Early on in its life as a church plant, Mountainside Communion (MC) was made aware of the large role undocumented immigration played in our local context. Extending hospitality and remaining open to receiving the hospitality of immigrants in our local neighborhoods has been a missional focus of MC over the past ten years. This particular attention was never a plan of ours but has been an outgrowth of dwelling deeply in our locality. Over time, MC has built relationships with individuals and communities who are undocumented and/or who are seeking to navigate the complexities of the current immigration system.
In an experiment in reciprocal hospitality, MC crossed boundaries in relationship with Monrovia Youth Alliance (MYA), an at-risk youth organization that served a large amount of undocumented youth. Without seeking domain, power, or a benefactor role, MC extended itself in vulnerability and participation with MYA while intentionally not being armed with a program. MC members participated in ways they knew how: tutoring, shared meals with MYA families, linked MYA family members to health care options, and were involved in Wednesday night MYA events. Over time shared initiatives emerged, with neighborhood block parties, a joint baptism, and shared food and games. MYA families joined MC during our Sunday worship service and MC members attended theirs. MC intentionally took the posture of listening to and learning of what God was doing among our neighbors and newfound friends. During this time our weekly liturgy reminded us of the Eucharistic way of life we are invited to, where all things are acknowledged as gifts from God to be offered back to God in humility and gratitude, renouncing all pride and certainty placed on material things and one’s world-given status.
We gathered an “Immigration Understanding Group” in which we, through a group guide and the reading of Scripture, began to understand our own lives as migratory, seeing through our own life stories how to see ourselves in the stories and lives of immigrants. Many of us did not personally know the harsh realities of countless immigrants who migrate out of desperate necessity and dire economic need, but we were able to—through our own narratives of migration—humanize the international migration process by understanding the nature of human mobility in our modern world where the flow of people across political lines is often reserved for the privileged few. We composed and read our “migration stories” during worship services and instigated an “Immigration Minute” into the weekly Sunday liturgy where we read news articles and stories on current immigration issues. Through our growing understanding, emerging imagination, and the relationships built with immigrant neighbors, we began to read Scripture in a new way as a church, connecting conversations about our context with our worship and liturgy. Biblical passages and stories of migration and displaced peoples came alive to us in a new way. Our local context began to enter our weekly liturgy in numerous ways, including prayers written by MC members and the implementation of several Spanish-language songs into our musical worship.
This communal learning process did not come without moments of discord and questioning among members of our body. Because of the polarity of views on immigration related issues and its potential to be politically and/or socially divisive, it was neccessary to listen, dialogue, and redirect one another towards the movement of the Spirit among us and among our neighbors. By partaking in and living into the Eucharist as a way of life, we began to grow deeper in understanding the pilgrim nature of the Christian life to orient us towards primary allegiance and obedience to the way of Jesus and the coming new creation. This imagination was forming in us a way of life that intentionally strays away from reinforcing the often central imagination of a national territory decided upon by citizenship, but rather proclaims all facets of life as gifts given by a generous God, never to be clenched but always to be shared.
It was in this way that we became increasingly compelled to advocate for and support our undocumented neighbors and friends in more committed ways.
Right around the time that President Obama instituted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an MC member who works for the City of Monrovia happened to meet a local immigration attorney, and connected the attorney to some of us at MC and to the former MYA director. The three parties met to talk about how to support those in our locality who are eligible for DACA, a new federal executive order that allows for immigrants, age thirty-one and below who have no legal immigration status and who came and continuously resided in the United States since they were sixteen, to apply for work authorization, a driver’s license, and temporary protection from deportation. Over four or five nights, MC, the immigration attorney, and the Y-life project (formerly MYA) collaborated to put on community forums and workshops to assist people in applying for DACA. Several hundred people came out to the events, thanks to the outreach efforts of the Y-life project and families previously a part of MYA. A number of members of MC volunteered during the workshop nights by helping applicants fill out and print out forms to bring to a consultation with the immigration attorney. Participating in this way led to meaningful conversations with immigrant neighbors as members of MC listened to their stories about their work and lives. These opportunities for both side-by-side work and face-to-face conversations helped cultivate a shared sense of participating in the work that God was already doing as we listened to and learned from the narratives of our migrant neighbors.
Evaluation of these experiments and initiatives lead us to listen to and discern the Spirit’s leading towards sustaining commitment to our irregular immigrant neighbors and friends. Through the experience of the DACA support nights, local community research, and the relationships and partnerships we had built over a significant amount of time, it became clear to us that there was a significant need for low-cost non-profit immigration legal services in our area that was not being provided on a consistent basis. Without access to affordable, sound advice, we found that many of our under-resourced neighbors who feel trapped in the immigration system pay profiteering, “notarios” that use the Spanish-language term for lawyer in order to trick Latino immigrants and unscrupulously provide legal services in violation of the law. These “immigration consultants” take advantage of unsuspecting under-resourced immigrants and convince them to apply for immigration benefits that they may or may not qualify for, and in the process often steal from and carelessly ruin immigrants’ chances of obtaining legal status.
Through the work of World Relief, we learned of a nation-wide movement of local churches stepping in to provide affordable and competent immigration legal services in localities that were lacking such support, especially in preparation for future immigration reform or executive order that would provide a pathway to legal residency for undocumented immigrants. As a matter of faithfulness as a local church in our particular local and national context in this time in history—with the relationships and resources that God had provided to us to share—and obedience to the work of God in and through our church, we were compelled to act on this so that there can be an affordable option for our friends and neighbors as an alternative to unscrupulous notaries and costly private lawyers. Being involved in the lives of our immigrant neighbors had gone to the very being, habits and character of our church and it became remarkably clear that we must move forward and commit in this way.
The decision was continually affirmed in conversations with community leaders, local partners, and the rest of our church body. We went through the process of training and program development to become a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) Recognized organization to legally provide low-cost immigration legal services through our church. The development of the program was truly a shared work of the church and community partners. In constructing the advisory board for the program, we intentionally chose a balanced mix of MC members and community partners, international immigrants and non-immigrants, undocumented and documented persons. Further, the Immigration Resource Center of San Gabriel Valley (IRC) is starting out as fully volunteer supported—aside from the Director role—with volunteers from MC, IRC service participants, local churches, and other community members. The IRC will continue to require the shared work of our congregation and community partners as an extension of the conviction of God’s active participation in and concern for the lives of migrants who find themselves navigating the complexities of the current immigration system and a society that prioritizes the preservation of an order that excludes them over welcoming their participation.