‘Be Not Afraid’ program tackles immigration issues

Published 10:38 am Friday, March 20, 2009

The Austin Ministerial Association is reaching out to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service for advice in being inclusive.

The number of immigrants in the Austin community continues to grow and with it the perception, real or imagined, something is amiss.

Separating fact from fiction has become a 24/7 challenge for those who seek the truth.

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Kelly Macîas, who works for LIRS brought a program called “Be Not Afraid” to Fellowship United Methodist Church in Austin Thursday.

The Rev. Dennis Tamke, pastor of Fellowship church, welcomed the Austin Ministerial Association and introduced Macîas.

“Be Not Afraid is a program that is designed to help congregations and communities to respond to the needs that immigration has created in their communities,” Macîas said.

While most of the LIRS focus is on refugee resettlement, the organization “saw a need to address immigration issues.”

Be Not Afraid has gone nation-wide and has been to Albert Lea as well as Austin.

Despite LIRS’ urban focus, coming to rural America fulfills its mission, also, according to Macîas.

“I think there’s a place for a discussion about immigration issues in rural areas and wherever else migrants move,” she said.

Macîas put the Austin Ministerial Association members through various exercises, including sharing their own immigration stories with each other.

There was a timeline displayed on the wall of the fellowship hall, where the session was held, depicting moments in immigration history.

The banter came easy. The Rev. Ron Barnett, pastor of St. Olaf Lutheran Church, told how he grew up in Austin and was first exposed to immigrants when visiting nearby Albert Lea which had a larger population of immigrants.

Pastor Dave DeFor, pastor of Austin Church of Christ – Christian, said perceptions dominate the discussion of immigrants in Austin: Some accurate and some not.

During a mid-morning break, the Rev. Glenn Monson, pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, said the Thursday morning workshop would be helpful in assisting pastors to develop programs in their congregations that would help them become more inclusive.

The Rev. Pat Toschak, pastor of First United Methodist Church, said her church attempted to reach out to the Hispanic community by making it available to them for worship.

There are 184 churches in the Southeastern portion of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, according to Bishop Harold L. Usgaard of the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA. While overtures are made to expand the rainbow of colors in Lutheran congregations, thus far immigrant numbers remain few in the synod’s congregations.

That situation can prompt a perception, however misdirected, that churches are non-inclusive and ignoring immigrants and the issues they bring with them.

Macîas said she was hopeful Thursday’s program to help congregations help themselves. “I hope we could all walk away from here today with a greater understanding of who is in our community and of our place for welcoming those who are new,” she said.