Immigration reform leaders across the country are opening their hearts, communities, and congregations to newcomers. I’m honored to share the stories of these friends and allies. Today, I’d like to highlight an interview with Pastor Clint Schnekloth of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas. LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins conducted the email interview.
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Clarissa Perkins (CP): What personal experiences have led you to become interested in immigrants and immigration reform?
Pastor Clint Schnekloth (CS): The first and primary experience that led our family to be interested in immigrants and immigration reform was our experience serving as missionaries with the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) in Slovakia. When you live in another country, you get to experience first-hand a couple of things. First, you experience what it is like to be a stranger in a host culture. You learn the emotional and intellectual struggle of learning a new language, becoming acclimated to a new culture, experiencing the hospitality practices of that place. You also get to experience how the country deals with immigrants from a bureaucratic, legal perspective. You go fill out paperwork, work with immigration officials, fill out more paperwork. It opens your eyes to that life in many ways.
We know that our immigration to Slovakia was made incredibly easy by the help of our colleagues and the Lutheran church there. Teachers took us to the immigration office, helped translate paperwork, and were our ambassadors in many, many ways. They were our cultural brokers. When we returned to the United States, I knew I wanted to do everything I could to help immigrants and refugees coming to the United States feel as welcomed as we did when we were in Slovakia.
CP: Do you see that immigrants in Arkansas have similar values to native-born Arkansans? If so, how?
CS: Absolutely. It’s really incredible. There is an equally strong devotion to faith and family, for starters. Immigrants to Arkansas, many of whom are Latino or Marshallese, have strong connections to their faith community. They also are very focused on family and the cultivation of family values. There’s also a strong commitment to food, and work. People who eat together are strengthened in community. Cultures that encourage hard work build up our economy and strengthen us as a community. It’s no surprise that Northwest Arkansas has a huge number of immigrants AND one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. Immigrants don’t take away jobs. By their hard work and their savvy, they create new jobs in a growing economy.
CP: How have you seen immigrants in your community contribute to the local economy?
CS: I have already mentioned some of this above, but another way I see immigrants in our community contribute to the local economy is the simple fact that they participate in it. When I go to the mall play area with my kids, many of the other families playing there are immigrants. Immigrants shop. They bring diversity to the economic opportunities in the region, also. Just today we drove by a new pupuseria on the south side of Fayetteville. This is a Salvadoran dish, a thick handmade tortilla filled with cheese or other ingredients, then topped with veggies. They’re incredible. That’s just one example of how immigrant cultures bring cultural and economic diversity to the region.
In our part of Arkansas, many immigrants also come because of the work opportunities. Some of the most vital and growing companies in the world are based out of our area: Tyson, Walmart, J.B. Hunt. Immigrants (and also transplant employees from all over the country and world) are a significant component of the workforce for these vital and growing corporations. I’m honored to have in my congregation many people who work at these places, and they know how significantly immigrant workers contribute to the success of their business.
CP: How have you, or people in your congregation, extended a hand to newcomers?
CS: We are an incredibly welcoming congregation, and we find all kinds of ways to welcome newcomers. Our church was founded as a church to meet the needs of ELCA Lutherans who moved to NWA (North West Arkansas) for work. Our “brand” of Lutheran isn’t native to Arkansas, so many of us are cultural immigrants, even if we aren’t national immigrants. So our church has a lot of practice at welcoming the newcomer.
I think we are in the growing stages of figuring out how to do this with actual newcomers from other countries. In my last call, I helped Madison, Wisconsin become a secondary resettlement site for refugees. One of the best experiences of my whole life was helping resettle the Dhimal family. We are still in touch with them, and miss them incredibly. I would love for Fayetteville to become a federal resettlement center for refugees. In the meantime, we are asking ourselves how we can provide more ministries, or connect more successfully, with the growing Latino population in Fayetteville, perhaps start a multicultural ministry in Springdale, and connect more intentionally with international students and other immigrants in NWA.
NWA is also a significant place for secondary migration of refugees and immigrants, so there may be much more to learn about how to do this kind of newcomer work well. I am open to the leading of the Spirit.
CP: What do you think most people don’t know about immigrants and refugees?
CS: That they aren’t that strange. That they often hope for what we hope for: stability, connection to family, friends, good work, a faith community, a friendly smile. And that anyone, absolutely anyone, can be a cultural broker and friend to immigrants and refugees. All it takes is time, and a willing heart. Lead with a smile. Lead with love.