Helping America’s Immigrants
Church Has Opportunity for Compassion Ministry, Evangelism in Outreach to Immigrants
By John W. Kennedy
Rolando and Ana Edith Acosta felt their six children needed better academic opportunities than they could provide for them in their Dominican Republic homeland, so they immigrated to the South Bronx, New York, where Rolando’s mother had moved earlier. The couple quickly began working 16-hour days ironing clothes to save money for their children’s college education.
“They came to this country for the same reason most come — to search for a better life,” says son Rolando Tomas Acosta, who was 14 at the time. “When we came to a totally different culture from what we were accustomed to on the island, the one constant was the Lord.”
Acosta made Jesus his Savior at 16, and found the church he attended — Iglesia Pentecostal of Washington Heights — to be a refuge from the harsh realities of discrimination in New York City.
Along with four siblings, Acosta went to college. Later he graduated from Columbia University Law School and became a Legal Aid Society lawyer helping the poor. While on the New York City Commission on Human Rights he drafted legislation protecting public accommodation and housing rights of immigrants. Today he is a New York State Supreme Court judge.
He and his Puerto Rican wife, Vashti, who holds a doctorate in education, head the family track ministry at Englewood (New Jersey) Assembly of God, a church of 650 with a history of helping immigrants acclimate. “This country has always survived and flourished on the energy of new people who come for honorable reasons,” Acosta says.
Acosta’s rise to prominence is not that uncommon for immigrants. But it belies the beliefs of many native-born Americans who have preconceived notions of immigrants as drug dealers, sex traffickers, and gang members or who view them as primarily out for free education, welfare, and health benefits. A Gallup poll this summer found that 46 percent of Americans want immigration levels to decrease.
In the past 12 years, the United States has spent $14 billion fortifying its border with Mexico. Even some Christian Americans think that immigrants primarily want to steal their jobs, harm their families, and raise their taxes.
Certainly there are unsavory types who make it into this country. But Assemblies of God Executive Presbyter Jesse Miranda says closing the borders also would mean keeping out qualified and deserving foreigners. “Those who want to come and need to come — and who have every right to come — should be allowed to come,” says Miranda, whose father was a sawmill worker in Mexico.
Scott Temple, director of Intercultural Ministries for the Assemblies of God, has a word of advice on this issue for churchgoers: Read the Bible.
“In this season when public opinion is clamoring for us to close our borders, the church must not close its doors,” says Temple, who has made great efforts to embrace all ethnic groups (see Today’s Pentecostal Evangel Report, September 18, p. 6). “It’s time to ground our opinions in Scripture. If the church seeks to proactively and strategically extend hospitality to the aliens in our midst, we can reap the greatest harvest in history.”
God commands His people to be kind to aliens, Temple says, citing passages such as Exodus 22:21 and Leviticus 19:33,34. The Bible also tells of God providing miracles both for aliens and those who help them. One example is that of the prophet Elijah, who was an alien when he traveled to Sidon, where a widow of Zarephath provided him food (1 Kings 17:7–24).
By helping immigrants, Christians may be used by God to share the gospel with them, according to Temple.
There likewise needs to be a Christian identification with immigrants because Christians are supposed to live like aliens in this world (1 Peter 2:11). In addition, Hebrews 13:2 teaches that some who have entertained aliens have been hospitable to angels without knowing it.
Miranda notes that God’s people in the Bible — from Abraham to Joseph and Mary — did a great deal of border crossing.
“The geopolitical borders we have today are necessary, but we need to remember: ‘God so loved the world’ — not a country, not a province, not an island — but the world,” Miranda says. “It’s important to look at it from a biblical and not just political point of view.”
In fiscal 2004, 946,142 immigrants entered the country legally. Family members sponsored the vast majority — 621,136. Another 155,330 people came for employment reasons, and 71,230 entered as political or religious refugees.
Within two decades, immigrants average a higher household income than those who have lived here their entire lives, Temple says. Yet even after a generation of living in the States, most immigrants are not proficient in English, he says. That presents a great opportunity to acclimate newcomers to this country — and to the church, according to Temple.
One of the leading congregations taking a holistic approach in providing for the physical and spiritual needs of immigrants is Church Alive Community Church in the Bronx. Since 1987, Pastor Timothy Birkett, whose parents emigrated from Barbados, has helped 30,000 immigrants.
“We have no choice,” Birkett says. “America is a country of aliens. Some folk who are born here forget how their foreparents got here.”
Churches and immigrants need one another, according to Birkett. “We have to get to know each other and accept each other’s differences,” he says. “We need to realize those differences are assets and will always help to make America a great country.” He notes that immigrants operating small businesses have revitalized blighted areas of the Bronx.
New Life Assembly of God in Pembroke Pines, Florida, is another church reaching immigrants. Pastor Maria Khaleel says 90 percent of the 1,000 congregants were born overseas. More than 30 nationalities attend the church, many drawn by the expressive, multicultural style of worship. Khaleel, who was born in Jamaica and has a Cuban mother, has Latin, Bahamian, Trinidadian, and Jamaican leaders with her on the platform. She says three out of four attendees have made salvation commitments at the church.
On the other hand, Miranda notes that many of those moving to the United States from countries such as Brazil, South Korea, and El Salvador are bringing an attitude of faith and revival with them.
Birkett oversees four ethnic congregations: African, Spanish, Korean, and English-speaking Caribbean, which alone has attendees from Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, Antigua, and St. Kitts.
Birkett says he never figured he would oversee a Korean church. “But Koreans who wanted to worship in Korean began moving into the area,” Birkett says. “So we had a choice — either say, ‘Sorry, you don’t speak English, go find some other place,’ or embrace them. We embraced them.”
Miranda says the United States is the world’s top immigration destination because foreigners desire the freedom — economic, political, and religious — found here.
Mexican immigrants, especially, try to gain entry into the country because of the availability of jobs. Employers in industrial factories and farm-related plants are seeking foreigners, and no longer just near the border but in faraway states such as Tennessee and Iowa.
The desire for employment can be all-consuming. Last year 221 people died in the Arizona desert after crossing the border.
“We promote ourselves as a great nation,” Miranda says. “When people take this seriously and try to join us, we can’t get mad at them.”
Birkett says much xenophobia is based on misunderstanding. “Undocumented” immigrants are those who overstay a work permit, or student or tourist visa. They outnumber those who come in surreptitiously — and illegally — by 2 to 1.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are approximately 10.3 million undocumented immigrants (57 percent of them from Mexico) in the United States.
Jules Derosier had a miserable early life in Haiti. As a youth he refused to participate in the voodoo ceremonies of his parents when they sacrificed animals and bathed his siblings in blood.
“I knew it wasn’t right, even though I didn’t know God at the time,” Derosier recalls.
When he was 12, Derosier’s mother sold him into slavery. He spent his teenage years working as a “mule” carrying food from village to village. He still has scars from the rope beatings he suffered. His owners also sexually abused him.
In 1980, at age 20, Derosier stole money from his owners and paid a smuggler to take him to the United States. He boarded a handmade canoe along with 150 others. After a 7-week adventure that included being lost at sea and shipwrecked in Cuba, the vessel made it to Miami Beach — with only 63 passengers still alive.
Derosier spent a month in a New York jail for entering the country illegally. Eventually he gained his freedom, went to work as a domestic servant, married a British wife, Rosemarie, and had a daughter, Brittney. But they left him after Derosier began abusing cocaine and liquor. He wound up living on the streets.
In 1995, Derosier went to Florida to finalize his divorce. During the stay Rosemarie demanded that her husband come to church with her because she did not trust him to stay alone in her home, fearing that he would hock her belongings for drug money.
Members of the church, New Life Assembly of God in Pembroke Pines, had been praying for the couple’s reconciliation. Soon after entering the church, Derosier felt his burdens lift. He began to cry. Derosier ran to the altar and made Jesus his Savior.
Now, in addition to being in charge of a county hospital’s supplies and transportation, as well as owning a cleaning business, Derosier is a deacon at the church, where his wife is on the pastoral staff.
“God healed me,” Derosier says with excitement in his voice. “I’m a testimony that God is alive today.”
Khaleel says individuals such as Derosier are among those who need to hear the gospel. Jesus, in His Great Commission, clearly said that all people everywhere must be reached. “If we’re going to be obedient to Christ, we must reach all people,” Khaleel says.