A Pastoral Reflection of Congregational Response During a Family Separation Crisis



[1] I pastor a congregation in which the immigration crisis hit so close to home that we were no longer able to live unaware. We did not even realize that this crisis was a potential reality in an Appalachian city, let alone expect to have to respond to this crisis ourselves. Very few members of the congregation understood the complexities of the immigration system beyond a few common assumptions.

[2] The purpose of this article is to reflect theologically about the pastoral response to and with a family experiencing the tragedy of immigration detention and likely deportation. The pastoral role required leading the congregation in care for the family without becoming embroiled in a potentially politically divisive social issue to the extent that it would affect the congregation’s ability to provide that care and support. This crisis of family separation due to immigration status occurred within our faith family to a family of husband, Renato, and wife, Melissa, with five children, Jordan, Michael, Abby, Priscilla, Maria, and Esequiel. Melissa is a lifelong member of the congregation who is now raising her family as part of the congregation. Renato immigrated to the United States as a teenager in search of refuge. All of their children have been baptized in the congregation and gone about the typical Lutheran pattern of congregational life. The older two, Jordan and Michael have affirmed their faith with confirmation, and we fully expect that the younger children, aged nine to one and a half, will follow suit.

[3] Prior to the beginning of our tragedy, most of us assumed that since Melissa and Renato were married they did not need to live in fear. Yet, on Reformation Sunday, 2018, I stood in front of the congregation and told them we would be delayed in our worship celebration. In addition to needing to talk about the local tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogues, we also needed to pray together and talk about how we would respond to an even closer tragedy. A parishioner of ours had been detained, was facing deportation; he, his wife, and children needed our support. In making this request for support, which included financial support in addition to prayers, I made a promise to the congregation that this was not a political statement. This was simply care of a family of ours in the midst of tragedy; we would do whatever was necessary to support them through this process.

[4] Of course we sang A Mighty Fortress[1] that Reformation Sunday, and as we sang our triumphal banner hymn, verse four hit home like it never had before: “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdoms ours forever!”

[5] What none of us knew that October morning was that this tragedy would keep continuing for nearly a year.  To this day there has been no resolution. Each time we have thought we were coming to the end of the immediacy of this tragedy we found it only continued into another previously unknown situation. Over the length of this crisis, the congregation has provided funds for potential bond three times, been represented at immigration court hearings four times, funded travel to Immigration Court hearings five times, raised enough money to secure the first round of legal defense for our fellow parishioner, prayed consistently for the family, hosted a bi-lingual Easter Vigil with baptism, and continued to support our family through prayer and action without becoming divided through the political situation. All of this support has been done because the congregational leadership has considered the question: how do we respond to God’s call that we love our neighbor?

[6] Because of this crisis, suddenly we were aware of our lack of understanding in how a person could be caught in a situation such as this. As the lawyer in the Good Samaritan parable, we did not fully realize who our neighbor was, and especially did not realize the potential ditch for our neighbor, our fellow parishioner. We knew that the individual, Renato, was our neighbor, but we did not know the complications of the situation he faced, and therefore were not aware of the ditch that our neighbor was facing, the ditch within which he now was lying. Not only was he in the ditch, but so was his whole family. Within one day a family with two parents, two incomes, two caretakers, and relative financial stability was facing life with one of each and a lack of financial stability. Renato had been stopped on a routine traffic stop by a local police agency, and was found to have past legal problems which were thought to have been resolved. This led to him being arrested and eventually turned over to ICE (Immigrations Customs and Enforcement) under a previous order of removal. In effect he faced immediate deportation from his family and the country, with a ten year ban of being permitted to return to his family in the United States.

[7] The theological struggle of leadership was seeking to lead the congregation in response to this crisis. The response had to recognize that members of the congregation fell along the full political spectrum. While the majority of the congregation is in the middle ground of that spectrum, as so often happens, the extremes of the spectrum require attention while managing the response. The first question was how to inform the congregation of the situation at all. At the time we did not have a practice of offering opportunity for extensive conversation or information sharing when something this sensitive could be shared immediately. To take time during the Sunday morning routine of worship would be a change of practice. It would be awkward, and I was not sure how the congregation would hear the situation. Would they hear it as a political statement or a prayer concern? The crisis began on a Thursday evening; I was called on Friday morning for a prayer request.  On Sunday morning we had not been able to make contact with Renato, we only knew he was being kept imprisoned at the local county jail. This was Reformation Sunday and, being good staunch Lutherans, we obviously had a celebration planned, which made the interruption of worship with this information even less enticing.

[8] In addition there was the question of how to seek support for the most immediate need; money for legal representation. We do have the mechanism of a pastor’s discretionary fund, but the amount needed surpassed what was a normal amount of disbursement and even the amount kept in the fund. Also part of the reality of the situation included acknowledging the cultural differences embedded in the situation. We are not a diverse congregation, we are not a bilingual congregation. As much as we try to be welcoming, the reality is that it is hard to be in relationship with folks of different backgrounds. It requires determination and hard work on the sides of all parties. Renato’s wife, Melissa, was baptized into the congregation as an infant and is now raising her children in the congregation. However, we do not worship or engage in regular fellowship in a way that made it easy for Renato to become at home in the congregation. We had made small steps of welcome when the opportunity arose,  but we had not taken the time to do what was necessary for true hospitality.

[9] When we celebrated the baptism of Renato and Melissa’s first child, Maria, we made the effort to do the baptism portion of the service in Spanish. This was Spanish spoken by a white, non-Hispanic pastor; it was poorly spoken Spanish. We were trying however to make the statement that while communication might be difficult, we were committed to being in relationship with Renato. For the congregation, including the pastor, this was an anxiety producing Sunday. As is usual with baptisms, there was a large number of family gathered. The difference was we felt self-conscious about communication because we did not know what to expect. Renato’s family had similar feelings of apprehension leading into the worship experience. This was a major feat for the congregation,  but actually a small step in hospitality. We expressed our desire for Renato to feel at home with us. The truth of the matter is that we both continue to feel awkward. Renato speaks English well but gets as nervous as we do in communicating. Moreover, the regular weekly pattern of worship does not make room for people who are not native English speakers. More dedication is required to be welcoming and in relationship. It takes effort to include those who are different from us to our banquets; especially when we consider worship to be our greatest banquet. When Jesus instructs us in Luke 12:12-14 not to take the seat of honor but instead to include the stranger in our banquets, it is intimidating work that he is calling us towards. We prefer to eat with who we perceive to be our own kind and those that we know we share things in common. To invite the stranger means placing ourselves in a place of vulnerability and opening ourselves to the presence of Christ in all people.

[10] This process of learning how to welcome and include the stranger is difficult work as well. Welcoming the stranger involves storytelling and listening by both parties involved in the building of relationship. We realized that we needed to listen to Renato’s story and the experiences of others in similar situations  so that we could understand the scenarios of life that occurred. But we also needed to listen to the stories of those doing the welcome. This became clear when a member of the congregation shared the transformation she had been experiencing. This member had accompanied Melissa to visit Renato in the prison, and she had been  present for support in the hearings of the immigration court. This journey walking with Renato and Melissa, and their family, had changed and stretched her perceptions.  Her story showed how deeply ingrained our prejudices can be. As a child, sixty years ago, she had been in her fenced-in backyard playing and eating a snack, when an African American neighbor child of similar age was also outside playing. She shared her snack with her neighbor. Years later her mother shared with her that she had seen her do this and that this act of hospitality had upset her. While she was not scolded at the time, it points to underlying prejudices that had influenced her as a child. Her story brought to attention the amount of work necessary, and the amount of story sharing required, in order to re-envision who God considers our neighbors. When we consider the Good Samaritan parable, the neighbor who received the snack was in a ditch, the ditch of not being a member of the majority race and class. The upset mother was unable to perceive this child as neighbor and therefore considered her unworthy of hospitality.

[11] In addition to the lens of the Good Samaritan Parable, we may also look at this situation through the lens of Luke 10; the sending of the seventy by Jesus into the ministry field. Commonly this story of sending of the disciples and relying on hospitality is told as if we are one of the seventy who are sent. It is a teaching about how the followers of Christ rely on the hospitality of strangers. It is also a story of building relationships. The seventy are instructed to carry no provisions, to enter the house where they are welcomed and safe, where they receive hospitality and are therefore protected.  “[O]ne of the core features of ancient hospitality included the host’s implicit vow to provide the stranger with protection.”[2] They are instructed to remain in this house for the duration of their stay in the town as long as they receive peace. It is a story of relationship building in that they are to minister to those they are staying with, announcing that the kingdom of God has come near. What happens when we invert our perceived roles in this sending of the seventy? When we take the place of the people providing hospitality, rather than one of the seventy receiving hospitality, suddenly we are they who experience the kingdom of God. In addition to experiencing the kingdom of God, we are the ones who receive ministry and a cure of our ailments. By occupying the place of those providing the hospitality, which our cultural security allows us to do, we are opening ourselves to the relationships that are built on love and pleasing God. The purpose of this hospitality is built on love, somewhat in contrast to ancient hospitality, “in Hebraic and Christian contexts, however, the motive for hospitality more often grew out of the desire to please God by showing love toward a fellow worshiper.”[3] As we recognize the need for our openness to relationship with the stranger we will more fully recognize the beautiful spectrum that is God’s creation of humanity.[4] Hospitality offers us the chance to do this before we reach the moment of crisis.

[12] At the beginning of this crisis, we asked the people of the congregation to consider contributing financially to the need for legal defense. In addition to the Good Samaritan Parable we can also look to Matthew 25:35-36, 40, for guidance of who it is we are to serve with the gifts we have received. We did not have conversations of whether or not Renato was a part of Christ’s family. A congruence of factors seems to have prevented these conversations. We were no longer able to see Renato as he had been detained in prison since the beginning of this situation. But, we had seen his wife as one of us for her entire life, and we looked their children in the eye each Sunday. It is entirely likely that this situation could have brought forward the question of who is a member of God’s family. In this consideration, we pointed pre-emptively to Genesis 1:26-27 when all humans were created in God’s image. In this sense, for the most part we followed Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 well and gave generously as a congregation. Thanks to this initial generosity, we have found our way in accompanying our family in the faith through their crisis and have owned their crisis as our own.

[13] Moving forward we intend to continue to support our family for as long as necessary. We will continue praying diligently for the release of our captive brother. We will continue to listen to stories so that we may be able to more fully understand the implications of policy in an effort to understand the concerns of our neighbors. We will also continue in an effort of hospitality, to seek to continue to heal the ditches of our world while seeking to walk God’s path.

[14] The effect of this work on the congregation has been that we have learned how to have conversation about socially sensitive topics while focusing on the care of our neighbors. We are learning to trust one another in these conversations, even in the face of disagreement, to maintain focus on caring for our neighbors, lifting the persecuted, and strengthening the oppressed through love and the recognition of Christ within all people. We pray as a congregation that Renato will be permitted to return to his family, and we will have the opportunity to continue our relationship in hospitality and inclusion, experiencing the nearness of the kingdom of God.




[1] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006. Print. #504

[2] Arterbury, Andrew. Entertaining Angels: Hospitality in Luke and Acts. Christian Reflections. (2007) Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 20-27.

[3] Ibid. p.21

[4] Genesis 1: 26

Jonathan “JJ” Lynn

Jonathan “JJ” Lynn is an ordained pastor of the ELCA serving Emmanuel Lutheran Church of Etna, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.