How Do I Start Welcoming Immigrants?

By Jessica Udall, Editor, Loving the Stranger Blog

Did you know that immigrants make up 13.7% of the population in the US? There are more immigrants living in the US than in any other country of the world, but sadly, many of them have not been welcomed or befriended by locals. Loneliness and social isolation are frequently reported by immigrants as major problems as they seek to build new social networks in the US.

While many Christians desire to be involved in building cross-cultural friendships with immigrants, it can be intimidating to get started. The good news is that there are several simple ways American Christians can start welcoming immigrants today.

1)         Slow down.  As Americans, we often are task-oriented and efficient. These are not necessarily bad things, but sometimes it means we don’t make time for the most important things: connection with God through prayer and connection with other humans through conversations, even unplanned ones. Intentionally seek the Lord in prayer asking Him to give you eyes to see as He sees. Then be open to who he brings across your path.

2)         Discover your city’s diversity.  Keep your eyes peeled for restaurants and markets run by immigrants while driving around your city and consider eating or shopping there. Becoming a regular customer---particularly at establishments mostly patronized by immigrants themselves---is one way to start appreciating and getting to know an immigrant community.

3)         Partner with immigrant churches.  In the same way that you look around your city for restaurants and markets, look around for immigrant churches (or get some help from Google). Visiting these churches and getting to know their leaders can go a long way to get you plugged into an immigrant community, enabling you to follow its leadership and learn from the insights of believers who are part of its community.

4)         Use language to build bridges.  Language is a key that unlocks the door to cultural adjustment. Find out what churches run ESL classes in your area and see if you can join as a volunteer. If you live in a university town, there are often language programs where you are paired with an international student who wants to learn English, so you can meet up weekly to practice. If you yourself are wanting to learn a language, that is a perfect opportunity to look for a native speaker of that language living in your community to help you learn, and in the process, get to know the larger immigrant community which also speaks that language.

5)         Include immigrant friends in daily life activities.  Are you going to the grocery store? Does your son have a baseball game? Are you planning to go hiking? Invite your immigrant friend to tag along. Are you hungry? They probably are too! Eat together, whether at a restaurant or at home. Keep in mind that you don’t have to plan special events to spend time together---you can simply invite your immigrant friends into your life.

6)         Focus on nice normalcy.  Immigrants, especially after the honeymoon stage of cultural adjustment has passed, are generally not chasing novelty---they are craving normalcy. Focus on being nicely normal: not treating them as an exotic curiosity but simply as a person, a friend, who happens to be from another country. This is the kindest thing you can do for someone who has lost their network of comfortable relationships when immigrating.

7)         Follow up.  Don’t underestimate the power of small contacts collecting compound interest over time in order to build strong friendships---cross-cultural or otherwise. Make it a habit to be part of their lives in small, regular ways. Even a three-minute phone call or short text can go a long way to showing that you value the friendship you are building. Consider setting a calendar reminder to “follow up with ___ about ___ (her exam, her son’s flu, her visa appointment)” so that you won’t forget.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. May God bless your desire to get more involved in welcoming immigrants. Which of these seven suggestions will you try this week?

Feel free to contact me or subscribe to my blog.   And be sure to visit the resources on welcoming newcomers at the Developing Cross-Cultural Skills section of this website.