When it comes to cooking, I have a problem. Though I have good taste in recipes and some ability to improvise deliciously, I have a fatal flaw: I burn stuff. A LOT.
Because I’m usually trying to move quickly in the kitchen (there is a preschooler to tend to and there are articles to write, after all!), my default is to cook everything on high on the stove. I tend to let things go in the microwave to the point that they bubble over and make a mess. My family is used to politely eating around blackened edges.
I’ve often noticed this need for speed in my attitude towards ministry as well. I turn on high heat at the beginning of new friendships with internationals, hoping that I’ll be able to really help and fix the problems and get them loving life in America lickety-split!
And then I get frustrated. Because change is slow in coming. Because the deck is often stacked against my friends. Because my help feels like too little too late. Because there’s no substitute for time.
And my friends may start to feel burned, because it becomes clear that I’m not committed to them so much as to an outcome, a goal I want us to acheive together.
I repent of this attitude that tries to rear its ugly head in my life every time I meet a new immigrant family that is struggling.
I hope you can learn from my confessions. I hope you’ll remember these four things when you’re tempted to microwave new friendships on “HIGH”:
- People are not projects.
Yes, this is a cliche. But it’s also absolutely true and worth repeating. So often, when we get involved in “ministry to immigrants,” we can miss the individual faces and stories of new friends as we focus on the group, on the problems, on things we can fix.
Now, doing projects (i.e. taking new arrivals shopping at Walmart) and solving problems (i.e. Reza doesn’t have a couch, you ask around, find someone in your church who is looking to donate theirs, drive your pickup truck over, and deliver to to Reza’s 3rd floor apartment—problem solved!), and fixing things (i.e. there is a misunderstanding between Claudia’s son and his 4th grade teacher, so you talk with them about it and help her write an email to the teacher explaining the situation—and things are fixed!) are all good things to do.
But this is not all we’re called to do as welcomers. We are also called to see each person created in the image of God that we are welcoming, to hear their stories, and to stand by them as they process past and present pain, and as they transition and adjust.
Projects are much easier than people, because projects can be checked off a list with a satisfied sigh of satisfaction, while in this lifetime, people can never be considered “done.” We can never finish a person. We should get used to this. Ministry among people is always open-ended.
- Don’t be surprised if it takes time to become friends.
I’ve written about this before—cross-cultural friendship is not necessarily easy, but it is worth it. Be willing to put in the time necessary to build trust and establish a bond. This is done through “small touches” over time, not through grand gestures once or twice.
- There is seldom a quick fix that will make the lives of immigrants instantly easy.
How I wish there was a silver bullet, which, if deployed, could guarantee smooth sailing for newly arrived internationals! A plan to follow, a schedule to consult, a blueprint for success. But—sadly— there’s just not.
Instead, there are layers of complexity: often, past trauma, systemic bias, and low-income issues (or some combination of these) combine to make the journey to thriving in a new place a long and arduous one. If you are a welcomer, you’re along for this journey. There is no shortcut.
It’s not just outside struggles that make the journey to thriving long for most immigrants. There are also internal factors—culture shock is a powerful force that can blindside new arrivals and continue to dog those who have been here for a long time. We’ll talk more about culture shock in an upcoming post, but for now, just remember that moving beyond culture shock takes time, often a lot of time.
This is why, again, we have to adjust our mindset to that of marathon runners (perhaps mud runners!), not sprinters, and certainly not microwave ministers.
Though we can’t teleport immigrants to a place of thriving, we can walk alongside them on the path they’re walking so they know they’re not alone. This is the slow, humble work of welcomers.