Episcopal, Lutheran migration ministries partner through Neighbor to Neighbor program

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Jun 13, 2024

Zinat Zadran, 12, a migrant from Afghanistan, works on her homework on Nov. 27, 2021, at home in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Episcopal Migration Ministries’ Neighbor to Neighbor program helps ministries support families of asylum-seekers in a variety of ways, including helping parents enroll children in school. Photo: Amira Karaoud/REUTERS

[Episcopal News Service] Episcopal Migration Ministries and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s migrant ministry have partnered to train and support faith communities that sponsor asylum-seeker through EMM’s Neighbor to Neighbor program.

“This is another way for The Episcopal Church and the ELCA to live into [full communion], by engaging in ministry together and sharing this wealth of resources,” Allison Duvall, EMM’s senior manager for church relations and engagement, told Episcopal News Service. “It’s going to allow many more congregations to participate in sponsorship than The Episcopal Church could do alone.”

Established in 2020, Neighbor to Neighbor grew out of an upstart ministry launched by the Rev. Christina Rathbone, an Episcopal priest who at the time was serving at The Cathedral Church of St. Paul, in Boston, Massachusetts. Seeing a need to help asylum-seekers navigate their new communities, she began connecting them with Episcopalians who were willing to provide an initial support system. Rathbone soon partnered with EMM to give the growing network a wider, national scope. EMM is one of 10 resettlement agencies in the United States along with the ELCA-affiliated Global Refuge, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and others.

Under the new partnership, EMM and the ELCA’s migrant ministry, Accompanying Migrants with Protection, Advocacy, Representation, and Opportunities – more commonly known as AMMPARO – will work collaboratively to help sponsors serve asylum-seekers by offering housing support, and service accessibility and community navigation assistance. Neighbor to Neighbor partners are also capable of helping parents enroll children in school, teaching English to adults and helping asylum-seekers find employment.

Mary Campbell, AMMPARO’s program director, told ENS that Neighbor to Neighbor’s “outstanding” training and resource materials will “bring the congregations’ capacity to do accompaniment of asylum-seekers to an even higher level”

“Migration issues are much bigger than any one church, and the only way we can have the greatest impact is if we work together,” she said. “I’m impressed by the care that was taken in preparing the materials so that they cover so many aspects and go into depth to teach what you need to learn in order to be most effective.”

Neighbor to Neighbor is organized into five phases: Discernment, training, readiness assessment, matching and sponsorship, and conclusion.

Neighbor to Neighbor: Welcoming Newcomers from Episcopal Migration Ministries on Vimeo.

Prospective Neighbor to Neighbor partners must complete an initial interest form to receive information about the program. After planning and meeting with an EMM staff member, the prospective partners are granted access to nine on-demand training videos, resources and other materials to learn and prepare to welcome asylum-seekers. EMM will train AMMPARO staff, who will in turn provide orientation to ELCA congregations.

“One of the things we at AMMPARO were very excited about being able to share is the material about the agreements between the congregation and the asylum-seekers themselves,” Campbell said. “I think it really covers all of the bases that will be important and will help congregations to really not be surprised when issues come up because they’re covered in that agreement.”

During the readiness assessment phase, the Neighbor to Neighbor partners give EMM detailed descriptions of their plans to assist asylum-seekers for staff review. Once the plans are approved, EMM works with other partner organizations to match the program partners with families.

During the matching and sponsorship phase, the Neighbor to Neighbor partners welcome their families of asylum-seekers they’ve matched with, or “new neighbors.” The partners then help the families settle into their new community by providing anything they need. The partners can also connect the asylum-seekers they’re sponsoring with immigration lawyers so that they can have representation as they go through the asylum process. EMM staff regularly check in on the Neighbor to Neighbor partners and families during this time through one-on-one interviews, monthly calls and submitting activity reports. EMM also provides support as needed.

When the families are settled, partners make sure they’re independent and self-sufficient before ending their sponsorship. EMM also provides partners with resources and coaching on how to conclude their sponsorship relationships with families.

“It’s a very incredible training program,” Martin Dickinson, a leader of Washington National Cathedral’s sanctuary ministry, told ENS. “We learned about cultural sensitivities and one of the most important things we learned about was sensitizing ourselves to trauma. We should assume that any asylum-seeker, migrant, finding their way as far as Washington, D.C., had to endure trauma somewhere along the way. We need to be sensitive to that and watch for signs of it.”

Washington National Cathedral’s sanctuary ministry has been a Neighbor to Neighbor partner since 2021. Dickinson said the ministry has so far sponsored two Latin American families for six-month periods and it recently began sponsoring a third family from Venezuela.

(Read the latest on immigration from The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations here.)

Asylum-seekers and refugees leave their homes for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to war, violence and persecution over race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. As of Oct. 31, 2023, the most recent figures available, nearly 1.06 million people have open asylum claims in the United States, and the federal government’s backlog exceeded 10 million applications in 2023.

Although the terms migrants and asylum-seekers are often used interchangeably, not all migrants are asylum-seekers. The latter are people seeking protection from persecution or violence but who haven’t yet been legally recognized as refugees.

Duvall said it’s a “really important” time for churches of all denominations to support asylum-seekers because their needs are “staggering” and “far outweigh the available resources to respond.”

“The Neighbor to Neighbor program really is a wraparound kind of support that we are equipping local churches to engage in,” Duvall said. “Even if your church isn’t ready to say yes and welcome someone today, joining the Neighbor to Neighbor program will allow them to do the discernment, the training and the preparation so that they might be ready to do it in the future.”

The Episcopal Church has a long history of advocating for comprehensive immigration reform. Episcopalians interested in learning more about the church’s advocacy efforts can visit the Episcopal Public Policy Network’s website.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.