WDC congregations welcome strangers as friends in Christ

By Laurie Oswald Robinson

Jesús Martinez, who shared his story at a recent immigration workshop, is grateful for the support of Faith Mennonite Church in Newton, Kan. It’s one of several congregations in Western District Conference (WDC) that are embracing the call to welcome strangers as friends in Christ.

Martinez — an agronomist with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture who lost everything after a U.S. farm bill dashed farming pursuits in his homeland — moved from Mexico to the United States in 2006. Later, his wife, Brenda, and two children, Jesús Jr. and Alejandra, joined him in Newton, where their once-barren life is transforming into a blessing because of the support of local Mennonites.

“It’s amazing what Mennonite people can do with faith,” he said at the regional immigration workshop, “Citizens of God’s Kingdom,” sponsored March 1-2 by Mennonite Church USA and WDC at Hope Mennonite Church in Wichita, Kan.

“I was unskilled, undocumented and did not know English. I was stressed, and had no faith, no work, no house and no money. … But now I am getting skilled. … I also have less stress, good work, financial resources and am buying a house. I have brothers in Christ and God in my heart.”

Martinez’ testimony encourages members at Faith Mennonite who have welcomed the family. They include interim co-pastors Weldon and Florence Schloneger who began their roles after Sara and the late Fremont Regier had first helped the family acclimate to the church and community.

“I feel so strongly that God in Christ calls us to reach out to the strangers and aliens and sojourners among us,” Florence Schloneger said. “There are so many references in scripture that call us to reach out to immigrants – a word that describes what we all once were at one time in our family histories.”  

Two other WDC congregations in Moundridge, Kan. – First Mennonite Church of Christian and West Zion Mennonite Church – are also welcoming immigrant families.

“A big challenge is the fact that undocumented families do not have access to government safety nets as others do,” said Laura Neufeld, pastor of First Mennonite Church of Christian. “When illness or unemployment strikes, it takes a lot of difficult discernment on the part of the church to determine how much assistance we are able to provide.

“We are also challenged to ‘be church’ and ‘be community’ on a deeper level. … We become involved in one another’s lives in deeper ways in facing these challenges. …. Families from different cultures also expose us to new perspectives, new values, and new traditions that enrich our church community.”

Sessions were led by three main presenters at the gathering attended by over 100 participants. The presenters were Jason B. Boone, coordinating minister for Mennonite Church USA’s Peace and Justice Support Network; Tammy Alexander, senior legislative associate, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. Washington Office; and Saulo Padilla, MCC U.S. immigration education coordinator.

They shared how issues of economics, militarization and safety and religious freedom have driven immigration in all times and how those issues impact the 21st century specifically. At a lunch interview March 2, they also expressed appreciation for how WDC is leading the charge in tackling national issues on a local and regional level.

“I applaud WDC for addressing issues that are easy to push under the rug because they impact people who are in the shadows of our communities,” Boone said. “The time spent here is not about facts and figures. It is a spiritual investment and has everything to do with the quality of our relationship to Christ.”

Alexander said, “Immigration reform is not going to happen at the national level until it is addressed on the local and regional levels. … That makes it all the more important that folks in WDC are a step ahead of other area conferences. This conference can be a motivator for others.”

Padilla said, “The participants here are becoming more informed, and as they become more informed, they will, one person at a time, help the entire church to know how important immigration issues are to us as citizens in God’s kingdom.”

More information on the conference as well as immigration issues can be found at:  www.washingtonmemo.org/2013/03/07/citizens-of-gods-kingdom/  and   www.mennowdc.org/committees-task-forces/.  The WDC Immigration Task Force is available to resource congregations, small groups, and Sunday school classes (contact Nathan Koontz at 316-212-4593).  Print, DVD and curriculum resources on immigration are available at the WDC Resource Library ( www.mennowdc.org/library/).