National Lutheran News

The Long Welcome

An Interview with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services President, CEO Linda Hartke

Allison Johnson interviewed Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services President and CEO Linda Hartke in early October. Photo credit: Joel Pakan

Linda Hartke considers herself a lucky Lutheran. After decades as a global ecumenical leader in Geneva Switzerland, Capitol Hill advocate, and human rights worker in Cambodia, she is at the helm of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), a national, pan-Lutheran organization that has been a champion for migrants and refugees from around the globe for nearly 75 years. Last year alone, LIRS, in partnership with Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, resettled 480 refugees in the state.

As President and CEO, Hartke’s passion for the work of welcoming vulnerable migrants stems from her personal experiences and also from her faith. “There is a special calling and invitation to Christians and Lutherans to explore and re-discover the stories of the Bible, of sojourners, of strangers in a strange land, and the experiences of both those who are welcomed and those who extend hospitality,” she said. She has found that Minnesotans in particular are quick to make connections between the often inhospitable conditions and experiences of their ancestors coming to the United States with what it’s like for newer arrivals to come today.

Hartke believes it is important to live out the Christian faith with individual acts of welcome. “Whether that’s something as simple as knowing a new American’s name, calling them by name, and remembering how to pronounce it correctly. How respectful and honoring that is.”

While many congregations are experienced with the short-term volunteer work of refugee resettlement, Hartke suggests that there is an emerging emphasis that must be placed on the “long welcome,” as one refugee in Fargo, North Dakota, stated during a conversation of local stakeholders hosted by LIRS.

“There is the short welcome — the arrival in a brand new place that is usually freezing cold, disorienting, frightening, and yet safe,” offered Hartke. “All that transpires in those first days is so important to people to stabilize and to begin to imagine their future, not just live day-to-day. Just as important is a longer welcome, the process of not only knowing others but being known, valued and respected.”

Planning for ‘Refugee Sunday’

Community conversations with refugee leaders are transforming the way LIRS leads at the national level and sees its future. “[Refugees and migrants] are the people who are at the center of our mission. Their experience, voice, and influence need to be lifted up and be part of shaping policy, local practices, and how LIRS does its work.” Its investment and cultivation of refugee and migrant leaders has created an alumni network of 1,000 members who receive training and opportunities to meet with lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

“There is the short welcome — the arrival in a brand new place that is usually freezing cold, disorienting, frightening, and yet safe.”

One other way LIRS is focused on the longer welcome is by providing compassionate, community-based alternatives to detention for immigrants that can keep families together. In direct alignment with the agency’s call for comprehensive immigration reform, LIRS has created the Community Support Initiative, a program that builds local capacity to deliver services to individuals negatively impacted by immigration detention. The Twin Cities are one of seven pilot sites in the country. (For more information, see “Everyone can provide hospitality to a stranger,” right.)

Hartke sees the agency’s upcoming 75th anniversary as a chance to look back and to look forward, acknowledging that the incredible feat of resettling 400,000 refugees is largely due to “the work of welcome that has been embraced as Lutheran.” LIRS plans to celebrate throughout the year with its three partner denominations: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The three church bodies will mark June 22, 2014, as “Refugee Sunday,” and congregations will be invited to lift up the refugee and migrant in worship and action. Hartke encourages congregations and individuals to consider ways to deepen their welcoming practices by visiting immigrant detainees, or by becoming foster families to care for unaccompanied refugee minors. “The story of being a newcomer is one we all share,” she stated. “It’s a story we need to keep telling, remembering and celebrating.”

Allison Johnson is a congregational partnership organizer at Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative. She lives in Minneapolis and is a member at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church there.

Everyone can provide hospitality to a stranger

If congregants are looking for ways to welcome and stand with immigrants and refugees, opportunities abound.

“This is a critical time for Lutherans to raise their voice in support of immigration reform. The next few months will be critical in deciding whether we achieve a fair and compassionate immigration process that meets the needs of families and communities in Minnesota and beyond,” said Linda Hartke, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). “Beyond the need for action on immigration reform, people of faith are constantly needed to welcome immigrants and refugees, visit them in detention, and rally other forms of support in their own communities and congregations.”

Here are ways you can make an impact:

Support immigration reform

Join your voice with those of Lutherans around the nation by contacting members of Congress today through the LIRS Action Center. Learn more by subscribing to the LIRS blog, “Redefining Welcome,” and to the LIRS Stand for Welcome alerts.

Hartke sees the agency’s upcoming 75th anniversary as a chance to look back and to look forward.

Welcome refugees

Volunteer with and support Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS), which partners with LIRS to carry out refugee resettlement. You can also support Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Both organizations do the critical work of welcoming refugees, and you can make a difference with them!

Join the Refugee Alumni Network

Make an impact through the Refugee Alumni Network (RAN), which LIRS created in 2011. RAN is a network of former refugees who want to help new refugees in the United States. LIRS sponsors RAN members to come to Washington, D.C., on World Refugee Day and voice concerns to their representatives.

Visit detained migrants

The Immigration Detention Visitation Ministry accompanies people who are currently having the often lonely and fear-filled experience of being detained for immigration purposes. Learn more about the Minnesota Detained Immigrant Visitor Project and Interfaith Coalition on Immigration based in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Back alternatives to detention

The LIRS Community Support builds local capacity to deliver quality services for individuals negatively impacted by immigration detention and advocates for community-based alternatives to the current U.S. enforcement system. In St. Paul/Minneapolis, you can get involved with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, The Advocates for Human Rights, Guadalupe Alternative Programs, St. Thomas Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services, Conversations with Friends, St. Stephen’s Human Services, Sarah’s Oasis, and Simpson Housing Services.

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