Written by Shannon Schafer, Operations Director and ESL Volunteer
At Mission Adelante, we as a staff are reading and discussing “The God Who Sees,” by Karen Gonzalez, a Guatemalan immigrant. In one of the chapters, Karen talks about her temptation, after becoming a citizen, to see immigrants as the other and believe that there is no more need or room for them in the United States. But then she states, “Knowing names and stories activates our compassion. Without these relationships, I would continue to think of undocumented immigrants as outsiders, as the ‘other.’ In so doing, I would lose the humanity in myself as I failed to see it in them. I need these stories and relationships, not only for the sake of my immigrant community, but also for myself-- in order to be changed, to see the image of God in them and in myself.” This resonated with me, as I reflected on my own journey of meeting immigrants through English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and sharing life together.
I first began volunteering with ESL during high school in Florida. One of the Spanish teachers asked if anyone was interested in helping teach English to adults at the local technical college in the evenings. Having grown up in a military family, I had lived in and traveled to different countries my entire life, and I thought it would be fun to interact with people who were experiencing the same feelings I had. I began volunteering alongside a few others, working with groups of students from all over the world-- from Central American painters to Southeast Asian monks. It was a great experience; I got to know people from all places, and we shared parts of our cultures with one another as we tried to make sense of the English language.
One day at class I was exposed to something new, something that, at that time, wasn’t even on my radar. As we were conversing and working in groups, one of the Central American students said, “No tenemos papeles,” which translates, “We don’t have papers” (how Spanish-speakers talk about being undocumented). I don’t remember how it came up or why he had the confidence to tell me, but it was my first time coming face-to-face with undocumented immigrants. I didn’t know how to respond. I remember wondering if I had a legal obligation to turn them in. At that moment, I decided to play dumb and said that I didn’t understand what he’d said. But I did understand, and I needed to process what to do with this information. This was a group of guys that I’d gotten to know-- whose father was a pastor back in their country, who came faithfully to class with paint still encrusting their hands, to whom I had loaned my Spanish worship CD. After mulling it over, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t doing anything wrong-- that our friendship was more important than their immigration status and that their status shouldn’t affect how I treated them. And so I continued working with them and getting to know them.
Fast forward to today (more than 15 years later)... I have been volunteering with Mission Adelante as an ESL teacher for about 8 years. I have had the privilege of working with Latino students (of different immigration statuses) from at least nine different countries. We have celebrated birthdays and weddings together. We have experienced new foods and traditions together. We have danced and laughed until we cried together. We have navigated family, health, and economic challenges together. We have truly shared life together. Through these friends’ experiences and other research, I have learned much more about the topic of immigration. But one thing hasn’t changed-- the immigrants with whom I share life are my friends. I love them. God loves them. Regardless of where they’re from or their immigration status. My friendships with immigrants have truly enriched my life, ignited my compassion, and helped me to see the image of God in all people.
Mission Adelante will be hosting a workshop on August 17 with Karen Gonzalez, author of "The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong". We would love for you to join us! More information to come.
Love running? Want to support local non-profits? Join us on September 7, 2019 for Dream KCK 5K Race! Your registration fee and any additional donations support Mission Adelante and/or Second Wind. Register here: https://runsignup.com/Race/KS/KansasCity/DreamKCK