“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” — Acts 2:4
Welcoming the stranger (the “Immigrant,” we could say today) is the most often repeated commandment in the Hebrew Scriptures, with the exception of the imperative to worship only the one God. And the love of neighbor (especially the more vulnerable neighbor) is doubtlessly the New Testament’s command constant… Whatever the cause of immigration today, there can be no doubt as to where the Church must stand when it comes to defending the immigrant.
— Theologian Orlando O. Espìn*
“Don’t worry Pastor, I have someone to translate for you,” was the word that greeted me, as I walked into El Kairos (from the Spanish word “The” and the Greek word for “God’s Time”), a Latinx congregation down the road from the first church where I served as pastor, in 2014. My friend, Pastor Tomy, himself a Honduran immigrant raised in the area, was ready and willing to host me as a guest in his congregation. He brought me to the front of the small sanctuary, a comfortable room bustling with life, surrounded by concrete block walls, with worship posters and musical instruments adorning almost every edge of the room. No sooner had I made it to my seat than one of the church members brought me a cold bottle of water, a welcome refreshment on that warm Saturday night.
I was going to worship for the first time in this small church, with a group of people whom I had planned to meet several times over the previous months. My excuse had been that worship was on Saturday night at 7:30 PM, and I usually arrived at the church I served the next morning no later than 7:30 AM. As it was, the service lasted until nearly 11 o’clock, but I did not actively notice. The hours and minutes pass much too quickly whenever we are engulfed in a spirit of radical hospitality and God‘s gracious acceptance. Jesus shows up. Nothing else matters!
As a representative of the historic Methodist congregation down the road — which had once existed as part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, a slaveholding denomination — I thought that my job and position was as an invitational presence. However, God surprised me, that I was the one welcomed.
At the time of my visit to El Kairos, I spoke very little Spanish, less than I do today. Pastor Tomy knew this — and even though I look Latinx, with my last name being Spanish — he immediately saw me for my need and provided for it. Tomy invited a young, bilingual church member to translate for me for three hours. And so, I found another home in that small town, in which I praised the Lord many times while I was appointed to that parish.
I experienced the hospitality of El Kairos, feeling the warmth of their gaze. They saw me for who I was. This gave me the courage to see other people. I became courageous in advocating for the Van ministry, housed out of the United Methodist Congregation to which I was appointed. This ministry, conducted by a Caucasian ex-Vietnam War veteran, went into trailer parks and down muddy driveways, picking up white, black, and brown-skinned children to come to worship. I became an advocate of the children and a challenger of the congregation: to not only see these children but to embrace them as family. Looking back, I was only able to do this because God first saw me through the eyes of a small, Spanish-speaking congregation. It was en el Kairos, in God’s time.
Take a moment to reflect on the immigrants who live around you. Even if you are in a very white, homogenous area, chances are that you have immigrant neighbors around you. Even though you may feel God‘s call to welcome your immigrant neighbors, see if there is a church where many of them worship, whether Methodist, Pentecostal, Catholic, or otherwise. Find somebody who attends that church and ask them if you can be their guest. Even in this turbulent moment, when the immigrant communities are vigilant of anybody who might possibly be an agent of terror, many of them are still offering hospitality in Church, one of the few safe places left. If God opens the door, go through it. You may have the door of your heart opened too.
Let us Pray: Lord Jesus, who knows the language of Heaven and the languages of earth, thank you that you speak in infinite ways to all of our hearts. Please help me to show up in the places of worship that I do not understand, so that I may stand under them, looking up to you, for you are there. Amen.
One Note: please be very respectful if you plan to attend a majority immigrant church, knowing that if you are an outsider, your presence might be reminiscent of people who have terrorized their community. However, also be keenly aware that the privilege you live with can be a sign of hope, if you bring it to the aid of the same community. Know the risk, and know what God might do with it, as a sign of hope and a means of grace.
*Quote from, Welcoming the Stranger: justice, compassion, and truth in the immigration debate, by Soerens and Hwang Yang