The Immigrant Experience

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God must love immigrants—the Bible is so full of them! Abraham was an immigrant. So was Joseph. Ditto for the people of Israel, who emigrated from Canaan to Egypt to Canaan to Babylon and back to Canaan.

“Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own,” God commands the Israelites (Leviticus 19:34, The Message). The writer of Hebrews urges, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing, some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2).

Hundreds of thousands of people with hope in their hearts for a better life immigrate to the United States and Canada every year, often with only rudimentary English skills. Children of such immigrants may become part of your group. How will you welcome them? The following will never completely prepare or train you for this experience, but here are some insights that may help.

Immigrant children have more to sort out than language issues. For example, statistics say that more than 40 percent of Canadian immigrant children live in poverty. Cultural differences make a difference too: some cultures train children to be quiet and listen, so that children may not feel comfortable participating in discussions and debates, or working in groups. These kids may be perceived as “different” by the other children, and thus may feel lonely or excluded. If they have come from a war-torn country, they could be suffering from post-traumatic stress. Differences in customs of food, dress, greeting, traditions, and norms all add to the difficulty an immigrant child faces in making herself at home in your classroom as an eager, active participant.

We have much to learn about ministry with immigrant children. Perhaps we cling to a few stereotypes: “Asian children love math” or “Hispanic children are good at soccer.” Perhaps, deep down, we believe that North American culture is superior to other cultures—and inadvertently demonstrate this belief with our body language. We might even catch ourselves giving privileges to children from the dominant culture because they act as though they are entitled. Perhaps our rudimentary knowledge of what life is like in other countries leads us to say or do things, without knowing, that offend these children. All of these cross-cultural misunderstandings stand in the way of welcoming and “treating the foreigner the same as the native.”

Here are some building blocks that will help you welcome children from immigrant families (and perhaps, in so doing, entertain angels unawares):

  • Examine your attitude. Children from immigrant families may add to your teaching load, but they are also God’s gifts to you and the other children. Through them, God is giving you an opportunity to learn, grow, and practice spiritual gifts, and to receive the gifts they bring.
  • Become a model of welcoming behavior. Practice hospitality and encourage everyone in your group to do so too. This is a wonderful opportunity to emphasize Jesus’ great command to love our neighbors as ourselves. The result? A greater sense of community.
  • Find out all you can about your students—the circumstances of their immigration, their family structure, where the child attends school, whether he’s happy to be here. Such knowledge will help you meet that child’s needs more readily.
  • Learn at least a few phrases in the child’s language, and teach them to the children in your group. Doing so indicates your desire to establish a relationship. (Don’t overuse them, however . . . the child may feel patronized or embarrassed if you do.)
  • Use alternate ways of communicating. While words are important, studies show that our bodies communicate more than our speech. Posture, facial expressions, simple sign language, and expressive gestures are all effective ways to communicate.
  • Use activities that incorporate a number of different intelligences. (See chapter 15 for more information on Multiple Intelligences.) When children use pictures, movement, and music to respond to a story or to express themselves, language becomes a smaller issue.
  • Pair the child with another child in your group who has a gift for hospitality. He or she can mentor the newcomer, learning much in the process.
  • Using old Sunday school resources, create a word book or flash cards. Cut out pictures of Bible stories and characters and glue them into the book or onto the cards, with words printed underneath. In the same way, you could create a “survival” manual of the church building and property, pairing photos of important features (bathroom, drinking fountain, fellowship hall) with matching words to help children become more comfortable at church.
  • It is not your responsibility to analyze or treat depressed or disturbed children. However, if you are aware of a need, consult with church staff or an education committee member, asking them to step in if appropriate. Church members may also be good resources for helping you understand how best to teach and reach kids from immigrant families. (If you have an ESL specialist in your midst, be sure to tap that person’s knowledge and sensitivity too.)
  • Invite involvement from the children’s families; they may be willing to share food, pictures, and stories with your group. Again, be careful about singling out just one child for this attention. Consider projects that involve other families as well—sharing family backgrounds and traditions across cultures. 
  • Focus on what you have in common and build on that. All children have the same needs—to be loved, to learn, to feel appreciated and needed, to experience God’s grace and forgiveness. Build on that!

God blesses us when we extend ourselves for the good of others. That’s what love—and teaching children—is all about.

Do you have any other suggestions or experiences to share about welcoming children from immigrant families?

This post contains an excerpt from Dwelling. Reprinted with permission. © Faith Alive Christian Resources

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