The Catholic Church in America has been called an immigrant Church. How does that translate into meeting the needs of immigrants in our parishes?
A Parish Reaches Out
Several young Hispanic parishioners in a multi-ethnic parish in suburban New York State met with their pastor. They had been cheated of their wages, robbed of their jackets, and left miles from their homes. Searching for legal and economic solutions, the pastor gathered a committee of parishioners, businessmen, and representatives from other churches in the area.
How could they help retrieve the lost wages for these men and for other day workers who had reported the same experience, without risking the safety of the men, since so many of the immigrants were undocumented?
One committee member recalls that from the beginning, “We wanted to make the process as amicable as possible. We wanted to try to engage the employers in dialogue and help them see their obligation to these workers.”
The Hispanic Employment Labor Project (HELP) had begun. The group set up procedures to follow through:
- Someone would make a phone call to the employer on behalf of the workers.
- The committee would send a friendly letter stating the workers’ rights, followed by a second letter, if necessary. They would include in the letter legal options, such as taking the employer to Small Claims Court.
- If this approach was unsuccessful, a Spanish-speaking member of the committee would go to Small Claims Court with the immigrant.
In addition to legal assistance, HELP runs ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for thirty to forty adults. In these classes teachers work with words the students use in their daily lives, both personal and on the job. They start with simple sentences and vocabulary the students will need—words like cement, sand, tools, hammer, and saw.
The ESL teachers also help immigrants document their day labor. The men learn to note the license plate number of the truck that picks them up for work; to write down the work they did, the number of hours they worked, and where they worked.
Another part of HELP (which can also mean Help Educate Latino People) is a series of educational programs that takes place after the weekend Hispanic Mass. The series covers health topics such as tuberculosis and Lyme disease, immigration issues, housing issues, and financial advice. For example, instructors advise immigrants to get an IRS tax identification card and pay their taxes; to open a bank account; to begin to participate in the American economy, even if they don’t have legal status.
HELP has also contacted public agencies and social service organizations in the area to determine if they would assist the immigrants and if they have Spanish-speaking staff or volunteers. The committee then published a list, in Spanish, of places that could offer assistance to Hispanic immigrants and distributed it to parishioners as well as others in the community. Places on the list include libraries; schools; a volunteer ambulance corps; a food distribution center; Birthright, which assists expectant mothers; a medical facility; and a senior center.
HELP committee members know their pastoral services are desperately needed—and welcomed—by the immigrant community in their midst. For reassurance, they can look to a letter from two immigrants who, with the assistance of HELP, were able to retrieve lost wages. Enclosed with their thank-you note was a significant donation to HELP to continue its work.
Here are eight steps to setting up a ministry for immigrants in your midst:
- Assess the situation in your community. Do you already reach out to welcome immigrants to liturgy and other church events? What are the needs of your immigrant parishioners? What needs are or are not being met? Take your time with this step. Consult with many people—immigrants, other parishioners, social service agencies, diocesan ministries, RENEW International.
- Assess the talents available to your parish community. Who has the necessary language skills? Counseling credentials? Legal skills? Immigration or housing expertise? If your parish is missing certain skill sets, where will you find people with such skills in the surrounding community?
- Recruit volunteers with the necessary skills.
- Familiarize yourself, the pastoral team, and anyone who wants to become involved in this ministry, with the teachings of the Catholic Church on immigration. Order educational materials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (www.usccb.org )and download information from Vatican Web sites (www.iustitiaetpax.va). Schedule parish discussion groups; invite the small Christian communities in the parish to consider the topic; suggest “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us” (USCCB) as a topic for adult faith formation classes.
- Form a core team to draft goals and objectives. What exactly will you do? Be specific. What assistance or guidance will you provide? By whom? And for whom? Set up time lines for completion of early organizational tasks.
- As you proceed, develop coalitions with town officials, diocesan ministries, health-care professionals, other local churches and places of worship, and so on.
- Ask for prayers and support from all parishioners.
- Publicize the ministry you are developing.
The need may be great, but don’t be afraid to start small.