Emily Fontenot works at The Immigration Alliance, which helps equip church and community leaders to take their next steps towards serving immigrants. Her husband, Jonathan, is a pastor at Valley Church (EFCA) in West Des Moines, Iowa. Emily and Jonathan grew up in Texas and now live in Des Moines with their three kids. Emily believes everyone could be just one invitation away from encountering God’s saving grace.
Love Thy (Immigrant) Neighbor
A review of the Netflix documentary, "Out of Many, One"
I took a break from my regular Netflix routine to watch Out of Many, One, a short documentary that follows immigrants as they naturalize to become citizens of the United States. Throughout the film, we see these individuals and families attend citizenship classes—preparing for the English and civics tests required to naturalize—and hear them explain why they came to the U.S. and want to be citizens.
As noted in the documentary, America’s founding fathers sought to “form a more perfect union” through the creation of the U.S. Constitution. In response to our constitutional values, America has taken many twists and turns towards protecting the rights and liberties of Americans. As a result, our national motto, e pluribus unum (Latin for “out of many, one”), has been upheld and even more, enriched because U.S. law has expanded on who is deserving of American rights and liberties.
Practicing a learner’s posture
As a homegrown American, I was humbled to watch my fellow countrymen pursuing citizenship with such eagerness, such fire, in the documentary. One woman from Venezuela came to America to escape death at the hands of her own government. One reason she gave for going through the naturalization process was to thank America for granting her asylum.
A man from China referred to earning American citizenship as his “greatest happiness.” He explained that, in his home country, he felt surrounded by suffering, yet he did not feel like he had the freedom to help himself or others without facing persecution. Freedom of religion and expression were not accessible to him until he came to America. Narratives of escaping the clutches of fear and persecution were woven into many of these stories—truly a conviction for this patriot.
As I watched this documentary, I was struck by the power of simple conversation. Immigration has always bred misconceptions, prejudice, persecution and victimization. As our nation debates the future of immigration policy, our treatment of refugees and border crossers, the status of DREAMers, and what it means to be American, truth and sound perspective are equally critical and hard to come by. Yet, the filmmaker broadened my understanding and shifted my attitudes by simply letting people tell their stories.
Humbly asking questions to learn from an immigrant helps dispel misconceptions that we automatically, unknowingly, intuitively form. We must let immigrants tell their story first. Who were they before they came to the U.S.? Who do they want to be now?
Operating from a learner’s posture is the best way to enter any arena—especially in regards to immigration. An immigrant’s history is complex, involving the loss of a life (the life they once lived in their home country) and the struggle for a new one (the life they are building in America).
The people behind the polarization
Another aspect of the film I appreciated was its breaking down of common, but inaccurate presumptions about immigrants. Here are some examples:
- "Most immigrants are here illegally." Included in the film were lawful permanent residents (LPRs). The film did not include the numbers, but it's estimated that 27 percent of foreign-born people are LPRs.
- "Immigrants don’t want to learn English." Immigrants must tackle many obstacles, including learning English. They must speak, read, write and understand the English language in order to pass the naturalization application process. In fact, some would say the demand for English instruction exceeds the provision of such services.
- "Immigrants are corrupt and violent." The immigrants featured in the film came to America to escape corruption and violence. Others came to gain freedom and liberty. Some came to reunite with family or position their family for a more stable life. I have been surprised to learn—after hearing from many immigrants and organizations helping immigrants—that an immigrant in America actually often falls victim to injustice or crime.
America is fighting about immigration. The divide is deep, and the ends are polarizing and politicized. Caught in the frays are immigrants—the men, women and children behind the word “immigration.”
This documentary is about the people, not the political issue. It is hard—perhaps, impossible—to separate the two, but this documentary helped me to separate lore and myth from reality and accuracy. Behind every immigration debate, headline or declaration are people, human beings, almost paralyzed by fear yet scrambling for security.
How do we respond?
Even the simple act of having coffee with an immigrant can be critical to breaking down these myths about immigration. Some of the easiest conversations I’ve had with immigrants are in the hallways of my daughter’s school. The exchange always starts with a smile and a "hello"—acknowledging they exist and belong at that place and time—and then asking questions about life before coming to America. I caution against jumping right into sharing the gospel; immigrants have given up so much already, so, as I’ve found, asking them to set aside their faith to pick up yours is not the best way to lead.
If the word “immigration” piques your interest or quickens your heartbeat, I would recommend reaching out to the immigrants around you because, often, these misconceptions can lead to persecution from neighbors, classmates and co-workers. Plus, in a time of much uncertainty surrounding immigration reform, having these conversations becomes all the more important to help prevent immigrants from being victimized.
As a pastor’s wife and ministry leader, however, the question for me always returns to this: how should the body of Christ respond? The Kingdom of God is advanced when Christians who once were wrapped in comfort choose to go out and comfort those caught in the margins.
A biblical response
My father would tell me to “go to the mattresses”—his Godfather-ese for returning to Scripture, a resource that is surprisingly rich on the topic of immigration.
God’s Word tells us to love all people (Luke 6:35) and strangers especially (Lev 19:34). It tells us to be fair to foreigners and stand for justice (Deut 10:18-19). It commissions us to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19-20), across the world and in our own backyards (Acts 1:8). It offers grace and mercy to all, whatever we have done (Ps 103:10-12). It shows we belong to one humanity (Acts 17:26), made in God’s image and deserving dignity (Jas 3:9).
The documentary helps connect a biblical response to this specific issue. Pursue conversation with the immigrants God brings to your doorstep. Take them out for coffee, invite them for dinner and, if you are fortunate to be invited to their home, GO! Hear their story, know their pain, their hopes, their needs. Hold your assumptions and attitudes up to the truth you hear and the Holy Spirit’s promptings. See where God has worked through their journey and the opportunities He is creating. From there, the next steps will be obvious: use your church’s resources to serve God’s people.
An individual response
Throughout the film, we're given an inside look into the lives of workers at a low-cost citizen workshop. They look like what they are: “average Joes” who have made the effort to get the training needed to serve their immigrant neighbors. Some may be teaching English, others tutoring on the 100 civics questions (not multiple choice!) naturalization applicants must master. Some may have earned accreditation from the Department of Justice, which allows them to screen immigrants for eligibility and give legal advice to those navigating the immigration system.
Access to low-cost, reliable help keeps these immigrants out of the hands of predators (Google “notario fraud”) and prevents them from making costly mistakes. Most of the workers are probably volunteers, just doing their part but, in doing so, they’re able to help hundreds of people find opportunity and security through citizenship.
A church response
Many churches have discovered the ministry opportunities in similar immigrant-related services. By teaching English or civics, or even offering legal help, they have embedded their church members in the communities and lives of the immigrants God has placed around them. When these ministers understand and meet the real needs immigrants feel, they show them God’s care and concern for their social, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. By assisting with their neighbors’ citizenship on earth, churches can offer eternal citizenship in heaven and belonging in the family of God.
Through a program called Immigrant Hope, the EFCA provides guidance and resources to churches that want to serve their immigrant neighbors. We help train church ministry workers to understand our immigration legal system and help them set up safe, affordable and reliable immigration resource centers. I have also been privileged to work with an organization called The Immigration Alliance—a partnership between several evangelical denominations, organizations and local churches—connecting them with resources, information, partners and strategies for immigration outreach.
Through these organizations or others, the pathway is there for your church to begin serving. But it starts here: have a conversation. Then ask God to show you the next step.