Profile: Refugee Ministries Partner in Service Mary Kuenning Gross
Mary Kuenning Gross is the United Church of Christ’s newest Partner in Service volunteer. November 1 was her first day as the UCC Wisconsin Conference’s Afghan Allies Welcoming Coordinator.
Her responsibilities include coordinating and resourcing churches’ response to the need for resettlement help for Afghans who fled their country when it fell to the Taliban earlier this year.
Kuenning Gross got her heart for refugees early in her life. The first refugee she met was the babysitter in the infant room at the Church of Peace, her home church in Rock Island, Ill.
“On one occasion, she babysat for my brother and me. I was about 8,” she said. “I asked my dad about her. He told me that her family had boarded a train in Czechoslovakia during World War II. A soldier took her husband off the train. Then the train pulled away and she never saw him again.”
Eventually, refugee resettlement became her career. Beginning in 1985, she worked for the United Church Board for World Ministries (UCBWM) in New York City as a Sponsorship Developer for Middle East and East European refugees and then as the Refugee Resettlement Administrator from late 1985-2000.
“We worked closely with the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program placing refugees from about two dozen countries,” she said. “Over a 15-year period, we resettled about 10,000 people in cooperation with CWS and its affiliate network across the U.S. At the same time, we advocated for asylum seekers who were fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras providing support for organizations that provided them legal services, though many faced detention and deportation.”
Kuenning Gross relocated in 2000 to Cleveland, Ohio, to join the UCC’s Wider Church Ministries. She served as the UCC’s Executive for Refugee Ministries (2000-2007), Executive for Refugee & Immigration Ministries (2007-2010) and Consultant to the JWM Immigration Coordinating Committee (2010-2011).
The Rev. Irene W. Hassan, Global H.O.P.E.’s Minister for Refugee and Migration Services, said, “We are grateful to Mary not only for her many years of service in developing the UCC’s Refugee & Migration program, but also for her willingness to walk alongside churches in her local conference while they navigate the vital work of empowering the displaced and marginalized in this very urgent time of need.”
Kuenning Gross earned her Master in Public Administration at New York University. Among other paid and volunteer positions in the not-for-profit sector, she has volunteered as a tutor of Karen ethnic refugees from Burma, and as a member of the UCC Wisconsin Conference Immigration Taskforce.
“When the Partner in Service opportunity opened up, I said, sure, I’d be glad to do it,” Kuenning Gross said. “I know the history of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and would do anything I could to get it restarted. And it’s very important for churches to help refugees find a new life.”
Her one-year, volunteer assignment is for two days a week. Kuenning Gross also has been hired by the UCC Wisconsin Conference for three days a week to help with its scholarship and grants programs.
In 2016, Kuenning Gross and her husband the Rev. Bob Gross relocated to Wisconsin. They live in Waukesha and are members of St. John’s UCC in Merton. Bob is serving Grace Congregational Church, Two Rivers, Wis., as an interim pastor.
The UCC Wisconsin Conference voted several years ago to become an Immigrant Welcoming Conference.
“The Wisconsin Conference is excited to have Mary serving in this capacity,” said Kuenning Gross’s supervisor Lisa Hart, Associate Conference Minister for Faith Formation and Justice Ministries and Executive Associate to the Conference Minister. “The situation here in Wisconsin changes frequently and we are fortunate to have someone with Mary’s experience support and resource our congregations as they discern how to best welcome and serve our Afghan neighbors.”
“The United Church of Christ is blessed to have leadership like Mary’s,” said the Rev. Elena Larssen, Volunteer Engagement Minister on the UCC’s Wider Church Ministries Global H.O.P.E. team. Mary’s personal dedication to the fight for our migrating global family means that the congregations of the Wisconsin Conference are being empowered to address the Afghan relocation emergency with excellence and heart.”
Kuenning Gross said a painting above the choir loft at Church of Peace continues to inspire her commitment to refugees and immigrants.
“The image is of Christ as the Good Shepherd holding the lost lamb,” she said. “The one that’s lost is important. As a faith commitment we as church are obliged to create space and bring them into the fold of protection. The Bible is consistent in its concern for the alien, orphan and widow. To welcome the stranger is to welcome Christ.”
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