Ben Johnson is a missionary with EFCA ReachNational, where he serves as the director of Immigrant Hope and a member of the All People Team. He also serves on the legal staff at Immigrant Hope in Bloomington, Minnesota. Ben was born in Kenya and lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He currently lives in Crystal, Minnesota, with his wife, Sarah, and three sons. He is passionate about helping the Church live out its full mission in the world.
Why the Church Needs to Be in the Immigration Game
Providing the hope of Christ amid extreme uncertainty
“You must think I’m a complete mess!”
Despite living here for 64 of her 66 years, the woman sitting in front of us had never managed to become a U.S. citizen. As her hectic life had begun to calm, Edna* decided to look into removing this nagging source of guilt and anxiety. She made an appointment to talk to Bill and me, immigration legal counselors working out of a church in her neighborhood.
We quickly determined that her application for naturalization (becoming a U.S. citizen) would be straightforward and painless, relatively speaking. Yes, she would need to pay nearly $1,000 in fees, submit a two-dozen-page application, pass an interview and several tests, and wait more than a year, but unlike many immigrants, Edna had no red flags that could cause her to be denied or deported to a nation whose language she does not speak.
Nevertheless, an hour into our 90-minute consultation, Edna was crying for the third time. We had already discussed her disabled parents’ flight from Nazi-occupied Europe, the discrimination her ethnic minority father faced across several continents, the lingering pride and bitterness of growing up a foreigner, a failed relationship and a life-giving one, an adolescent secret never before told, a decades-long burden and, now, a too-fresh tragedy.
The emotional weight of it all had her convinced we judged her and found her unworthy of our time and attention. Yet Edna’s need compelled her to reach out and trust us.
Need and opportunity
Few topics pierce to the heart of a person’s life—their struggles, hopes and fears—like their immigration status.
Navigating the bureaucratic nightmare of our immigration system involves and affects their history, family, identity, relationships, education, employment, qualifications, income, crimes, infidelities, associations, healthcare, housing and future plans. Even people like Edna—capable and determined, with the most straightforward applications—are often overwhelmed by its magnitude and complexity.
Others face an even greater burden. Applicants for asylum must describe their most traumatic and intimate experiences before skeptical judges and adversarial government attorneys—their family’s survival hanging on their ability to tell a compelling story. Those seeking certain waivers must prove “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to family members: stringing out the worst-case scenarios of their family’s looming catastrophe, hoping it will prove dire enough to merit relief.
Across the U.S., people like Edna are looking for someone who will listen to their story and give them a straight answer about their immigration options. We, at Immigrant Hope, do our best to walk with them. Some face years of uncertainty and heartbreaking choices. Who better than the church to guide and comfort them? For others, the answers are simple and the path straight. Still, as we found with Edna, the person’s need for support—and the attendant ministry opportunity—is vast.
Putting our resources to work
By God’s grace we did have help to offer Edna. With our immigration legal training, we were able to set her mind at ease about her status and lay a clear path before her. Being recipients of God’s gracious love and mercy ourselves, we were able to pass them along to her.
God had brought Bill and me through challenges and pain similar to those Edna described. He allowed us to hear her with openness and compassion, to speak words of comfort and encouragement and to model hope. We shared freely from Scripture and prayed together. Edna left us with a huge smile, overflowing with words of gratitude for our help and the church’s concern for people like her.
Hearing people’s immigration stories, armed with reliable resources and God’s heart for the lost, gives me and my co-ministers unparalleled access to their deepest needs, hopes, desires, fears and shame, and allows us to bring the healing power of the gospel to bear. We can offer God’s forgiveness and show His care for their whole person—physical, spiritual, emotional and social. We can introduce them to His family and invite them to join us.
You and your church can join us in this ministry. Getting training and certification as an immigration legal counselor is one way, but there are many others, such as:
- Teaching English or civics
- Tutoring students going through school in a second language
- Mentoring a family navigating a new society
- Helping people translate their job skills to a new marketplace
- Welcoming strangers to your home to learn each other’s culture
God has made His expectations for the church clear: Love the stranger (Deut 10:18-19); welcome them (Matt 25:35), care for them (Ps 146:9), stand for justice (Zech 7:9-10) and fair application of laws (Lev 24:22), make disciples (Eph 2:12-13), bear their burdens (Gal 6:1-6), live and worship as one body (1 Cor 12:13, 26).
God has given you unique knowledge, resources, access and influence. How will you answer His call to serve our vulnerable new neighbors and build His kingdom?