When Yohannes Mengsteab arrived in New York City as a refugee from Sudan in the early 1980s, an immigration agency put him up in a hotel and gave him a map.
He didn’t know a soul.
That first day in the large, strange city, he ventured one block from his hotel before heading back. The next day he added another block, and then another the following day.
By his second week, he found Times Square, along with a Lutheran Church where a pastor shook his hand and invited him to have dinner with his family.
It was the first time Mengsteab felt welcome.
Now the director of ministry programs for the Lutheran Foundation in Fort Wayne, Mengsteab told his tale during a panel discussing immigration from a faith perspective at First Wayne Street United Methodist Church on Sunday.
His story was to highlight the need for Christians to show compassion, kindness and even friendship to new immigrants of this country.
I needed that friendship, he said, noting that it led to him go to college and get where he is today.
The panel, brought together by Indianapolis immigration attorney Angela Adams, was the first of what she hopes to be many throughout the state.
Adams’ is part of a new organization dubbed Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform, which bills itself in a media release as a national network of faith, law enforcement and business leaders working together to educate and support members of Congress.
During Sunday’s panel discussion, attended by roughly 30 people plus five panelists, Adams said she believes the debate on immigration reform has drifted too far to the extreme left or right, and that discussion should be brought back more to the center.
There is no black-and-white when it comes to immigration reform, said Adams, who has been involved in almost all aspects of immigration law and has had clients from all walks of life.
The most frustrating thing for me is when someone is sitting across the table at my office and there is no solution for them, she continued. There is no line they can get into, because in many cases, the law does not offer a line for them to get into.
Several members of Sunday’s panel – which included Christian leaders from churches and other organizations – talked about the fear their congregations had of the subject.
Immigration’ is almost the word you can’t say on Sunday, said Rev. Matt Landry, who heads the Winamac First United Methodist Church.
Several spoke of how immigration discussions become bogged down on law and legalities, and that sometimes people forget the issues involve real people, with real names and faces.
What was not lost on several in the panel was how the Bible treats immigration.
They noted how much of the Old Testament is about people migrating from place to place, looking to better their lives. Even Jesus Christ traveled from place to place, said Rev. Joe Johns of Fellowship Missionary Church.
And however you reconcile the issue with the law of the United States, Johns continued, he said Christ has given Christians at least a way to influence our posture.
Jesus taught the disciples to identify with outsiders, Johns said. That’s the essence of what we see Jesus doing. We have to humanize people.