In a world full of problems, it can be difficult to know how to reach out. Yet every day devoted individuals, like the volunteers at the English Learning Center (ELC) in Minneapolis, are making a difference in the lives of those around them.

For the past 35 years the ELC has taught English language education to adult immigrants and refugees. Serving 450 adults yearly, the center also offers classes in such subjects as math, computers, reading and citizenship preparation. These immigrants, 70 percent of whom are refugees, are from more than 30 countries and speak around 20 different languages. Many have only had a handful of years of formal education before attending classes at the ELC.

But the center’s programs go beyond basic education, said Amanda Steepleton, ELC communications specialist. “We offer a safe, welcoming community to our newest neighbors and serve as advocates for our students—something ever more important in today’s political climate,” she said. “We help people gain the skills they need to build new lives and succeed in their new home. Language impacts every area of our lives—education, health, finance, employment. In a sense, it’s the first step to be able to get to everything else.”

Originally started in 1981 as an informal outreach program by Our Saviour Lutheran Church, the ELC is now part of a separate nonprofit called Our Saviour’s Community Services, which also includes emergency, transitional and permanent housing.

Though the congregation no longer runs the organization, ties between the two remain strong. “The ELC is housed in the church basement, and the people who work in the church see our students coming and going on a daily basis,” Steepleton said. “Many of the members support us through volunteering and giving financially. A few church members have literally been teaching at the ELC since the earliest days—more than 30 years.”

Jenne Nelson, ELC program director, describes it as “a community of learners and advocates,” adding that all classes are taught by volunteers.

“It’s such a community-focused organization,” she said. “The students are from our neighborhood, the volunteers are from all over the metro, and the church is an important part of that as well. Even though we’re two separate entities now, we’re still very close.”

Recently, congregation members and students have been coming together for a new project–quilting.

“Any given Wednesday you find a lot of our students coming together with members of the congregation to make quilts,” Nelson said. “A few of them just learned to sew, but many of them have been trained as tailors and are really familiar with sewing machines, and just don’t have them now. But it was their job back home.”

Martha Schwehn Bardwell, a pastor of Our Saviour, points out the many examples of “welcoming the stranger” that appear throughout the Bible, including one rather notable immigrant—Jesus.

 “At the heart of our faith is Jesus, who was himself a refugee,” Schwehn Bardwell said. “Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of how he and his parents fled to Egypt to escape the murderous wrath of Herod. Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus tells a story about the final judgment and identifies himself with strangers seeking welcome. He says that when we welcome strangers, we welcome him. Now if that isn’t a compelling reason to welcome immigrants and refugees, I don’t know what is.”

There are many ways that Lutherans can reach out to those around them. Apart from tutoring or volunteering at an organization like the ELC, Nelson suggested people can:

  • Donate cleaning supplies, as many families are arriving to empty apartments.
  • Help them learn to navigate public transportation.
  • Donate boots and other winter weather items, especially if a family is coming from a warmer climate
  • Adopt a family through a Lutheran social service agency.

Since needs can vary from community to community, Steepleton recommended asking local organizations that work with immigrants and refugees what can be done. “Learn about who is in your community and their needs. Once you know that, it’s easier to start seeing how you might be able to contribute,” she said.

Beyond volunteering and donating, Steepleton also mentioned the importance of getting out into other communities or spaces that people are less familiar with to build more authentic relationships with those around them. She also recommended using the power and privilege of our voices to lift up the stories of those who aren’t often being heard. “To say that they matter, that they are welcome, that they are human. To be aware of what’s happening on a policy level and advocate for their rights,” she said.

Schwehn Bardwell encourages her fellow Lutherans to open themselves up to these opportunities and the way it can transform them. “Make room in your life for the lives and stories of others,” she said. “When you open your door to others, you may find that they open your eyes to God’s presence in a new way.”

Krista Webb
Webb is a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minn.

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