In order that the stranger be no longer a stranger
It is 9:45 a.m. on a summer Saturday in Minneapolis. The day is beginning to warm, and it is already humid. On the second floor of an apartment, seven adults are trying to stay cool as they clean an apartment.
The apartment will be for a single-mother who will immigrate to the United States.
“I am redeemed,” said Norm Olson, a retired pastor and member of Mount Olivet Lutheran (ELCA) in Plymouth, Minnesota. “The redeemer is the great servant, and I am his follower,” he said. “A follower of a servant has to be ready to be a servant.”
As volunteers meet people of another faith tradition and learn about their traditions, they also provide a very important service of hospitality.
The preparations taking place are part of the Taking Root program in action; it is what has these volunteers cleaning on a muggy Saturday morning. The Taking Root program serves a community need, helping immigrants settle in their new communities. This program, though, has a unique twist: The volunteers are Christian and Muslim.
The volunteers, assigned intentionally by proximity to the housing for the person immigrating into Minneapolis, are organized into groups of eight, encouraging Muslims and Christians to mingle in a joint work crew.
“Many Christians have always wanted to go into a mosque, and now they have a reason,” said Lynea Geinert, the Christian community organizer for the Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC). “At the mosque they feel welcomed and learn about how forgiving people are,” she added.
Barb Olson, a member of Mount Olivet Lutheran in Plymouth, said she knew volunteering with Taking Root would be important for her because of the impact of a trip to Egypt. “After being in Egypt and having the opportunity to mix with different groups of people, I realized how we can get much closer if we get to know more about others,” she said. “We’re so isolated so often,” she added.
Building an interfaith community of service
As volunteers meet people of another faith tradition and learn about their traditions, they also provide a very important service of hospitality. The relationship between the volunteers and the newly arrived immigrants begins with a culturally appropriate meal, and ends with a closing ceremony.
“When immigrants arrive they have no family, no support system,” Geinert said. The volunteers provide emotional and vocational support. “These people come to a new place not knowing anyone; it can be very lonely,” she said.
The goal of the volunteers is to help the people who are immigrating integrate into a new place. “It can be simply helping someone get a library card, or taking a walk and pointing out where the farmers market is,” Geinert said.
During the first two weeks after arrival, the schedule is very busy and having a volunteer present is important for emotional support. After that the volunteer group is involved for four months, with the goal that the immigrant is self-sufficient by this time. “At the end [we hope] the friendships will continue,” said Farheen Hakeem, the Muslim community organizer for the MCC.
During this period of time, the volunteers get to know the person immigrating and the fellow volunteers better. “[The volunteers] learn more about worship in other cultures,” Hakeem said. “Often people imagine Muslims are one-dimensional; this experience helps people see the uniqueness of others,” she said.
Although the volunteers help provide much-needed services, the goal is that they will also be transformed by their experiences. Program organizers hope that respect will be created between people of different faith groups. “The goal is to create relationships of more understanding,” Geinert said. “Religions live close to one another. Lack of understanding causes fear, [but] creating understanding about how alike we are helps,” she said.