At last, David Hurtado can vote for his local school board members, hospital commissioners and legislators.

“I have a voice,” said the Manson, Wash., resident, who voted for the first time last November. A U.S. resident for nearly 35 years, he and his wife, Leticia, became citizens on Aug. 24. That evening they, along with 10 others, were naturalized during a ceremony at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center based in Chelan, Wash.

The new citizens took their oath of allegiance surrounded by mountains and a supportive crowd. Paula Swasko, former worship coordinator at Holden, sang the national anthem. Medic Dana Petersen played the bagpipes. Among the guest speakers was the Hurtados’ daughter, Yessica Patino Hurtado.

“A naturalization ceremony is a major event in people’s lives,” Keith Brown, director of the Yakima field office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), told the several hundred witnesses present. “It has taken a lot of time and effort on their behalf to earn what many of us acquire at birth.”

Lutherans lend a hand

The Hurtados studied to become citizens through Hand in Hand, a nonprofit in Wenatchee, Wash., that offers citizenship classes for legal permanent residents. The classes prepare people with green cards for the naturalization test, which covers U.S. history and governance. Applicants are interviewed (in English) about their character and background, which has been vetted carefully.

Not passing the citizenship test after two tries means forfeiting a $725 application fee. To help applicants succeed, Hand in Hand partners with more than a dozen churches and schools to offer its USCIS-accredited programs. Churches may offer space or volunteers to teach the 10-week classes, said director Norma Gallegos, a member of the Holden Village board.

Celebration Lutheran Church in East Wenatchee, Wash., was an early participant. “A few members helped teach the classes and when they ended, we held monthly gatherings to keep members and students connected,” said Dave Haven, Celebration’s pastor.

Over a meal, participants and volunteers shared stories. “We used maps of the U.S. and Mexico so we could point out where we were from and talk about growing up in those places, whether it was North Dakota or Chiapas,” Haven said. Another time, the group talked about the significance of their last names.

“Focusing on things we had in common was a really nice way to blend our commonalities as people of God,” he said.

In Charleston, S.C., people from 18 countries are studying English as a Second Language (ESL) and prepping for naturalization at the community center adjacent to St. Matthew Lutheran Church. Refugees, asylum-seekers, local entrepreneurs, students and visiting scholars come three times a week to classes taught by community and church volunteers.

“Focusing on things we had in common was a really nice way to blend our commonalities as people of God.” — Dave Haven

Questions from the citizenship test are regularly incorporated, said Hayden Shook, ESL program manager and instructor. “It’s an important part of the acculturation process, and [it] helps show students how they will be an important part of the process once they take the oath of citizenship.”

Their presence is a gift that opens minds and hearts, she said. “In this climate, how many people meet someone from Saudi Arabia?” she asked. “Or have a conversation with a refugee from Haiti?”

Sunday afternoon classes at St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Silver Spring, Md., serve a largely Vietnamese population. Curiosity about the contents of the naturalization test and a desire to help people prepare for citizenship prompted longtime member Norman Knutsen to assist the class.

His role is coaching students through mock interviews. Playing a USCIS officer, Knutsen sits opposite a student, asking about family members, trips outside the U.S., and other topics that are part of the final interview. “Lots of times people have trouble coming up with the right words,” he said. “I have to be patient and polite and not fill in the blanks for them while they practice what to say.”

Raised in a house just three doors away from St. Stephen, Knutsen has enjoyed getting to know his neighbors. “You want to make people feel welcome in a new country, and they want to be part of the country. It’s an honor to prepare them.”

St. Stephen is hosting the classes while the nearby library branch is closed for remodeling. Lamar Bailey, pastor, hopes the congregation will stay engaged in citizenship preparation after the library reopens.

“Part of our baptismal covenant is being a light to the world and loving our neighbor,” he said. “It’s messy, serendipitous and involves risk. We do that because of what Christ has done for us.”

For that covenant, Hurtado is grateful. “Thanks to God, I am a citizen,” he said.

Anne Basye
Basye, a freelance writer living in Mount Vernon, Wash., is the author of Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal (ELCA, 2007).

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