Recently Wesleyan Accent Editor Elizabeth Glass Turner chatted with Rev. Zach Szmara, the founder of one of the first immigration legal clinics within a church building, about sanctuary, immigration law, and cross-cultural ministry at home. Rev. Szmara is the Lead Pastor of The Bridge in Logansport, Indiana, a congregation within The Wesleyan Church. He is the National Director of Immigrant Connection – a growing network of over 14 church-based legal sites – and has provided immigration legal services experience to over 150 church leaders from a variety of denominations.
Wesleyan Accent: What are some of the most common questions you encounter from clergymembers who are uncertain about whether or how – or whether – to integrate immigration-related ministries in their congregation?
Zach Szmara: People wonder if it’s legal or not to serve immigrants. The reality is that we’re providing immigration legal services – which means we’re using the immigration law as it is currently written to help people navigate through the process if there is a pathway for them. Many times there is a pathway, but it is complex and confusing. So in the same way many people utilize a professional tax preparer because tax law is complicated and they want to make sure they pay whatever taxes they are legally supposed to (not more, not less), we do the same thing for immigrants – we help them navigate a complicated legal pathway.
Furthermore, I remind people that some of the church’s best moments have been when we’ve advocated for, learned from, and stood with marginalized people who were caught up within unjust systems – so while it’s not illegal to serve immigrants, even if it were I believe we should still do it (think of the church and the Underground Railroad).
If starting a full legal office doesn’t make sense within the church’s context, some great first steps are to preach on immigrants and immigration, to lead a small group study (we have materials we recommend), or to start a citizenship class.
WA: You’re not a lawyer. How can you have a legal clinic?
ZS: The short answer is that the Department of Justice opened a pathway in the 1980’s so that through a nonprofit an individual can receive training (education) and shadowing (experience) in immigration law. Then she or he can apply to the Department of Justice, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Department of Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the legal site receives recognition while the individual receives accreditation to practice immigration legal services.
The training (education) part can be done two ways. Most choose to attend a 40-hour training event, so it literally takes one week onsite. Then the individual can do several other webinars on their own. The second way is an online course which usually takes place over a few months. I recommend the 40-hour training personally. The shadowing (experience) part can be done by volunteering a number of hours at an existing site over several months or doing one of our Immigrant Connection Shadowing Experiences – which gain is one full week (40 hours) of intensive experiential learning.
So if someone does 40-hour training and 40-hour shadowing, they can be ready to go within weeks, and then it usually takes about a month to put together the application packet and they can apply for recognition and accreditation. It usually takes about three months for all three governmental offices to review the application and approve it.
We’ve had local churches decide to launch a site and go through the process in as quick as five to six months from start to approval.
So we cannot do everything an attorney can do, but within the area of immigration law, we can legally provide legal services. I’m not a full-fledged attorney – I cannot do family law or criminal defense or any other area of law – just immigration.
WA: What are two or three facts that pastors should know about sanctuary, immigration law, and local engagement?
ZS: Many times pastors don’t realize that it’s illegal to practice law without a license, so they aren’t able to help immigrants with any paperwork or forms unless they take courses and get accredited by the Department of Justice. It’s best for them to find and partner with a recognized site – you can find them here (https://www.immigrationadvocates.org/nonprofit/legaldirectory/ or download the Immigo app).
When it comes to sanctuary, there is no form to fill out to become a sanctuary site. ICE has said that they will refrain from engaging in enforcement operations at schools, medical and health care facilities, places of worship, and during public demonstrations such as marches and rallies. In other words, all local churches are safe places and sanctuaries for immigrants.
The sanctuary movement is different and historically focused on garnering media and community attention for an individual or family who would be deported if a church didn’t step in to try to get the story of the individual or family heard, helping the community to rally behind them in the hopes an immigration judge may grant discretionary relief.
Finally, I remind all pastors that they don’t know what they don’t know; many people have ideas about immigrants and immigration that are unfounded. It’s important to realize that many of the key phrases utilized (“wait in line like my family did” or “illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes and steal our jobs”) are inaccurate. The “line” is radically different than when many peoples’ families immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. Even if there is a “line” (and many times there isn’t) the wait is over 10-20 years long.
WA: What’s the cost of starting an immigration law clinic in a church?
ZS: It depends on the network, denomination, and organization that the church partners with. The Wesleyan Church is unique in that we launch Immigrant Connection sites for $5,000-$7,000 – but we are definitely at the lowest end of the spectrum. We focus on churches doing this as a ministry and start by staffing sites with focused volunteers. If a site needs to pay overhead costs and staff salaries – the starting cost raises substantially.
WA: What’s an example of some of the impact you’ve had?
ZS: There is no short example: our legal sites have impacted over 80 different countries. We reunite families, we help students have the ability to attend college, we help immigrants who were victims of crime find redemption of the very worst thing that occurred to them and receive a legal pathway forward, we help refugees become legal permanent residents, we help legal permanent residents become citizens, we help international pastors receive R visas to pastor churches and plant churches in the U.S., we have front-row seats to watch God transform lives and bring hope and a future into areas that are filled with animosity, confusion, and hopelessness.
WA: Many churches have separate worship services based on language. Why don’t you? Isn’t that awkward? How does it work logistically? What’s the benefit?
ZS: I’m glad in heaven there will only be one worship service even though it will be made up of people from different cultures, ethnicities, and languages. While it may work to break up ethnicities, cultures, and languages in certain contexts, I feel my community has diversity in our schools, hospitals, banks, gyms, shopping centers – why not in church too?
When we segregate services based on languages, we break up immigrant and refugee families in which one generation leans into one language but the next generation leans into another language. We also separate the majority population from learning from the minority population – and there is so much that white, English-speaking Christians need to learn from the immigrant, non-English speaking population.
It is awkward and it is hard and it is complicated and it is uncomfortable – but our goal is that it’s just as uncomfortable for a white English speaker as it is for a Spanish-speaking Latino. For too long we’ve had the wrong goal when it comes to multi-ethnic churches: what we’ve created is “multi-colored” white churches. In other words, these churches are very mono-cultural; it’s easy to attend as a white person because everything is still your worship style, your cultural way of doing things. You’re not uncomfortable in the least and you feel good because people of other ethnicities have assimilated to your way of doing things, so you can pat yourself on the back because there are different colors present in your worship.
But the goal for us is not assimilation but to be truly multi-cultural, which means everyone will be uncomfortable and confused at different times, everyone will have to give up a part of their preferences to be a part of our church.
The benefit for me is that I believe I’m called to build for Jesus’ kingdom – that I’m called to create signposts that point to Jesus, to his hope and his future – and I believe his kingdom coming means diversity. There will be multiple languages and cultural differences and multiple ethnicities in heaven (at least there were in John’s revelation of eternity) and so I don’t want to create some monocultural unity or sameness. I want to create a rich, diverse togetherness that is unity, but is not uniformity.