Gratitude. It was the first word that came to my lips. A week ago yesterday, I attended worship at Storm Lake United Methodist Church, which is in the Northwest District of Iowa. The first thing I noticed was the young drummer warming up with the band. How wonderful that a youth is part of the praise band, I thought.
“His name is Joseph,” a church member said. “When Joseph started attending church, someone asked him, ‘Do you want to play the drums?’ He eagerly said, ‘Yes!’” The member continued, “Joseph is one of nine children, and his father has been deported back to Africa. We are so grateful that he has found a home with our church.”
Just over 45 years ago, then Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray opened the doors of Iowa to refugees from Southeast Asia. At the time, a number of families settled in Storm Lake. Over succeeding years, the Latino population came, followed by East African refugees. What is now the Tyson plant for turkey and pork processing has long employed those coming to find a new life. Over the past forty years, the small idyllic town of Storm Lake, located along a beautiful body of water, has been transformed into a multicultural community fueled by meat processing plants.
According to Storm Lake pastor Phil Webb, “It is a wonderful thing that local business leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement, and the schools banded together with new immigrants to make the influxes of immigrant communities feel welcome and a part of Storm Lake. It was a deliberate choice, and the intentional steps taken have made this a truly vibrant and welcoming town, with opportunity and joy for its inhabitants.”
88% of Iowa is white, yet less than half of Storm Lake is white. The 2019 population of Storm Lake is 10,458. In fact, 85.2% of the public school population is non-Caucasian. Of the 62.7% of the students who are non-English learners, 76.2% are on free or reduced lunch. The poverty rate in Storm Lake is 17.9%. This past spring, a new school bond referendum was passed to enlarge current school buildings for this rapidly growing school district.
Asian, African, Mexican, and Central American individuals and families have converged on Storm Lake to work in beef, pork, and egg plants. Walmart looks like a United Nations. It is estimated that 30 different languages from 35 nations are spoken in Storm Lake, including Amharic, Arabic, Burmese, Burmese Cebuano, Central Khmer, Chinese, Ckuukese, English, Filipino/Pilipino, Gujarati, Hmong/Mong, Karen Languages, Lao, Mayan Languages, Nilo-Saharan Languages, Panjabi/Punjabi, Pohnpeian, Russian, Spanish/Castilian, Sudanese Languages, Thai, Tigrinya, and Vietnamese. That number does not even include a variety of regional dialects and tribal languages that are not specifically listed.
Storm Lake United Methodist Church is located in the heart of the town and has many outreach programs to the community. Nancy is a leader in the church who builds bridges between the congregation and the immigrant community, where parents are very protective of their children. Children often have no beds, blankets, or pillows, and when asked, are often reluctant to accept help. When Nancy asks, “Do you have siblings who need something?” she often receives better results. Most of the immigrants make regular money transfers back to their native countries, which, in turn, makes their own financial situation even more precarious.
The homepage of the church website says, “All lives matter to God.” Storm Lake UMC is an inclusive church where they are always asking the question, “How can we be Christ for others? Wednesday night is church night and is a huge draw because the church gym is a safe place for immigrant children. 80% of the middle and high school youth are not from the congregation, and most are unchurched.
Wednesday night includes a meal and separate activities for different ages. “I don’t know what I would do without the gym,” said one youth. Wednesday night is meant to create fellowship and build trust with the immigrants. There is no divide between the races at Storm Lake United Methodist Church. The youth even went on an overnight to one of our Iowa Church camps. But there’s more.
- The backpack program at Storm Lake is truly amazing. Storm Lake gives away hundreds of fully loaded backpacks to children and youth every September. Backpacks as well as many other useful items are stored at the church in what is called “The Blessing Room.”
- The Methodist men support scholarships for youth, reminding us that God is not done with us yet!
- The church has a free clothes closet and a free food pantry.
- One week each summer Storm Lake UMC sponsors an English Language Camp. Students attending this program begin each morning at 9:00 a.m. with a hot breakfast. Transportation to and from the church is provided for some of the students. On the last day, the parents are invited to attend a program where students present nursery rhymes, plays, songs, and readings that they had learned during the week.
- Every fall at Iowa United Methodism’s Mission Ingathering, Storm Lake UMC makes school kits for Nigeria. Word got back to Iowa several years ago that the students who receive these kits in Nigeria call them “Iowa’s” because they learned that they were sent from Iowa by people who love Jesus. “This is my Iowa,” the students say because they know that someone in Iowa cares enough to prepare and invest in their education. Storm Lake is unfolding the kingdom of God in the here and now.
Police and public officials in Storm Lake are deeply committed to community outreach, especially because some of the immigrants come from countries where the police are not to be trusted. They do their best to help the immigrants get settled and feel at home. In an October 5, 2019 Washington Times article, Storm Lake Police Chief Mark Prosser said, “My attitude has always been our organization had to serve the people the best it can. I realized we had to broaden our outreach.”
Prosser mandates that, “During every shift they work, officers must interact with at least one person they don’t know. Responding to a police call doesn’t count… I don’t know if street officers or local police chiefs ever have an impact on immigration reform, but we can have an impact on the people we serve,” Prosser said, making sure that his officers receive credit for their efforts. Several weeks ago, Chief Prosser was honored in Washington D.C. with the “Keepers of the American Dream” award from the National Immigration Forum for his work in helping the assimilation process of immigrants in Storm Lake.
Along with the radical hospitality that Storm Lake residents have extended to the many immigrants in this community comes inevitable growing pains, including a lack of affordable housing and uncertainty about the future of DACA. In addition, the immigrant communities themselves are adjusting to what a new life in America means for traditional customs and languages. At the same time, there are some politicians and activists who spread disinformation and are not supportive of assimilation. Police Chief Prosser is outspoken in countering the assertion that it is the immigrants who are always involved in crime.
Meanwhile the congregation of United Methodists in Storm Lake continues to visibly demonstrate their gratitude for the diversity of their community and the opportunity they have to make a difference. “God is not done with us yet,” I can hear them saying. “God will write God’s love on our hearts to love without fear because whenever the will of God is done, there the kingdom unfolds.”