US Methodists bring migrant workers in from the cold for Christmas

By agency reporter
December 25, 2007

Not far from the US capital, where political debate rages over immigration, Floris United Methodist Church has invited hard-pressed day labourers in from the cold for a Christmas party - writes John Gordon.

Church members have served a lunch that includes tamales and beans and hand out gifts such as gloves, socks, hats, long underwear and gift cards for groceries.

"These are people that are here in our community, and we should not ignore them or dehumanize them. We need to treat them as our brothers," said Mary Ann Kral, who helps organize the annual party, which is held at a local community center.

Many of the day labourers are alone, thousands of miles from home. They gather on street corners hoping to find work-from construction to gardening-but say jobs have been scarce this winter.

"It's a time of crisis," said Nelson Menocal, speaking through a translator. "We came to this country with the hope that our situation will improve, our family's situation will improve. But now (there are) days that we have to go back with our hands empty."

The Floris church began reaching out to immigrants in 1995, starting an English as a Second Language program. The Rev. Martha Neal, a deacon at the church, saw the need after talking with two immigrant workers. "As I talked, I realized that these folks are just like me," said Neal. "They're here because they want to support their family. They're here because they want to earn some money so they can finish their education."

Floris hired a Latino pastor, the Rev Paulo Dasilva, to develop the outreach and hold Spanish-language services. Volunteers also provide legal assistance for workers who do not get paid by their employers or need assistance on immigration issues.

"They are 28 percent of the population in Herndon," said Dasilva. "In some areas of this country, they are more than 28 percent. If we don't open our door for them today, we will not be able to do it in the future."

Jose Ochoa, who fled a civil war in El Salvador 17 years ago, said he came to the United States searching for a better future for his family. "Thank God that I have been able to stay here for a long period of time and have been able to work," he said through an interpreter. "But it's a shame that some of our friends, they do not have documents. They do not get jobs and they are living in a really, really tough time."

When not working labor jobs, Ochoa pursues his true love-videotaping birthdays and other family events in the Latino community. His dream is to work at a television station, but one obstacle is not being able to read and write English.

In the past, Floris and several other faith-based groups used the Herndon Neighborhood Resource Center for language classes and other programs for immigrants. But protests and political pressure in a community sharply divided over the issue led to the closing of the center as a central location for immigrant assistance.

The Christmas parties continue, however. It's a time when immigrants can share a meal and the holiday spirit with friends.

"Thank God that there's really good people ... that give part of their time, part of their money, to have an event like this so we can spend some time together," said Ochoa. "And have a meal. For some of us, we have not been able to have a nice meal for awhile."

Floris members see it as looking beyond the politics of immigration - and reaching out to people.

"When the idea (for the Christmas party) was brought to us, (it) seemed so obvious and we wondered why we hadn't done it before," said church member Jim Anderson, "because it is, in fact, reaching out to our neighbor. It gets to the point of, 'Who is our neighbour?'"

With thanks to the United Methodist News Service

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