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At Milwaukee church, refugees discover welcome from a much less suspicious time

MILWAUKEE (RNS) — Asher Imtiaz is the form of one who all the time appears to be wandering into an amazing story.

Just like the time in 2017, when the Pakistani American pc scientist and documentary photographer walked right into a Goal in Nebraska and ended up being invited to a marriage thrown by Yazidi refugees from the Center East.

Imtiaz had gone to Nebraska to shoot footage of life in small-town America within the age of Trump, removed from the nation’s city facilities. Amongst his portfolio from the time is one other Yazidi household, wearing patriotic garb and heading to a Fourth of July picnic.

“I went to see America and located these new Individuals,” stated Imtiaz at a espresso store on the north facet of Milwaukee final 12 months.

Imtiaz matches proper in at Eastbrook Church, a multi-ethnic congregation the place he serves as a volunteer chief at an outreach ministry for worldwide college students on the College of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus close by.

Eastbrook is a little bit of an outlier today, a spot the place refugees, immigrants and worldwide college students are welcome at a time when American evangelicals are more and more suspicious of newcomers to the US.

In response to knowledge from the Public Faith Analysis Institute’s Immigration Policies Survey, practically 6-in-10 (59%) white Evangelical Protestants agreed with the assertion “Immigrants are invading our nation and changing our cultural and ethnic background.” Against this, solely 31% of Individuals general agreed with that assertion.

Mari Chevako, left, and Asher Imtiaz. RNS photograph by Bob Smietana

At an out of doors service at Eastbrook in August, Imtiaz wandered via the congregation greeting pals and exchanging hugs as a various worship crew led the congregation via a mixture of conventional and modern songs. The service began with the singing of the normal Doxology, which begins, “Reward God from whom all blessings move,” adopted by songs like “You Are Good” and “Manner Maker,” by Nigerian gospel singer Sinach.

That was adopted by a studying of Psalm 23 in English, Spanish and Yoruba.

The church was based in 1979 by members of Elmbrook Church, a megachurch about 20 miles to the west. Elmbrook’s then pastor hoped to get church members extra concerned within the communities the place they lived. Dubbed Eastbrook, it was led for 3 a long time by former missionaries Marc and Nancy Erickson. For the previous 11 years the pastor has been Matt Erickson (no relation).

The proximity of the college campus led to an intentional outreach to school college students, particularly these from abroad, which continues 4 a long time later.

Each fall, church members give excursions of Milwaukee to newly arrived worldwide college students, who’re then invited to have dinner on the properties of church members. A lot of these college students come from Christian backgrounds and are looking for to attach with a church, stated Imtiaz, who was raised as an Anglican in Pakistan, a rustic the place solely about 2% of the inhabitants is Christian.

These college students are additionally searching for friendship. Imtiaz pointed to a 2012 study of worldwide college students within the South and Northeast, which discovered that 40% of these college students had no shut friendships with Individuals. Via the outreach at Eastbrook, their college students typically make pals of their first days within the nation. A lot of them find yourself spending holidays with church members and making longtime friendships.

 “It’s principally offering a house away from residence,” he stated.

The church additionally operates an Worldwide Group Middle on the south facet of town, the place various current refugees and different immigrants have settled. The middle teaches English as a Second Language courses and supplies help with points like housing and schooling. About 30 folks will find yourself dropping by the middle most days, Dan Ryan, senior director of mission on the church, stated in an interview in early January 2022.

Dan Ryan. Photo courtesy of Eastbrook Church

Dan Ryan. Picture courtesy of Eastbrook Church

Ryan stated the church helps resettle some current refugees from Afghanistan. He understands that a few of his fellow evangelicals across the nation are proof against the concept of resettling refugees. Since refugees are right here within the States, he stated, church buildings want to succeed in out in love.

“Sure, have your political concepts,” he stated. “However don’t lose sight of the folks concerned.”

Ryan stated that the church and the middle are very open concerning the Christian motivations for his or her outreach efforts. However additionally they avoid proselytizing. Their predominant objective, Ryan stated, is to indicate love and welcome to their new neighbors, some extent echoed by Matt Erickson.

“It’s a ministry of care and concern and tangible methods of loving folks welcoming folks,” he stated.

“These people are treasured by God and useful in his sight,” stated Erickson, who spent a number of years on the workers of World Aid, a Christian group that helps resettle refugees in the US.

Congregants attend an outdoor service at Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in Aug. 2021. RNS photo by Bob Smietana

Congregants attend an out of doors service at Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in Aug. 2021. RNS photograph by Bob Smietana

RELATED: Biden raises refugee ceiling, resettlement groups start rebuilding

Whereas he’s not shy about speaking about religion, Imtiaz doesn’t see himself as a “Christian photographer.” He stated that Christians in the US typically see their neighbors as “initiatives” or potential converts, fairly than seeing them as folks first. He takes a slower strategy, attempting to befriend folks and see them as a neighbor who is effective in God’s sight.

As a photographer, Imtiaz practices one thing he calls “God at ‘I’ degree” — attempting to attach with the folks he images as human beings, lengthy earlier than taking their image.

Like many church buildings in the US, Eastbrook has felt the stress of the nation’s political polarization contained in the church. Erickson stated that Eastbrook has all the time tried to deliver collectively folks from totally different backgrounds, as activity made harder by the broader conflicts in American public life over race, politics and more and more, COVID-19.

He typically turns to a verse from the New Testomony Guide of Galatians, through which the apostle Paul urges his readers to “bear each other’s burdens.”

“The final couple of years have given us a lot of alternatives to stay that out,” he stated. “Generally we’re doing it properly and typically we aren’t. A part of being a physique is that we’ve got to study to speak with one another, and we’ve got to learn to perceive one another.”

Throughout his sermon on the outside service in August, Erickson urged church members to floor their lives within the Bible and its message of affection, fairly than on the noise of the skin world. With out that stable basis, he stated, their lives gained’t replicate the form of love God desires them to share.

“Brothers and sisters, I simply wish to ask us at present, are we giving extra time to the information, are we giving extra time to social media than we’re to the Phrase of God and letting it sink into our lives?” he stated. “I’m not attempting to be legalistic. I’m simply sick of us being brainwashed and need us to face within the kingdom.”.

Mahitha Voola, left, and Manna Konduri. RNS photo by Bob Smietana

Mahitha Voola, left, and Manna Konduri at Eastbrook Church in Aug. 2021. RNS photograph by Bob Smietana

Among the many folks at Eastbrook that Sunday had been Mahitha Voola and Manna Konduri, each initially from India, who got here to Eastbrook via the church’s outreach to worldwide college students and ended up staying after commencement.

From the start, folks on the church made them really feel at residence.

“They are saying, ‘Oh, style and see the Lord is nice,’” Voola stated, quoting a verse from the Psalms. “I’ve tasted that love of God via these folks and thru the church. I really feel very blessed to be a part of it.”

The 2 stated they hope to cross on the welcome they’ve acquired.

“As we speak we’re the recipients of this love,” Konduri stated. “Tomorrow, perhaps we would be the ones to indicate that to another person.”

Eastbrook’s ethic of welcome, Imtiaz stated, has been as a lot a boon for him as it’s for the newcomers. 

He’s significantly keen on documenting the story of immigrants and refugees, whom he likes to confer with as “new Individuals.” For a number of years he lived in an residence complicated the place newly resettled refugees had been residing in order that he might get to know them. He ended up photographing various neighbors after constructing friendships. When he received COVID-19 — a gentle case — one in all his former neighbors, a lady from Iraq, would ship him soup.  

Imtiaz hopes that his images and work on the church will encourage folks to get to know their neighbors, regardless of the place they arrive from.

“If I can go to Nebraska and go to Goal and meet 400 Yazidis, anyone else can,” he stated.

RELATED: South Sudanese refugees are making a home and a church in Central New York

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