United Church of Christ

Nebraska church reaches out to immigrants with welcome, education, resources

Crete.jpgA UCC congregation in small-town Nebraska is partnering with other justice organizations to do something tangible to help immigrants and refugees who face losing their Temporary Protected Status in the United States.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational in Crete reached out to offer assistance on Tuesday, Jan. 9 in the form of two clinics on the issue. Crete, Neb., home to about 7,000 people, has a significant immigrant population and First Congregational is immersed in offering their neighbors from other countries extravagant welcome in a number of different ways.

"We, in the church, are really just a hospitable and safe place to talk about relevant and authentic concerns and celebrate any progress in being a better community," said the Rev. Jeff Hagaman, pastor of First Congregational. "We do very little more than be welcoming. We don't feel the need to control any agenda, just be an open place that welcomes the opportunity to help better our sense of community."

Right now in their community, immigration issues are top of mind. Crete has a large Guatemalan presence, with Mayan and Spanish speaking people. All Central American countries are represented, as are Myanmar, Cuba and Vietnam. There are 14 different languages spoken in the Crete public schools.

President Donald Trump is currently cutting back on the number of immigrants granted Temporary Protected Status, which allows them to live and work legally in the U.S. TPS is a form of humanitarian relief that protects from deportation people who would face hardship or danger if they were forced to return to homelands devastated by armed conflict and natural disasters. This week the administration put 200,000 Salvadorans on notice that their TPS status will end, adding El Salvador to a growing list that includes immigrants from Haiti, Sudan and Nicaragua. Later this year, the government will decide whether to extend TPS for five other nations: Syria, Nepal, Honduras, Yemen and Somalia.

"Last spring, when we hosted an 'Immigration 101' seminar, we had two sessions and a total of 250 people attended," said Hagaman. "That was not what we expected!"

The church, looking to become more culturally diverse, is reaching out to its neighbors in a number of ways. In a partnership with the Crete Public Schools, it offers English as a Second Language classes Monday through Friday mornings, providing space and childcare for parents who need to learn. First Congregational also hosts events and weddings for a local Spanish speaking church when their building isn't big enough, and works with the food bank to assist families in need.

"We send a group from our area to Guatemala to build houses through Constru Casa because we want to help living conditions there, but more importantly to us, to understand who our new neighbors are in Crete by knowing a bit about where they come from," Hagaman said.

Once a month, the congregation hosts what it calls a welcoming committee.

"A group of people working in the community gathers to discuss how we be a better community," he continued. "Nebraska Appleseed and Justice for Our Neighbors, and the Center for Rural Affairs are statewide organizations that meet with us. The local police, library, hospital, Doane University, Crete Public Schools, and several social agencies meet to talk about issues in town and ways to work together. This is how we were able to be ready to offer the TPS workshop at the right time. This meeting is chaired by a city employee whose job it is to help newcomers find resources."

The newcomers are drawn to the community by a number of good jobs and a small-town lifestyle in mid-America. Three big businesses, a Farmland Foods packing plant, a Bunge grain mill and Purina Dog/Cat food teaching factory, are bringing in people from all over the world. First Congregational's mission is all about being ready to welcome them.

"Our church is a very safe spot," Hageman said. "People know they can come here. Our biggest resource is a smile. All ministry is local. Our local ministry just happens to be global."


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