by Javier Marquez, intercultural communication associate, with Emily Ralph Servant
On the night of October 18, 2019, a group of adults and children worked for several hours at the Material Resource Center, a part of Mennonite Central Committee’s ministry in Harleysville, PA. The objective of the project was to put together kits of basic supplies that will be delivered to migrants who crossed the border from Mexico. Members of Franconia Conference contributed the helping hands and gave resources to make the project a reality: 370 kits were packed that night, and the rest of the $20,000 donated by the conference (via churches, individuals and a matching grant) will be sent to MCC Central States to purchase additional supplies.
The kits consisted of a set of useful products such as towels, notebooks, pens, water, and other basic necessities for people who have recently been released from migrant detention camps. Although simple, these kits represent a direct and tangible way to contribute to the needs of immigrants who enter the United States looking for a new home.
The work on the 19th was an example of solidarity and mutual help. Thanks to 20 volunteers from three southeast Pennsylvania churches (Indonesian Light Church, and Philadelphia Praise Center, Plains Mennonite Church), the kits were efficiently packed in a large collection of green backpacks and were ready in time to be sent from Harleysville to be distributed through MCC Central States.
Each of these churches, in addition to belonging to Franconia Conference, is a community that includes many first- and second-generation immigrants. Although these immigrants come from different places on the map, such as Indonesia and Mexico, they each have left behind what is familiar to embark on a trip, marked by difficulties and uncertainty. In understanding and solidarity, they gathered to fill backpacks as people who are aware of the pain and joy of migration.
The children were encouraged to share which countries they were from and they diligently helped for the almost-two-hours that the work took. After the backpacks were filled, the workers gathered together to join in a prayer led by Pastor Hendy Stevan Matahelemual of Indonesian Light Center. They prayed specifically for those who would receive the kit and in general for each person who undertakes the trip and who seeks a place that guarantees their rights and, even, saves their lives.
For the last month, Philadelphia Praise Center pastor Aldo Siahaan has been reminding his congregation of their rights during each Sunday morning worship service.
In expectation of, and response to, a recent wave of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, immigrants in Philadelphia and other US cities—both documented and not—are living in fear. “I’ve been like them,” reflects Siahaan, who migrated to the United States in 1998 after riots in Indonesia: “I know what they feel like, living like this.”
Questions and concern around immigration have become increasingly important for members of Franconia Conference, which has seen a increase in immigrant congregations over the past decade. Currently, close to fifteen percent of the conference are first-generation immigrants, many coming from Indonesia, Mexico, Tanzania, Myanmar, Hong Kong, and India.
Some of Franconia’s Latin brothers and sisters originally entered the US by way of the southern border. Recent news reports have highlighted tragic conditions in detention camps there, where some families are separated, and others are turned away before they can even apply for asylum. Many Franconia congregations have been asking what they can do to help.
A Direct Response
“Having been to the border several years ago to see key Mennonite partners there, I recognize that there are some basic practical needs that people require after they’ve been released from detention,” reflects Franconia’s executive minister Steve Kriss. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is meeting some of these needs by making and distributing Immigrant Detainee Care Kits. “The kit response feels hands-on and important as the kind of thing Mennonites do to directly respond to human needs,” observes Kriss.
In order to provide additional kits, Franconia’s board has allocated a $5000 grant to match contributions from Franconia and Eastern District congregations to the MCC East Coast’s Material Resource Center (MRC) in Harleysville, PA. The MRC will make the care kits to send for distribution in Texas and New Mexico through MCC Central States. The grant will also match gifts given by Franconia congregations to MCC West Coast for transporting kits distributed in California and Arizona. The deadline for matching is August 31.
Already at Work
Even as Franconia and Eastern District congregations raise financial support around the border crisis, we remember that the struggle continues closer to home. “We ARE immigrant communities,” Kriss acknowledges. “We are communities that are responding on a regular basis to the challenges of receiving people who are seeking safety and asylum in places across the country.” Many pastors in our congregations are regularly responding to crises of migration, he observes. In these cases, these are not programs of the church; they are pastoral responses to real needs in our communities.
When a large migrant caravan began making its way through Mexico in 2018, the Conferencia de Iglesias Evangélicas Anabautistas Menonitas de México (CIEAMM), a Franconia Partner in Ministry, decided to open their arms and hearts to the “temporary refugees” in Mexico by providing aid. “We take seriously the teaching of Jesus, who invites us to the [kind of] love and solidarity that feeds the hungry, dresses the naked, gives water to the thirsty, protects the helpless, takes care of the sick, and visits the incarcerated,” described moderator Carlos Martínez García at Mennonite World Conference’s Renewal 2019 event in Costa Rica. “We did a work of compassion, putting ourselves in the place of needy migrants, and acting to bring some accompaniment and comfort.” (Read his full remarks.)
Fernando Loyola and Letty Cortes pastor Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia, a congregation of Latinx immigrants, and have seen a recent wave of immigrants from Guatemala arriving in their neighborhood. Their congregation provides food, clothing, funds, and help navigating the new American culture. They refer families to immigration lawyers and to Juntos, a community-led immigrant non-profit that fights for human rights in South Philly.
Philadelphia Praise Center has been renovating its building to become a sanctuary church, where immigrants fearing deportation can live safely during ICE raids. Siahaan has walked with many individuals and families who need help navigating the complex legal channels involved in applying for visas or green cards. Just this last week, he was called to help someone from the community who was picked up in an ICE raid.
Unfortunately, once someone has been detained by ICE, there isn’t much that can be done, he explains—within a couple of weeks, they’ll be deported. The need is greater before that happens; what immigrants need most, he suggests, is for their Franconia brothers and sisters to be their voice: “Call or write to your congressperson and say, ‘Hey, you need to do something about this situation, these immigration raids!’”
Advocacy to Prevent Tragedy
Advocacy work includes contacting representatives on both state and national levels. Steve Wilburn, teaching pastor at Covenant Community congregation in Lansdale, PA, has been involved with International Justice Mission (IJM) since he traveled to Cambodia and Vietnam in seminary and saw IJM’s work in battling human trafficking. Currently, he’s partnering with IJM to advocate for the “Central American Women and Children Protection Act of 2019,” which is legislation that commits US funds, in partnership with the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, to help them restore their justice systems in order to protect women and children from abuse. Several Franconia Conference leaders have signed a letter in support of this legislation.
Most US government efforts in those countries have been focused on drugs and gang violence, Wilburn explains, but that doesn’t help protect children and women: “Those are some of the reasons that people are leaving and trying to escape violence there, becoming refugees,” he says. Most would rather stay home if home were a safe place for them and their children.
Real People, Real Suffering
Siahaan recently went on an MCC borderlands tour to meet migrants and see the situation for himself. On his trip, he met a young mother with two children who were waiting to apply for asylum. They had fled Colombia after her husband had been shot by a gang.
It was eye-opening for Siahaan. He had read books and heard stories but meeting real people on the border face-to-face affirmed for him that the work the South Philly congregations were doing mattered. It encouraged him to keep going.
Beny Krisbianto, pastor of Nations Worship Center in Philadelphia, is a member of the conference executive board. The decision to allocate the funds for the matching grant was easy for him when he considered the children who are daily affected by both the “border crisis” and the local ICE raids. It’s not a political issue, he emphasizes, but a call to care for real children who had no control over the decision to come in the first place. “These are real people, who are already here, who are suffering and may die,” he says. “These kits will help.”
His congregation supports conference advocacy for migrants at the southern border because they, too, are daily experiencing the fear and uncertainty of the country’s broken immigration system. It’s not just a story you see on CNN or ABC News, he reminds the conference community; for immigrants in South Philadelphia, “It’s our everyday life.”
Ways to Help
Pray for migrants on the southern border, for immigrants living in our communities, and for those who are working alongside them for health, healing, and wholeness. Pray for just immigration laws, merciful immigration practices, and a path to citizenship that will keep families together.
To receive a matching grant for the making and/or transporting of Immigrant Detainee Care Kits, send checks labeled “Immigrant Detainee Care Kits” directly to the MCC Material Resource Center of Harleysville, 737 Hagey Center Drive, Unit C, Souderton, PA 18964 OR directly to West Coast MCC Office, 1010 G Street, Reedley, CA 93654. For West Coast donations only: email Conrad Martin (firstname.lastname@example.org) at the conference office with the date and amount of the gift. Deadline for matching funds is August 31.
A significant focus of MCC East Coast’s domestic work is related to immigration advocacy: in Miami, through the New York Mennonite Immigration Program, and in direct services to those who have been trying to find a legal pathway to stay in the US. Find out more. West Coast MCC is in the process of offering “Know Your Rights” trainings for Franconia’s West Coast congregations.
Did you know that Franconia Mennonite Conference (FMC) owns a shopping center in Souderton and a farm in Harleysville? Okay technically, FMC doesn’t own any property. Property ownership belongs to Franconia Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (FMBMC). Yes, that organization founded in 1918 to buy church properties for planting churches and to send missionaries to foreign countries still exists. Its mission has evolved over the years, and while it no longer sends missionaries, it still owns properties. The missionary-sending component of FMBMC was incorporated into the mission of the conference and its member congregations in the 1990s and the FMBMC board was brought under the authority of the conference board, to function as a captive corporation of FMC. The purpose of FMBMC these days is to manage real estate on behalf of the conference and support the conference financially, and therefore its “doing business as” name is “FMC Properties”.
FMBMC continues to hold the ownership of a couple of church properties, Whitehall Mennonite Church being one of those churches. The other church property — the former Peace Mennonite Church in East Greenville, PA — is being used by Project Haven, a ministry from the partnership of a few FMC and Eastern District Conference churches.
FMBMC purchased the Indian Creek Road farm in 1954 and established the Mission of Mercy, a ministry of rehabilitation for alcoholic men. This continued until 1967 when a mission to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities was begun on the farm. This ministry evolved into Indian Creek Haven, which then became Indian Creek Foundation (ICF). ICF eventually outgrew the farm, and in 2003 it became the birthing grounds for MCC Material Resource Center of Harleysville (MRC). When MRC outgrew the farm in 2010, the conference decided to make the property a permanent farm. The development rights for the farm were sold in 2012 and a local Community-Supported Agriculture organization, called Living Hope Farm, was established and began to rent the farm and has continued to grow since then. As a connection with the past, an ICF group home continues to operate on the farm. In keeping with its farming heritage, the Indian Creek Road farm has provided a seed bed for the startup of several organizations over the many years of FMBMC ownership.
FMBMC purchased the Souderton Center from a partnership of four Mennonite businessmen. This group had initially purchased the shopping center property in 1986 to both provide a home for the conference offices, and to support the conference financially. They renovated the entire center and in 2001 sold the property to FMBMC. While the conference offices have relocated elsewhere since 2001, the Souderton Center continues to provide financial support to the conference. When you shop at any one of the businesses of the shopping center — Care & Share Shoppes, Weaver Reckner & Reinhart Dentistry, TriValley Primary Care, ParmaJohn’s, or Ten Thousand Villages — you support the ministries of the Franconia Mennonite Conference.
In 1996, the conference board developed a statement providing rationale for continuing to own property, concluding that “some property is necessary and even advantageous for carrying out the work of the church”. The statement also ensures that “all decisions about property ownership and the management thereof should reflect the priorities of the church” and that property ownership and use of funds should “reflect the best interests of the congregations of the conference and their mission“. Keeping property ownership with FMBMC frees the conference board and staff to focus their energies on the mission of the church, leaving property management decisions to the properties board, consisting of persons with experience in property management.