Pat Hatch is the Director of Refugee and Immigrant Ministry for Mission to North America (the North American mission branch of the PCA). I have the privilege of working with Pat to develop the ministry newsletter, highlighting the efforts of PCA churches to welcome immigrants all over the United States and Canada.
Pat has more than four dceades of experience welcoming immigrants, and one of her main roles now is as an encouraging consultant to churches and church-affiliated organizations which are exploring such ministry, or are already involved in ministry to refugees, immigrants or other internationals, but sense that God is calling them deeper into effective service and discipleship in their community, and seek insights in how they might proceed.
I wish I could listen in during one of Pat’s consultations with church leaders. You too? Read on—I’ve asked Pat to share some of the things she commonly discusses so that we could all benefit from it in our own efforts to love the stranger.
Jessica Udall: Pat, if I was a church leader or member who wanted to start some kind of ministry to internationals within my church, what questions would you ask me? How would you advise me to proceed (first steps, etc.)?
Pat Hatch: As with any new ministry, I would first advise you to bring together a small core group of people who sense this calling, and pray together earnestly for God’s leading.
Next, I might ask what you know about the actual demographics of your community. The website for your jurisdiction may have census information readily available. Or go to https://factfinder.census.gov to find old Census 2000 data and projections for your community, by ethnicity, language spoken at home, etc. For even more insight, contact the local public school system and ask what percentage of children are in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes! The younger the age group, the more diversity – and the more accurate predictor of the future diversity of your community.
Then, I might suggest that you open your eyes to the pockets of diversity around you. Which public schools have the most immigrant families, and where are they living? Do any of your members work at those schools, or live in relative proximity to them? Do you have members who work in public health and serve some of these immigrants? What can they tell you about the needs they have seen?
Then, have some in-depth conversations, asking: “What is the giftedness in our congregation? Where do those gifts intersect with the needs we’re newly aware of in the immigrant community? Within our church, whose hearts are being moved to be involved, and what direction are they pulled in? How can we build on that? (Continued prayer is essential!)
Also make yourself aware of what immigrant services and ethnic churches are already in your area and consider partnering – in humility – with them, asking them to identify needs and how you might help them to address those needs. (ESL for adults? An after-school tutoring program for kids? Computer classes or driving lessons? Mentoring high school student toward college and career? Helping adults sort through the confusing array of mail they receive each day, and paperwork from schools and employers?)
JU: What are the most common challenges people face when trying to take their ministry to the next level? How do you advise them to address these challenges?
PH: I’ve talked with many congregations who feel isolated in their ministry to immigrants, because they are not aware of other evangelical churches in their area with a welcoming ministry. Connecting pastors and other lay leaders with those in other churches whose hearts the Spirit is leading in the same direction provides opportunities to share insights and approaches, and encourage one another on to renewed vision and mission. It’s one of my greatest joys to make those connections!
Some churches that have a pastor and a core group committed to welcoming immigrants struggle with helping more in their congregation to see immigrants Biblically rather than through a social media or political lens. A Pew Research study showed that only 12% of evangelicals say that it is their faith that primarily shapes their attitude toward immigrants. This is cause for much prayer and consistent godly preaching and teaching, to help these believers to have “the mind of Christ” in responding to God’s commands to love and welcome the stranger.
Some churches feel stuck regarding how to open up stylistically, as, for instance, some of those immigrant believers who have attended an ESL ministry the church offers, or others who have become seekers after Christ through the church’s loving outreach, start to come to church events or worship services.
One pastor I spoke with said a good rule of thumb is that we should all be willing to feel 25% uncomfortable in a worship service, in order to make the worship service welcoming to all people God is drawing to worship there. This is a step that takes much prayer and discernment, as well. But concerted effort to do so can be a uniquely attractive witness to unbelievers in your community, as they witness God’s power to unify people across cultures.
Beyond this, some churches struggle with how to go from a diverse congregation to diverse leadership. Since deacon and elder boards usually form the “pool” from which church planters and pastors are often drawn, it is important that we are intentional in considering those from diverse backgrounds to be nominated for these roles. They may have an accent, but they may be persons who will pray earnestly for your members, and demonstrate the type of character under pressure that can be a real strength for your church leadership.
Recognizing that, discipling, encouraging, mentoring and empowering them, can have far-reaching effects for the kingdom of God both in the US and Canada – where now close to 1 in 4 persons is either an immigrant or the minor citizen child of an immigrant – and abroad – where believers who speak the language and understand the culture can achieve almost instant trust, and perhaps be the most effective missionaries – short-term or long term – to people groups who have resisted Christianity as a “foreign religion.
JU: What is your best advice for those involved in welcoming ministry?
PH: Healthy spiritual growth only happens when we move out of our comfort zone in obedience to God. Our sovereign God has brought to our neighborhoods people from the nations – some of them already our brothers and sisters in Christ who may be the missing “right hand” of our local ministry – and others who may be spiritually hungry as they redefine who they are in this, their new country.
An analogy that might be helpful: If I was told by someone in authority to dig a hole, I might move one shovel of dirt and be done, BUT if I was told to dig a hole that would be filled with gold, even at 74 years old, I would dig it as deep as I could!
That’s how God operates. When He commands us to love and welcome the stranger, it is for OUR good, as well as for theirs! Going deep in ministry outside our comfort zones, learning to better love those near to His heart, gives us a greater capacity to understand and enjoy God, not just in this life, but eternally.
Ministry to immigrants will help congregations become more missions-minded and will help them to pray more meaningfully for needs around the world. It also has missional “ripple effects” in other countries (including many “closed cultures” and unreached people groups), as those immigrants or internationals who become believers here share Christ with relatives and friends back home!
My advice would be to treat immigrants the way we could want to be treated. We should not seem them just as representatives of their countries, but as people made in the image of God and of immense value to Him and therefore to us.
As you say in your Loving the Stranger book, Jessie, our goal should be to love them so well that they ask the question “Why do you care so much about me, when I’m not your family?” – our opening to naturally share the “hope that is within us.” This is organic, real mission to real people.
JU: Thank you, Pat, for taking the time to share your wisdom with us!
If you have questions or would like to be added to MNA’s Refugee and Immigrant Ministry newsletter list, email Pat at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also connect to the ministry Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MNARefugeeAndImmigrantMinistry/.
Want more encouragement and practical tips for welcomers? Pick up a copy of my book, Loving the Stranger: Welcoming Immigrants in the Name of Jesus, and subscribe to this blog!