I have been hard pressed to find a clear and concise way of saying what I did for my Ministry Inquiry Program assignment.
I worked for the Mennonite church –– but I didn’t work in a church. I worked with a group of people of faith who care about recent immigrants and I worked with immigrants who are people of faith. I tried to help discover how Franconia Conference congregations can align their practices regarding immigrants with their values of welcoming the stranger and loving our neighbor as ourselves. And I tried to fit my own thoughts into the already buzzing conversations in this diverse and changing conference.
Though I can’t express the work I did in a few sentences, one theme keeps calling my attention: issues are more real to us when we live them or when people we know live them.
Here are some examples from my summer…
Part of my time was spent listening to stories of people of faith who are from other countries.
The people in our churches who have come here themselves from Mexico, Indonesia, China, India, El Salvador, the Congo can give those of us who were born in the U.S. a lot of insight. They have personal knowledge of values and customs that we can benefit from. Their stories of coming to the United States and experiences of the immigration process give our conference areas to act. I saw all of this happening this summer.
Through hearing these stories, I became friends with the tellers. Through our relationship, the stories became more significant to me. The excitement they bring and the problems they face have shaped what I care about.
One example in particular has affected me very much. I got to know one church family very well. I heard about the village in Mexico where they grew up, and the difficulties they faced that drove them to leave. I heard about their struggles with English, with immigration, and with paying their rent. That relationship is a huge part of why I care about immigration. It’s also a huge part of why I think personal experiences are important.
I also spent a lot of time hearing what experiences move those born in the United States to care about the issue of immigration. Some who are born in the U.S. see the issue through the teachings and stories of the Bible, which emphasize hospitality. Some want fairness for immigrants because of the experience of their ancestors – many Mennonites share a history of immigration in search of religious freedom, and feel they can personally identify. And others who are from the U.S. have relationships with immigrants as I did, hear their life experiences, and are moved.
We each have had different experiences, and we know different stories. Even the experiences we have move us to see issues differently.
What experiences have you had that have changed what you care about? What stories have you heard that have changed what you care about?
I thank God for the ways we are changed by the stories of our brothers and sisters, and I pray that our individual experiences shape us as a body to be more and more Christ-like.
Maria Byler served as a Ministry Inquiry Program participant this summer through Franconia Conference working on issues of immigration awareness and solidarity. Nearly half of Franconia Conference congregations are faced with issues of immigration and migration on a daily basis. She worked with a variety of initiatives based in Philadelphia and worshiped with Cento de Alabanza de Filadefia (Philadelphia Praise Center) who helped provide housing for her this summer.