‘Our Mission is to Welcome,’ Says North Carolina Pastor Greg Williams — State Action Alert

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North Carolina benefits tremendously from the contributions of migrants in all walks of life. In this state action alert, I’d like to share how Pastor Greg Williams, of Grace Lutheran Church, is one of North Carolina’s faith leaders active in welcoming immigrants and refugees. This interview was conducted over email by LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins.

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Clarissa Perkins (CP): Do you remember your first experience interacting with a refugee or migrant?

Pastor Greg Williams (GW): When I was a teenager, I remember working in a watermelon shed with migrant workers. At that time, most were African-American. In my first call, living in Hickory, North Carolina, I met some Hmong refugees. The few adults I knew were hard workers. The children I met in schools were eager to learn. Family was very important to them. I still admire immigrant families for their strong family ties.

CP: Have you ever been able to relate to the feeling of being a newcomer, perhaps because you don’t know the language or culture of a place?

GW: Yes. My wife and I visited each of our children during their year of service through ELCA’s YAGM (Young Adults in Global Mission) program. In Argentina, I was very aware that I spoke no Spanish and few of the people we encountered spoke any English. I found it was difficult to feel comfortable in public places with many people (for example riding the train and being in the train station in Buenos Aires) since I did not know what was being said in conversations. Were they talking about me? From my dress, it was clear that I was not from there. In South Africa, it was a different feeling, since the most obvious difference was skin color. It was my first experience of clearly being in a minority. Since most people spoke English that helped me feel more comfortable. In both countries, I was warmly welcomed by people I met and spent time with. Many bent over backwards to be welcoming and hospitable to me, a stranger in their midst. I tried to be extra-attentive to customs, so I would not offend my hosts. My effort to honor their culture seemed appreciated. Trying to communicate was tiring since I had to listen very closely to their heavily accented English, often asking clarifying questions – if they even spoke any English; if not, non-verbal communication took additional time and much patience.

CP: Has your congregation been active welcoming migrants and refugees?

GW: My current congregation has been on a journey toward becoming multicultural since a group of Hispanic Christians came nine years ago seeking a place to worship. Through these years, we have gone from simply granting them space for Sunday Bible study and worship to more fully blending into one congregational family. During one congregational forum several years ago about our Hispanic ministry, someone asked about undocumented members. Without hesitation, our Hispanic pastor and I both responded, “That is not a question that concerns us. Our mission is to welcome and minister to all of God’s children. Whoever God leads here, we are committed to welcome and serve without question.” That helped move our congregation forward and unite us. Pastor Oviedo, who leads the Hispanic ministry, assisted about 20 families with completing paperwork last year for the “Dream Act.” Even though Congress has not yet passed immigration reform, we are already planning how we can reach out and help immigrants with their applications. We have offered English as Second Language classes. The congregation’s involvement with the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate has brought us together with immigrants as we worked side-by-side and constructed homes for Hispanic families. As we move toward a more multicultural family of faith, I anticipate that we will become more intentional and active in the ministry of support and advocacy.

CP: Can you share any examples of when you saw refugees or migrants contribute to your community or congregation?

GW: Let me just list several ways.

+ The congregation has elected two different Hispanic members to serve on the Congregation Council. They bring unique perspectives and gifts to leadership. It helps build greater appreciation for our immigrant sisters and brothers within the church family.

+ On second Sundays, we have a bilingual service prior to a congregational youth lunch. Hispanic members help lead worship by reading the lessons in Spanish, serving as ushers/greeters, and helping serve Communion.

+ The most popular youth lunch with the largest attendance on second Sundays is easily the one prepared and served by Hispanic families. I like to say “It’s the best Mexican food in town!”

+ A number of Hispanic members volunteer with our annual Blitz Build for the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate.

+ Recently, one Hispanic member’s concrete/stonework company did tremendous work as we renovated the preschool playground (removing pavement, digging trenches for drainage, and new concrete walk).

+Our county, Henderson County, is one of the top apple producing counties in the country. Without immigrants, efficient harvesting would be difficult, to say the least. Also, I readily observe many immigrants working in landscaping, construction, and harvesting tomatoes. They are an important part of this community.

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