigrants do not understand the complicated process and might not speak English, making them vulnerable to people who can take advantage of their status. Though they are undocumented, many are eligible for legal residency but are not clear about how to proceed. According to Pastor Wardell-Sankoh, before coming to JFON, many clients had hired lawyers to help them with the immigration process. After paying high legal fees, some were given poor advice that was actually detrimental to their status, and some lawyers disappeared without helping at all.
Most clients find their way to JFON through word of mouth from others in the community. There is a general sense of trust that JFON cares about its clients and because there is no cost, people who otherwise might not be able to afford to seek legal status are given the opportunity to pursue a better life in the United States.
Larrier adds that immigrant women tend to be especially vulnerable, particularly those in abusive marriages. She recalls a case in which the wife was an immigrant and her husband was a US citizen. He used her status against her, threatening to take their US-born children and have her deported. After JFON helped her get a green card, she felt empowered to seek custody of her children and remove her family from an abusive environment.
Wardell-Sankoh and Larrier agree that there is no shortage of clients. John Wesley UMC hosts 10 immigration clinics a year. For a number of years, Thomas J. ("T. J.") Mills was the clinic's only attorney, working with eight clients at each clinic. Now that Donald Edwards, a Global Ministries Church and Community Worker, has been commissioned to serve as a JFON lawyer, the clinic can accommodate as many as 15 clients each month.
Occasionally, in addition to helping individuals and families, JFON challenges more far-reaching laws that affect others in similar situations. A mother who is a US citizen came to Mills for legal assistance for her son, who had been in prison for two years and was facing permanent deportation to Guyana. Because the father was not a US citizen, her son had not been eligible for automatic citizenship when his mother became a citizen. Mills advocated for the court to look at the interpretation of the language that determined who was eligible for automatic citizenship. Because the young man's parents had never been married under Guyana law, the son would be considered illegitimate, a status that would allow him to become a US citizen like his mother. With a new interpretation of the Guyanese Legitimacy statute, the court overturned their prior rulings for the young man and others in similar situations who seek US citizenship.
Educating the Community
The success of JFON at John Wesley is attributable to the dedication of people such as Larrier and Wardell-Sankoh, who keep the congregation and the community informed about immigration reform and the church's responsibility to reach out and welcome those who seek guidance. They invite others in the neighborhood to join the conversation, such as the group "Radical Living." An intentional community in Brooklyn, Radical Living partnered with John Wesley UMC for an event that focused on the theology of immigration.
They reminded attendees that with the exception of Native Americans, everyone in the United States is an immigrant, either by choice or by force. in fact, when Jesus and his family fled to Egypt, they were refugees in a strange land. As Christians, we are called to treat all people with compassion and respect. Programs such as JFON give United Methodists the opportunity to live out their faith and, as the Bible suggests, perhaps even to entertain angels.
Churches Collaborate for Justice
Through relationships with other small churches in the New York City area, and working interdenominationally, John Wesley has extended its ministry beyond the walls of the church. Connecting with JFON clinics at the Chinese UMC in Manhattan and La Promesa Presbyterian Mission in Queens has helped strengthen each of the programs, while making the ministry more visible in different communities.
In October, after months of conversation and planning, Justice for Our Neighbors New York (JFON NY) opened its fourth clinic at South Presbyterian Church in Yonkers, New York. Approximately 15 volunteers gathered for training and then worked with JFON national staff and regional attorney T.J. Mills to serve their first eight clients.
Working together allows the four churches to streamline JFON's resources within the region. They hold joint volunteer trainings, share attorneys, and collaborate to host workshops at churches in less visable New York City neighborhoods.
Called "Circuit Rides," the workshops are miniclinics that reach out to people beyond the four core church clinics. They are designed to offer legal assistance to those who might not be able to get to one of the regular sites and introduce congregations to the model of volunteer recruitment and client intake. Volunteers educate the new clients about the rights they have as immigrants.
Mills explains that immigrants are empowered when they know their rights. For example, after the 9/11 Patriot Act was passed, new laws were put in place, particularly for Muslim men who needed to register. In a "Know Your Rights" workshop for people of Middle Eastern descent, immigrants were guided through the process and the new laws so that they would be in compliance with the law. Offering this workshop also introduced people in the community to JFON. Circuit rides happen throughout the New York City and Long Island area, which has seen a recent shift in local legislation that has become stricter in imposing penalties. Working within the network, volunteers from different New York City churches share the responsibilities for this type of outreach.
Finding Blessings Through Service
JFON NY has a $220,000 annual budget including in-kind gifts. Together the four churches are responsible for raising the money needed to meet the budget. Owing in large part to JFON's strong reliance on volunteer efforts, the majority of these funds go directly to paying the attorneys and for ongoing training. The United Methodist City Society recently donated office space in Harlem that will serve as a regional hub in New York City.
Larrier notes that partnering with other churches gives her the opportunity to connect with other people of faith who share her passion for helping those who come to the United States from other countries. She is grateful that her experiences as a clinic coordinator have given her not only the opportunity to serve others but also to build relationships with the attorneys, clients, and volunteers. She recognizes that they are all sisters and brothers and considers it a blessing to know their stories and help keep families together.
Melissa Hinnen is a staff writer for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
Date posted: Jan 05, 2009