Taking the call to "welcome the stranger" a step further, Park Avenue Christian Church works to help its immigrant neighbors in New York City by offering a legal clinic alongside Church World Service. Park Avenue ("The Park"), an ecumenical partner of the United Church of Christ, has offered its congregation and hospitality, and CWS provides legal expertise to assist immigrants in the Big Apple establish legal status in the United States, reunite with and provide for their families.
"As a community, we’re learning more about immigration issues," said the Rev. Jennifer Kottler, an associate pastor at the congregation. The Park, an open and affirming congregation, is one of the oldest congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
As part of its educational effort on immigration, The Park invited a speaker from CWS to speak to the congregation, and both sides "discovered there were things we could do to make a difference for New York City residents," Kottler said. "Being that we are in Manhattan, in New York, which is a city of immigrants, the need is much greater for the kinds of intake services we offer."
The next clinic at The Park is Saturday, Feb. 2. The intake clinics allow CWS attorneys to meet immigrants seeking to establish legal status in the U.S., and make an appropriate determination of each case on how best to move forward.
The Park’s first two clinics were in September and December, each bringing in between 16-20 clients. Word has spread slowly in the community, but immigrants find they can connect with The Park as a safe location.
"We do have a number of immigrants within our congregation, and we felt this was a way to work in the short term to be directly involved with immigrant folks and their families," Kottler said.
CWS was involved in the same work in its own space in New York City, but the organization sought religious partners to expand its reach to refugee affiliates in the U.S. The Park donates space in its congregation and offers volunteers (about 25 members of the congregation were trained on terminology and some "do’s and don’ts") to help staff the clinics.
Immigrants who attend the clinics complete paperwork and provide their documentation with CWS attorneys, who examine the cases and determine whether or not an immigrant has a strong standing for legal status.
Kottler said The Park will continue this as long as the clinics fill a need. "The plan is to do a clinic every other month," Kottler said. Future clinics are already planned for March 23 and May 18.
One of the key advantages of a faith group offering legal help to immigrants is the trust that is built between immigrant communities and a church. That level of trust, Kottler explained, doesn’t always exist between an immigrant community and a government entity.
"The congregation has felt called after learning more about the way in which our immigration policy is really harmful to folks who live in immigrant communities. Knowing we have folks in our congregation who have had immigrant-status concerns, it was really important for us to help folks go somewhere they could trust if they were undocumented -- and that we weren't going to report that," Kottler said. "We’re welcoming the stranger as we’re called from our faith tradition. The congregation is multiracial and multicultural. People come to our congregation from all over the world. Because of that, we are a church of radical welcome, and this is one more way for our congregation to provide that radical welcome, particularly to a community that doesn't feel welcome to the U.S."
Churches interested in learning more about CWS immigration services or how to set-up a clinic can contact CWS at 212.870.3300.
The United Church of Christ has a long history of affirming the dignity of immigrants and working for comprehensive U.S. Immigration policy. Since 1995, General Synod – the main deliberative body of the UCC – has repeatedly called for a fair and human approach to U.S. immigration policy that protects families and respects the humanity of our immigrant brothers and sisters.