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3 Immigrants Who Made a Difference in my Life and a Book to Make Sense of It

I grew up on a farm in Nebraska. It was “the good life”…according to the state motto.

While I learned that God was omnipresent in my years of confirmation instruction, I was quite sure God headquartered there, too. And, I was certain that for the most part, how I viewed the world was how God viewed the world.

Imagine my surprise!

A bit miopic, right? 

I know everything is difficult for you right now as you lead ministry in Covid reality. “Every pastor I know is leading in ‘crisis’ right now,” said one pastor. Another: “We’ve decided as a congregation that it’s chaos and we’re going to press forward with the Mission of God no matter what the chaos.”

Let me take you on a bit of a strategic diversion. I’d like to pose the question of if the immigrant community near you, or the next generation brought here by their parents (Generation 1.5), or born here to their immigrant parents (Generation 2), might rekindle mission movement in your community. 

Let me introduce you to 3 immigrants who have deeply impacted my life.

I’ll go in the order of “last” to “first”!

Immigrant #1 Dr. Tesfai Tesema

I just read Tesfai’s new book Hope for the Second Generation: How Immigrant Children Can Help Rekindle Christianity in the West on a plane ride last week. Simply put: I would encourage you to get this book. You’ll start to see things in your church and in your community that you weren’t seeing before! You knew them but you didn’t know them! 

Gail and I first met Tesfai at a PLI learning community a half dozen years ago. It didn’t take either of us long to realize that we had plenty to learn from this man and his story. Tesfai fled from Ethiopia during the Red Terror of the Derg Revolution in the 1980s. He became a Christian through the testimony of a Chinese national while living in Saudi Arabia. He became a church planter with his wife Abby in Sudan before immigrating to the U.S.

Tesfai has taught in PLI. We’ve laughed together. We’ve dreamed together. We’ve had Ethiopian coffee ceremony together. But, here’s the deal… Dr. Tesema has transformed his doctoral research into a practical, story-filled volume that makes sense to a “God must think like I think” guy in understanding the dynamics of immigrant ministry or in capitalizing on a vast resource of next generation kids that just might “Rekindle Christianity in the West.”

Immigrant #2 Pastor Alex Merlo Iglesia Luterana San Pablo

Our congregation had several failed attempts at planting an Hispanic congregation at our urban campus. We’d partnered with another church two blocks away that was seeded by an angry split 130 years earlier. No small miracle of collaboration! Little worked until our friend Alex and his wife Maria arrived.

Occasionally, Alex and I would preach together. Me in English. Alex in Spanish.

Alex had immigrated from Honduras as a young man. He met Maria, whose family had immigrated from Cuba via Spain… her dad a victim of imprisonment and torture when Fidel Castro came to power. 

Alex developed a vision for not just a profound ministry to first generation Hispanic immigrants, but his School of Missionaries has also groomed 8 young men for pastoral training!

For 20 years, Alex patiently helped me understand cultural differences. Food…use of the church kitchen(!)… worship style… starting times… etc. Things that I would have termed as right and wrong … always tilted toward “my/our” way of doing things as “right.” Miopic, right? Alex is a bridge builder. Articulate. Visionary. Winsome with all of our Anglo congregation.

Alex and Maria, PLI alumni, modeled selfless service and a friendship that Gail and I continue to cherish these many years later.

Immigrant #3 Grandma Meta

January 31, 2022, marked the 100th anniversary since Grandma Ficken arrived from Germany at Ellis Island. Her uncle in New Jersey sponsored her. She was a seamstress in Germany saddled by hyperinflation between the two world wars. The oldest of six children. When she left, she never saw her parents again. She learned English by studying my Aunt Marie’s spelling books when she came home from school. 

She worked in her uncle’s deli until my grandfather came from Nebraska to get her. They had never met, but my grandfather’s parents had immigrated from the same tiny town in Germany, Gyhum, that my grandmother came from. These are my grandparents, Henry Fred and Meta Ficken, early in their marriage.

She was my baptismal sponsor. Devout in her faith. Matron of the family, especially after my grandfather passed away. Everyone deserves someone like her in their lives.

In Conclusion

Let me ask you again: Could the immigrant community near you, or the next generation brought here by their parents (Generation 1.5), or born here to their immigrant parents (Generation 2), rekindle mission movement in your community?

How can you tap into that movement? How can you invest in and walk alongside it? What can you learn from it?

2 Responses

  1. Great article! I am going to share this on the Mission Nation Facebook page. Right on!

  2. How can we tap into this present movement of helping immigrants in Central Illinois

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