Supporting Immigrants: A Welcome to New Neighbors

Date posted: Tuesday 26 November 2019

Can you imagine being in a foreign land, desperately seeking a place of refuge and safety, determined to find a new home in which to live and work to support your family? That was the experience for many whose families historically formed the Lutheran churches in this country. The call to walk with immigrants continues to impact ministry in this synod, the work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in this country, and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) globally.


Kim Huor Tann arrived in the United States in August of 1980 with 12 members of her extended family. As an 18-year-old, Kim had lived in four refugee camps in Thailand after her family fled their native Cambodia. “We ran away from the communists,” Kim explained, describing her family’s motive for seeking refuge here.


Kim’s journey to America followed her older sister’s arrival here in 1979 and was accomplished with sponsorship by Catholic Charities and the engagement of Pastor William Gebhard and the congregation of Messiah Lutheran on the Eastside of St. Paul. In 1981, Kim’s family transferred to Christ Lutheran on Capitol Hill in St. Paul, when Southeast Asian Ministry was formed. Her sister Huy and family continue to worship there today.


Almost 40 years later, Kim still remembers the hospitality and kindness of the Gebhard family, as well as the support of one of her first high school teachers. “I welcome those who try to come to America just like my family was welcomed. We all want a better life for our families and for our children to have a good education,” Kim said. “Immigrants work hard. We want to contribute to make this country better.” Kim became a U.S. citizen in 1985.


Kim’s desire for education led her Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and later to Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where she studied to become a social worker and teacher. She has worked for 23 years as an Assistant Teacher at Harambee Elementary School in Maplewood. She and her husband, Pastor Jim Erlandson of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul, are parents of four grown children, all graduates of Lutheran colleges. A first grandchild was born this summer.


Kim Huor Tann experienced the love of neighbors, which allowed her to thrive in a new homeland. To others in this synod she says, “I wish all Lutherans understood that immigrants and refugees come to the United States to have a better life for themselves and their children. Immigrants are not coming to bring crime or problems. We need to open our doors to welcome those who seek a better life. Love your neighbors as yourself. God will bless you in the work you do to help immigrants and refugees.”


Kim’s story of hopes and challenges is repeated in the lives of millions of migrants today. The Rev. Dr. Martin Junge, General Secretary of the LWF, notes that globally more than 60 million people are on the move as migrants, displaced persons or asylum seekers. This number is higher than the 50 million displaced persons at the close of World War II*.


Funding a humanitarian response to the global migration of people today reflects the very origins of the LWF, of which the ELCA is a member. Founded in 1947, the LWF was formed to allow a unified response to the humanitarian crisis of so many persons displaced by warfare and violence.


Responding to the needs of immigrants and refugees is one of the ways in which the interrelated connection between congregations, the synod and the churchwide work of the ELCA is revealed. The ELCA is a main partner with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), a national agency that assists those who have been granted visas to come to the U.S. With help from synod congregations, the Minnesota Council of Churches and Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota (LSS) both support the newest and most vulnerable immigrants with the tools they need to thrive in a new country.


Today, the ELCA’s AMMPARO (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities) initiative combines with ELCA Global Mission to provide training and financial resources to communities in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, reducing the desperation of families in these counties. One way to reduce the migration crisis globally is to give people access to education and safety in their home country. As a synod, work with our global partner—the Iglesia Luterana Agustina de Guatemala (ILAG)—also provides resources for families to remain in their home country.


Across this synod, people of faith are finding many ways to respond to the needs of our newest neighbors. Some congregations offer tutoring for those learning English or to help immigrant kids with homework. Others advocate for immigration reform and human rights. Some provide housing and food resources directly to a family, through a local food shelf, or through programs like LSS’s Circles of Welcome. It is work we are called to do together—for Christ’s sake.



*"Migration and Refugee Movements Worldwide," April 14, 2016; address given in Hanover, Germany