Ninety people from at least seven faith traditions filled the Amistad Chapel at the United Church of Christ’s national mission offices Monday, Sept. 16, to celebrate their shared welcome for the immigrant and stranger.
The Interfaith Welcome Service and Luncheon were part of a citywide Welcoming Week organized by Global Cleveland, a nonprofit that attracts and welcomes international newcomers and connects them to economic and social opportunities in the area.
"Global Cleveland actually heard about the work that the United Church of Christ does to welcome immigrants and they came to us, told us about this event they sponsor through the week to try and help immigrants come to know Cleveland as a place of welcome and refuge and they wanted to know if we would partner with them," said the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC General Minister and President. "And we said, 'Of course we will.'"
"Being the only nonprofit [in Cleveland] that does the work that we do can get a little bit lonely, which is why it's so important to have incredible leadership and partnership with the United Church of Christ," said Global Cleveland President Joe Cimperman.
Participants arriving for the service saw five large decals on the Amistad Chapel windows, like those displayed by other Cleveland businesses and organizations for Welcoming Week – but with a difference. Many decals around town focus on today's immigrants. One of them, just blocks from the UCC offices, says, "Joe Marinucci is a CEO – he is also an immigrant." The UCC decals mention an ancient immigrant. They say Jesus of Nazareth was an innovator, visionary, organizer and changed the world – and "was also an immigrant."
The service did not address current U.S. debates about immigration policies or difficulties at the U.S. Mexico border. It focused instead on mutual respect among people of many nationalities and faiths. Representatives of Anglican, Buddhist, Catholic, Islamic, Native American, Jewish and Protestant traditions gathered around the chapel's central table to lead a ceremony of readings honoring the wisdom of each other's traditions. At one point the congregation joined in a Hebrew chant and a series of accompanying gestures: "Ana El Na Refa Na La," meaning "I ask, God, please heal. Please."
Before gathering on the chapel's upper level for a meal of international foods, the congregation read together a responsive litany that began: "Today we give thanks for the people who have dared to travel, to become strangers in a land. Today we honor the lessons they bring us. May we be open to learn from the stranger, to welcome the unknown, until we see ourselves in one another and give thanks for the blessings we bring to one another."
"Welcoming Week is a natural fit for the United Church of Christ," said Cynthia Bailie, director of the UCC Office of Philanthropy, Technology, Identity and Communication, who helped convene an interfaith planning team for the service. "For decades, our congregations around the country have resettled refugees and given sanctuary and legal help to immigrants. Our office in Washington, D.C., works for just immigration policies. Action and dialogues with interfaith partners, on immigration and other issues, are a regular part of our life. We are an 'Immigrant Welcoming Denomination,' by formal declaration of our governing body, the General Synod. Living out God's call to show hospitality and welcome the stranger is very important to us."
The Rev. Janet Ross, dean of the Amistad Chapel, also helped with planning; the Rev. Susan Blain, minister for worship and gospel arts, shaped the service; and the Phyllis Richards of Humanitarian and Development Ministries led it.