Outreach initiatives in faith-based communities may be safe havens for immigrants

Faith-based communities, i.e. churches, can be the starting block for breaking down societal borders, a study published today in Territory, Politics, Governance finds.

Borders are not necessarily “lines in the sand”. Although they exist explicitly on land, their presence can also be found through daily encounters between immigrants and non-immigrants.

Authors, Patricia Ehrkamp and Caroline Nagel said “borders emerge and are broken down in the lives of ordinary people”. Ehrkamp and Nagel examined the presence of borders in 35 churches in the US South that engage in outreach work with immigrants. Rather than simply excluding, the borders in the churches act as “…a place of encounter [between immigrants and non-immigrants] where the visceral difficulties of political life are exposed and challenged”.

Ehrkamp and Nagel’s research is part of a broader study that explores the role of faith communities in defining and enacting the boundaries of citizenship and belonging in new immigrant destinations. Interviews were conducted with pastors and focus groups were undertaken with both immigrant and non-immigrant congregants. The purpose of the study was to explore how faith communities shape immigrants’ integration into and exclusion from society.

The majority of the Pastors and volunteers interviewed felt “…a Christian sense of responsibility to others and of caring for those in need”. This outlook proved to be problematic as some immigrant congregants considered this notion of needing charity and care as enforcing borders, rather than being inclusionary, as they feed into the idea of them being Othered.

Discussions with white volunteers brought to light that they did not comprehend the material realities faced by immigrants living in the US. White congregants often attributed immigrants' mistrust to their origin and culture, rather than considering racial, class and legal disparities. For example, an unauthorized immigrant being unwilling to provide their details was more likely due to fear of immigration enforcement, rather than mistrusting the volunteers.

Although there still appear to be barriers between the immigrant and non-immigrant congregants, some Latino congregants said it was worthwhile to be part of a predominantly white church. Despite the churches being controlled by the dominant, white groups, they act as a relatively safe and welcoming space where immigrants and non-immigrants can work towards a more inclusive society.

Journal title: Territory, Politics, Governance
Article: Policing the borders of church and societal membership: immigration and faith-based communities in the US South
Authors: Patricia Ehrkamp and Caroline Nagel