The Bible mandate to love the foreigner is lived out in Michigan through Justice For Our Neighbors.
JOHN E. HARNISH
Michigan Area Communications
Nazim’s work as an interpreter for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan put him and his family in constant danger from the Taliban. He applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, but by the time the visas arrived, their new daughter Lina had been born. With no visa for Lina, they had to make a heart-wrenching choice. Given the violence, they fled with their two older children leaving Lina with her grandmother. Once Nazim and his family settled in Michigan, they sought help from Justice For Our Neighbors Southeast Michigan (JFON-SEMI) through a volunteer at a local United Methodist Church. Attorney Melanie Goldberg met with them and completed the necessary paperwork for the embassy in Kabul so that Lina, now two years old, could finally be reunited with her family.
Nazim is just one example of the many persons who have been served by “Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON)” in Michigan. In 2015, JFON-SEMI’s legal staff offered 159 consultations at 31 clinics and they provided direct services to 70 men, 70 women and 18 children from 34 different countries. The most frequent need is for assistance in family reunification for families like Nazim’s, but JFON provides counseling and advice on a broad range of immigration and detention issues. For example, Pedro and his wife were general managers of a business in Peru. In 2001 they came to the USA with an approved visa allowing them to expand their business here. Then suddenly, due to gross oversight by their attorney, they abruptly lost their legal status and could no longer operate their business. They came to one of the JFON clinics and met with an attorney who assisted them in applying for permanent legal status so they can work here and travel to Peru to rebuild their business in both countries.
The JFON ministry in Michigan is supported financially by the West Michigan and Detroit Conferences and the United Methodist Union of Greater Detroit. They rely on partner churches in cities like Dearborn, Blissfield, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Traverse City, Livonia, Pontiac, Birmingham and Ypsilanti for volunteers, office space and financial donations. In 2015 a grant from the National United Methodist Women supported educational events and the United Methodist Committee of Relief (UMCOR) has funded the Interfaith Detainee Visitation Program at the Monroe County Jail.
“I’m always amazed by what gets done in church basements!”
JFON relies on a group of volunteers who serve as hosts, legal advisors and friends for immigrant families and individuals. Ms. Tori Booker is the Director of JFON-SEMI. Tori began working with JFON as a volunteer interpreter. She says JFON feels like a Biblical calling in the spirit of the Old Testament mandate to welcome the foreigner and the stranger. She says, “After a recent presentation one participant told me, ‘I’m always amazed by what gets done in church basements!’ And that’s true.”
Rev. Joel Walther, pastor of the Petersburg and LaSalle United Methodist Churches would agree. Joel works with the Interfaith Detention Visitation Program at the Monroe County jail. There he met a man from Nepal who had applied for political asylum. He didn’t know anyone in Michigan and found himself in the Monroe County Jail without friends, funds or assistance. When Joel learned the man would be released on bond, he accompanied him to a store to buy cloths and to the bus station so he could return to his family in New Jersey while he awaits a decision on his application.
These are just a few stories of the persons who are served by the staff and volunteers at JFON who follow in the footsteps of people like Deaconess Kathryn Maurer who for 40 years greeted thousands of immigrants who made their way through the San Francisco harbor in the early 1900’s. Beginning in 1921, she rode the ferry daily to the Angel Island Immigration Center where she served as a social worker primarily with Chinese women and children. For her devotion, a San Francisco newspaper named her the “Angel of Angel Island” and today Harriett Olsen, Chief Executive of the UMW, says she has become a model for United Methodist Women in welcoming immigrants and meeting their needs.
Recently Ms. Jeanne Frank was one of the United Methodist representatives who met with Senator Gary Peters to discuss immigration issues. Jeanne, a lay person from the Chelsea United Methodist Church, told the story of thirty-year-old Victor who came here with his mother when he was three months old. He is now being deported from the only home he has ever known to Mexico with no Spanish language skills to face an uncertain future. Victor is one of the many “Dream Children” who find themselves in this untenable situation. Jeanne said, “I told Victor I would share his story on his behalf, and on behalf of a God who demands justice for all his children.”
Currently JFON-SEMI in the Detroit Conference and JFON in the West Michigan Conference are in the process of merging their programs to serve immigrants throughout the state. Amid all the political debate and turmoil over immigration issues, United Methodists are at work in the ministry of hospitality and compassion for those who seek a new life in America. They are fulfilling the Biblical mandate–“You are to love the foreigner, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19)–because immigration is not just an issue, it is people.