Model Helps Churches Welcome Immigrants

December 13, 2012

Congregations across U.S. embarking on 5-step journey

By the Rev. Noel Andersen*
Congregations across the United States are embarking on the journey of becoming "Immigrant Welcoming Congregations" (IWC). Participation in this journey equips churches to travel from mercy to justice, from service to incarnational friendship, from activism to organizing, from "ministering to" immigrants to being transformed alongside of immigrant communities.
Kristin Kumpf, a United Methodist working with the Midwest Academy in Chicago, and Jenny Dale, a member of the United Church of Christ and an organizer from the Chicago New Sanctuary Coalition, created the IWC model.
Participating congregations commit to complete, at minimum, a one-year process of five steps toward becoming Immigrant Welcoming Congregations:
  • Understanding and Articulating Our Faith
  • Building Incarnational Relationships
  • Education for Transformation
  • Prayerful Action
  • Affirming Our Covenant
United Methodist trainings
Bill Mefford, director for Civil and Human Rights for the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, has taken initiative to move the IMC model forward with United Methodist congregations. He recruited Kumpf, who specializes in organizing for social change, to help host IWC trainings for United Methodist Annual Conferences: so far, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, Michigan, Arkansas, and Tennessee.
"For United Methodists, the IWC model is rooted in the denomination's affirmation of the worth, dignity, and inherent value and rights of every person, regardless of their nationality or legal status," Mefford said.
The United Church of Christ is beginning a similar initiative. The hope is that the IWC model will gain momentum so that more congregations can expand the network of faith communities that are a public moral voice for building welcoming communities.
Sanctuary Movement
The Immigrant Welcoming Congregations model has its historical roots in the Sanctuary Movement. During the 1980s many congregations throughout the United States declared themselves "sanctuaries" and committed to providing shelter, material goods, and legal services to Central American refugees fleeing civil wars in their home countries.
The tradition of sanctuary is still strong today, ecumenically, in many congregations throughout the country. The current political landscape is different, however, and the need for physical sanctuary is not needed in the same way, according to IWC.
Rather than escaping civil war, immigrants within the United States find themselves terrorized by extreme enforcement measures that separate families and divide communities. These divisive policies spread xenophobia and create discriminatory environments that often impact resettled refugees as well.
Deeper, wider involvement
Becoming an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation is a journey to deepen and widen the involvement of congregations working for immigrant justice. As the possibilities of immigration reform escalate, it is important to have coordinated action and voice from faith communities.
Moreover, IWC involvement provides an opportunity for local churches to build a long-term sustainable movement to defend the rights of immigrants while creating more inclusive and multicultural spaces of worship.
Free, downloadable resources
GBCS has prepared a free, downloadable 38-page resource, How to Organize for Just & Humane Immigration Reform, to guide in putting together public witness events that will have a positive impact on reforming U.S. immigration laws.
Based on experiences in advocating for immigration reform during the past three-plus years, this guide will help in planning three different kinds of events:
  • Breaking Bread and Barriers (potluck and town hall meetings),
  • Neighbor-to-Neighbor Meetings (in-district meetings with members of Congress), and
  • Public Prayer Vigils.
"United Methodist churches have had more than 600 public witness events," Medford said, "which averages out to more than 200 every year, and one event every 42 hours." The events are listed in another resource and can be downloaded from the GBCS website at United Methodist Immigration Reform Grassroots Journal.
If you are part of a United Methodist congregation, and are interested in more information on becoming an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation, contact Bill Mefford (
Other interested congregations may contact Noel Andersen (
*The Rev. Noel Andersen is Interim Ecumenical Relations coordinator for the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program.

Editor's note: This article is reprinted with permission of Church World Service, which works with partners to eradicate hunger and poverty and to promote peace and justice around the world through participation in programs such as CROP Hunger Walks.