It seemed serendipitous, but it was no accident. I found myself sitting next to Doris Knight last week at the dedication of the new offices for Justice for our Neighbors (JFON) in Des Moines. According to their website, Iowa JFON is a “nonprofit organization, welcoming low-income immigrants of all faiths into our churches and communities by providing free, high-quality immigration legal services, education and advocacy.”
Doris was instrumental in starting Iowa JFON in 1999 and served as their first executive director as a volunteer for 15 years. The first legal clinics were in Sioux City, Omaha and Des Moines, and today Iowa has seven clinics around the state.
“I was so blessed to be used by God,” Doris said. Her face beamed as she marveled at those who had gathered to celebrate thousands of lives that have been changed because of this United Methodist immigration ministry. A more diverse group of staff, volunteers and clients I have not experienced in a long time: many ages, cultures, religions, ethnicities, skin colors and languages. What drew us together last Thursday was a deep desire to love our neighbor, especially the immigrants in our midst. Among many guiding scriptures for Justice for our Neighbors is Exodus 22:21, “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.”
In 2017, Iowa JFON saw 1,187 new clients. Although many people assume that Iowa does not have much ethnic diversity, dozens of countries are represented. The highest numbers are from Mexico: 336; El Salvador: 131; Burma: 103; Guatemala: 97; and Liberia: 78. Iowa JFON handled 2,490 total cases in 2017. They involved family reunification: 392 (16%); escaping violence: 709 (28%); citizenship: 222 (9%), advice and counsel: 750 (30%), and work authorization: 417 (17%). A typical immigration case can take between 10 and 100 hours to complete.
Sol Varisco was hired in November 2017 as Iowa JFON’s first paid executive director. When I met with Sol in December, she knew that JFON needed a new location with more space, but they could not pay market rate as a non-profit with limited resources. Sol and I prayed that God would provide a way for JFON to locate in an area of Des Moines that would be affordable and provide easy access for those needing their services.
Sol told me last week that in January and February, she called 16 different locations that were offering space, with no luck. The owners of the last location never returned her call, so one day Sol went to the area and talked to a neighboring business owner. That person opened the door for a contact to be made, and now JFON is housed in a beautiful suite of offices that is inviting to all who enter its doors.
Several Des Moines religious leaders participated in the blessing of JFON’s new offices, for the plight of immigrants in our midst is of concern to all religious faiths. I was delighted to share that Iowa JFON was a model and guide for JFON in West Michigan, which started in 1994 out of the downtown church in Grand Rapids where I was serving. I saw firsthand how concern for the legal needs of the immigrants brought together people of all faiths in the city.
Bishop Richard Pates of the Catholic Dioceses of Des Moines reminded us that our God has a special preference for the immigrants and the poor in our midst. He emphasized that every person deserves respect and dignity, for we are all made in the image of God and should have the opportunity to live a full life.
Buddhist monk Honorable Razinda chanted “Hommage to the Buddha.” Some of us had an English translation, but even those who could not understand the language felt connected to the Honorable Razinda in a special way.
- “This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness, and who seeks the path of peace: Let them be able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech, humble and not conceited.”
- “Radiating kindness over the entire world spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths; Outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.
- “By not holding to fixed views, the pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision, being freed from all sense desires, is not born again into this world.”
And Hindi priest Pandit Mukti Subedi, chanting the final hymn from the Holy Book, reminded us that we are all involved together in this ministry. We cannot do it on our own. We need to model the generosity of God by helping the immigrants in our midst because everyone should prevail peacefully on the earth. Every individual has a right to live with dignity and independence.
What a joy it was to witness people of many different traditions standing up together in solidarity with our immigrant brothers and sisters! As Christians continue our journey this week toward Jerusalem and the cross, the Palm Sunday Old Testament lectionary passage from Isaiah 50:4-9a reminds us of our call to respond to the weary and stand up together to make a difference in the face of suffering and injustice.
4 The Lord God gave me an educated tongue
to know how to respond to the weary
with a word that will awaken them in the morning.
God awakens my ear in the morning to listen,
as educated people do.
5 The Lord God opened my ear;
I didn’t rebel; I didn’t turn my back.
6 Instead, I gave my body to attackers,
and my cheeks to beard pluckers.
I didn’t hide my face
from insults and spitting.
7 The Lord God will help me;
therefore, I haven’t been insulted.
Therefore, I set my face like flint,
and knew I wouldn’t be ashamed.
8 The one who will declare me innocent is near.
Who will argue with me?
Let’s stand up together.
Who will bring judgment against me?
Let him approach me.
9 Look! The Lord God will help me.
Who will condemn me?
How is God calling you and me to stand up together this week?