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Local Lutherans are helping welcome strangers in our land

St. Paul Lutheran Church, 27th and 15th in south Minneapolis, seves many Hispanics

The debate over immigration reform may have stalled in the U.S. Congress this past summer, but the issues it raised are very much alive for some Lutherans in the metro area and across the nation.
A headline-grabbing clash between immigration police and the pastors of an ELCA congregation in Minn-eapolis’ Phillips Neighbor-hood appears to illustrate a division among Americans. Some view undocumented immigrants as lawbreakers, while others see the newcomers as vulnerable people who deserve help.
It was on Saturday morning May 19 that six unmarked cars with license plates from different states pulled into the parking lot behind St. Paul Lutheran Church, 2742-15th Avenue South. Some of the occupants who emerged began donning flak jackets of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) police and adjusting the pistols they carried.
St. Paul Church has a large ministry to immigrants living in the neighborhood, and so the Rev. Patrick Hansel, who had been teaching a youth class inside the church, hurried outside and demanded to know why the visitors were there. After a lengthy delay members of the group said they were waiting for local police to help in carrying out an operation.
Hansel told the group they were trespassing on private property and would have to leave.
“If we’re seen as somehow working with immigration people, that would damage our credibility,” he said later.
Immigrants are afraid of police because they fear they’ll be asked about their immigration status and also because of their experience with violent and corrupt police in their homelands, the pastor explained.
When the immigration police finally left St. Paul’s parking lot on that May morning, they moved one block, to the busy Bloom-ington Avenue-Lake Street intersection. There they raided the headquarters of a major prostitution and human-trafficking ring in an apartment above a restaurant and made some arrests.
Pastor Hansel said he had no problem with the purpose for the police operation. In fact, his church had worked with Minneapolis police through a community organization to attack the prostitution problem in the Bloomington-Lake area. In the May 19 action immigrant police worked with officers from the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension be-cause a Minneapolis ordinance does not allow city police to collaborate with their ICE counterparts on general immigration sweep operations.
On that Saturday, Pastor Hansel said, police stopped anyone near the site of the arrests who was Latino or “Latino-looking” and asked for identification. No white persons were stopped, he said. Five persons eating at the restaurant below the apartment where the leaders of the prostitution ring were nabbed were picked up but had done nothing wrong, according to Hansel.
“We object to the way they did [this operation] as opposed to what they were doing. [They] cause fear,” the pastor said. “That’s what they’ve done every time they’ve been here, and it’s part of their strategy.”
Many of the immigrants who take part in activities at St. Paul Church are undocumented people, Hansel said. Speaking as an individual, he said the legislation that failed in Congress this summer “wasn’t a good bill. But it was a step in the right direction in that it recognized the right of people living and working here for years to be here.”
The Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), which speaks on behalf of both ELCA and LCMS on the issue, opposed the bills in Congress, saying they fell short of the comprehensive reform the “very badly broken” U.S. immigration system requires.
A chief flaw in the proposals before Congress, the LIRS noted, was that they abandoned reunification of families as a major goal of the nation’s immigration system.
Ralston H. Deffenbaugh Jr., president of LIRS, told the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, meeting in August in Chicago, that the nation is “paralyzed” with fear over the 12 million people undocumented in the United States.
“We’ve already seen an increased level of anxiety and fear among the undocumented people within our congregations and communities,” Deffenbaugh de-clared. “More and more of them will be apprehended and deported as increased immigration enforcement continues.”
He added, “We Luther-ans have been pro-immigrant; it’s part of who we are as an immigrant church [in] a nation of immigrants … We will continue to welcome the stranger and we will urge our nation to do so as well.”
St. Paul’s Hansel agrees that comprehensive im-migration reform is needed. It should address not just border security but the economic situation in Latin America that causes people to emigrate; the employment needs in the United States; the needs of family reunification; and injustices in the current system, such as favoritism based on U.S. foreign policy interests.
St. Paul Lutheran congregation, once a thriving Swedish immigrant parish, now has just under 200 members. About 70 persons worship in the English-language service on Sunday, 15-20 in the new Spanish-language service.
But immigrants tend to come for activities during the week rather than becoming members and worshipping on Sunday, Hansel said. Their impact on the congregation can be seen in the attendance at the 2007 Vacation Bible School. Of 90 children enrolled, 75 were from immigrant families.
The immigrant people he deals with, Hansel said, are men and women, mostly young in age. The families have many children, but a sizable number are separated from their families.
Almost all are employed, many holding two jobs and working nights and weekends. They work to support families both here and in their homelands.
Hansel, 54, was called to St. Paul Church two years ago, along with his co-pastor wife, Rev. Luisa Cabello Hansel, who is a native of Chile. The couple had served a largely Latino congregation in Philadelphia.
The main thrust of his efforts at St. Paul Church, said Pastor Patrick Hansel, is building relationships be-tween people here and the immigrants, so that the former will see the newcomers as human beings — as people, not lawbreakers.
As a pastor he said, “We have programs in the church and community where we work to integrate the immigrants, but our emphasis is on building relationships. We’re using that to show who we are. This is how we live our faith, and this is how immigrants can be part of that.”