December 23, 2013

Church Answers Call to Welcome; Provides Legal Assistance to Immigrants

A volunteer assists Haitian clients apply for Temporary Protected Status, at a legal clinic sponsored by CWS. Photo: Carol Fouke-Mpoyo/CWS

As many around the world prepare to celebrate Christmas, it’s common to consider what messages the Christmas story holds for us in our daily lives. What does it mean to make room for strangers? For members at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Christian Church the call to extend hospitality is clear, and they have taken action.

“We’re living out our theology,” says the Rev. Richard Sturm, and elder at “The Park,” as the church is known. “This is something we’re meant to live out right now. Not some biblical mandate for some day in the future.”

CWS helped the congregation to host immigration clinics. Church volunteers welcome immigrants and collect basic information at intake interviews before immigration attorneys from CWS meet with them to determine if there is a way to solve some of the problems they’re facing with their status.

“These clinics are a small way of engaging hospitality as a biblical mandate,” Sturm says. “It makes me feel like we’re not postponing living faithfully. It feels like there’s a purpose. They’re a small but meaningful way for us to engage.”

“We can’t help everyone,” explains the Rev. Luis-Alfredo Cartagena, a fellow member and volunteer at The Park. “There isn’t anything more we can do for some. But for others, these clinics give them a future. And even for those who don’t get the answers they want, even to hear ‘there’s nothing more that can be done’ means that they don’t have to give all of their money to those charlatans who make promises, take their money and give them nothing. At least now they know.”

The Rev. Cartagena recalls a man he assisted more than a year ago. “He’s always asking what he can do for me. I tell him: I didn’t do anything; I just filled out forms. You don’t owe me anything. But, you see, for him those forms and those answers from the attorneys…that was everything.”

It isn’t just immigrants who are served by these clinics. The entire church community is affected. “When people from the church interact with immigrants at a clinic, they’re not an abstract political problem anymore. The problems immigrants face are human problems,” Cartagena says.

Sturm agrees. “For those of us who’ve been involved, it brings an awareness of the world. It’s consciousness-raising. It’s practical, and it has value right now.”

Cartagena says this is an easy way churches can welcome those in need. “You just need tables and chairs and the love of God. And maybe some coffee. The cost? Tables and chairs and your time.”

If your congregation is interested in hosting an immigration clinic like the one described above, please contact Erika Iverson. If you are an immigrant in the New York metro-area in need of immigration related legal advice, you can make an appointment at The Park by calling 212-288-3246 (ext. 10) or at the CWS offices at 212-870-2814.