Senior Editor-Writer, Michigan Area
What do a church and a meat packing company have in common? A concern for persons. That common ground brought the JSB Corporation and the Plainwell United Methodist Church into partnership last December.
JSB’s Plainwell facility, in business for the last 95 years, has an employee base made up largely of refugees, many from Myanmar (Burma). This Social Responsibility statement is found on JSB’s national website: giving back to our local communities is an essential role for our company. Our business is a people business, not a manufacturing business. It’s what we believe and what we have practiced since 1953.
The Rev. Kathy Brown, who has pastored Plainwell UMC for the past five years, recalls the phone call she received over a year ago from JSB Plainwell. In a meeting with the company’s Plant Manager and Human Resources Department Kathy learned JSB wanted help in welcoming Burmese workers to the community. “So in consultation with Bethany Christian Services, Plainwell UMC geared up to receive Burmese refugees,” Kathy reports.
What happened next? “We heard nothing,” Kathy says. Until a day or two after Christmas 2014. Another phone call from JSB: “We have six Sudanese arriving Monday. Can you help get apartments ready for them?” With only hours’ notice, “My team ran with it,” Kathy remembers.
“We got three apartments ready by Monday and we received six single men at a welcome lunch.” Those newcomers were so pleased with the hospitality that they invited friends and family to move to Michigan. The pastor says, “We now have 18 Africans living in Plainwell who moved to the area from Washington, Nebraska, Kentucky, Ohio and elsewhere.”
Plainwell UMC is caring for many needs—housing, language, drivers’ licenses, green cards, Michigan ID. “When we need something that we can’t provide ourselves, we put the word out on Facebook,” Kathy shares, “and others help.” Kathy has turned to Justice For Our Neighbors/West Michigan for assistance navigating issues regarding immigration. “We have attended JFON clinics,” she notes. “I am currently working with two different families trying to get relatives here from outside the U.S.”
Sue Nelson, a retired teacher and member of Plainwell UMC, has helped with English classes. She partners in this effort with Wessam Abdelaziz, a PhD student from Western Michigan University who speaks Arabic. He offers invaluable service as an interpreter during lessons held in a classroom at the church.
“This ministry is NOT just us helping them,” Kathy emphasizes. “Our folks get as much or more out of working and walking with our new neighbors.”
Asked to share her own special moment, Kathy remembers the day when one of the first men to arrive in Plainwell in December came to church. “Al Hadi was in attendance during worship when I performed a Baptism and Baptism Renewal,” she recalls. “He came up to me afterward, made a cross on his forehead and then motioned like rocking a baby. With his limited English he was telling me that there was a similar ritual in his tradition. He still makes the rocking-baby motion whenever we meet.” Such spiritual connections are precious.
Kathy also tells of a sermon she preached during the last year about Jesus reaching out to others, sometimes in ways unanticipated. “I reminded the congregation that last fall we expected to welcome Burmese Christians and got Sudanese Muslims. The blessing God gave us is not the one we prepared for.”
And Plainwell’s Vision Team remains prepared. They continue to receive referrals from Bethany Social Services and Lutheran Social Services. They have received persons from Chad, Sudan and Somalia to date and they are open to a call to welcome refugees now coming through Europe.
Thinking back, Rev. Kathy Brown realizes that this spiritual journey did not begin with a phone call from JSB Corporation. “A year ago members of our Vision Team were committed to take time every day at 12:30 pm to pray for the next big thing God wanted this church to do,” Kathy reflects. A few weeks later came that request for assistance.
“Who would have thought that God would call little Plainwell, not exactly the most multi-cultural community in the world, to this great ministry,” Kathy concludes. “But that’s what happens with constant prayer, careful listening, and being open to whatever God gives.”