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Panelists as Prophets, Call Us to Embrace our International Neighbors

from Highland Baptist Church, Louisville, KY

Sunday night amidst the most beautiful fall evening, we gathered in Fellowship Hall to share a meal and to hear the wisdom of prophets within our own city who work alongside immigrants and refugees and who guide the national conversation on human migration. The panelists include the following:

  • John Koehlinger is the Executive Director of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, an organization that helps resettle refugees so that they might rebuild their life in safety and with hope for the future. Koehlinger boasts of Louisville’s achievement as it has become a city that welcomes and integrates refugees within social, work, and religious communities.
  • Born in Congo, Patrick Litanga moved to the United States 10 years ago. Since arriving, he has earned his bachelor of arts, two masters degrees, and he is currently working on his PhD while working as a Case Manager at Kentucky Refugee Ministries.
  • Ryan Eller is the Executive Director of DeUne American, an organization that seeks to shift the national conversation around immigrants, identity, and citizenship in a changing America.
  • Edgardo Mansilla, a member of Highland-1996, is originally from Argentina but traveled to the United States in1990 for education in social work. He serves as the Executive Director at Americana Community Center where he provides tools to international families so that they might best integrate into American way of life. He also teaches part-time at the University of Louisville Kent School of Social Work. 

The night’s questions began at one of the most important: what are the proper terms to use in this conversation? Each panelists had their preferred term—“undocumented Americans,” “unauthorized immigrants,” “internationals,” “refugees.” Each person explained the specifics as to why they use their term of choice but they all agreed that the most important thing to name is that the words we use about migrants matters. Eller pointed out that the terms “savages” for Native Americans and “slaves” for African Americans justified the exploitation of groups. “It’s more than just about being politically correct. It’s that the fact that what we call people influences our perceptions and our perceptions influence our actions,” Eller said. Our terms perpetuate discrimination so we must be careful of them.

All of the panelists triumphed the strong character and determined work ethic of the majority of immigrants. Any myth about lack of intelligence or intent for crime can be defied by the statistics. The studies of immigrants over time and their years of experience alongside of them prove a significant dedication to education and an avoidance of crime for the first two generations. It is only after generations have been raised within the US, under our country’s influence, that crime statistics increase. As Litanga named, an immigrant knows that he or she really has only one shot to succeed. “Aim well, for you know that there are not a lot of chances,” he says.

Few panelists were optimistic of our current government’s ability to achieve complete immigration reform. However, each one prophesized that time will bring about change as the demographics of our country are rapidly changing. There is significant increase of international-born children who are aending school alongside American families of origin. This new generation will grow up with a significantly greater cultural diversity within friends, significant others, and ultimately family. Kohelinger asserted, “an anti-immigration platform is a losing platform.” 

Koehlinger named that our country has a legal obligation to care for those fleeing persecution. The United States, along with many others, signed a treaty with the United Nations to affirm that we would not return them back into the hands that are planning and attempting to take their lives.

Litanga called the group to more than simply considering word choice in regards to immigrants or political action. He named it as an issue primarily of morality. When politics or economics prevails over morality, problems not only continue but increase. Litanga named that we must be careful of our personal economic choices. Speaking from his own experience in the Congo, he shared how America’s desire for cheaper products leads to companies that exploit young boys’ lives, even to the point of death, within mines. If those workers are never compensated for their work in the mines, how could they ever desire to stay within the Congo? Their products and the millions made off of their work stays within America. Of course they will want to come to America.

Mansilla named that the Church has failed to remember that God did not create countries, humans did. The Church has been wonderful with acts of charity but has failed to give true assessment to the unjust systems that are kept in place by our complicated political past and divided political present. “This is my country, but this is my world,” must be the mantra we hold as Christians. “As long as we use race and ethnicity as a divider, we will continue to have problems.”

Eller took the matter to the text we hold most dear, the Bible, where there are countless biblical references to caring for the stranger and granting hospitality to those who migrated. Eller recalled that Moses and Jesus are not only the pillars of our faith but they were also undocumented migrants. Eller fears the stain that our country’s treatment of undocumented people will leave on our history, a history for which our grandchildren will have to apologize.

The evening was a rally-cry from the prophets to see the dignity of all people, no matter their country of origin. It was a call to give respect to their struggles and to celebrate their contributions to our nation. We heard the message: change is in the air. Our country will look different in 25 years.

Litanga shared that in his native language from the Congo, there is no word for “stranger.” There is only “guest.” How will Highland embrace the call to care for the guests in our midst? Global Missions Ministry Group invites you to continue the conversation. 


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