In 1879 Rev. Albert Benjamin Simpson moved to New York City to take up ministry at the Thirteenth Street Presbyterian Church. Not too long into his ministry, his heart went out for the masses of new immigrants who arrived by the shiploads from predominantly Catholic or Orthodox countries like Ireland, Italy, Poland, Russia and other European nations. When Rev. Simpson saw the spiritual and physical poverty of these new immigrants, he ministered to them and invited them to the church he pastored in lower Manhattan.
However, when the leadership of the church saw the poorly dressed immigrants noisily rallying into their beautiful sanctuary, with their disruptive children, they opposed him. Just after two years, on a cold winter day in November 1881, Rev Simpson resigned from his pastorate at the prestigious Thirteenth Street Presbyterian Church in New York City. Two weeks after his resignation, he conducted a meeting in the Caledonian Club Hall. Only seven other people showed up that Sunday but huddled in the "cold and cheerless dance hall," they sought God's will on evangelism and missions. Little did they know that the power of the Holy Spirit would radiate from this little prayer gathering to form an international mission movement that would eventually become known as the Christian and Missionary Alliance. From the very inception of the C&MA, reaching the new immigrants with the love of Jesus was one of the driving forces.
In the 1800s long before the still needed immigration reform, A.B. Simpson was training, empowering, and graduating immigrants to take the whole gospel to the whole world. He understood the importance of reaching nations both within and outside America.
Why reach new immigrants?
According to the latest figures from Statistics Canada, immigration has accounted for 82.2 percent of Canada's population growth. A record number of 341,000 new immigrants arrived in Canada last year (2019). There were 40,725 new immigrants to Alberta in 2018-2019. In 2020 Alberta saw the highest first-quarter growth in 5 years prior to the COVID-19 impact, which began in mid-March. Though COVID-19 has paused the influx of new immigrants, Canada expects to welcome 341,000 in 2020 and 350,000 in 2021.
What do these numbers communicate?
It is simple. We are going to see more nations flooding into Canada like never before. Currently, one out of five people in Canada's population is foreign-born, which accounts for more than 20% of the total population. By 2031, this number is projected to increase by another 10% to 30%.
What could the church do?
The time has come for the church to be proactive and join God, where He is already working. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, once said that "the Church is the Church only when it exists for others."
There are two major motivating factors for churches engaged in ministering to new immigrants:
1) A Biblical mandate to accept the stranger.
Scripture is our measuring stick and the foundation on which we build our faith. Although we may not find the term "immigrant" in the Bible, the Word of God has plenty to say about "strangers" and "sojourners" or "foreigners". There is such a strong connection between the experiences of Biblical migrants, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and that of new immigrants found throughout our country today. They all have journeyed across countries for multiple reasons and inhabited cultures foreign to them. Leviticus 19:33-34 says, "When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat the alien. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God." This Biblical passage is a strong encouragement for our churches and believers to accept and treat new immigrants with the same love and dignity that we would want to be treated ourselves.
Accepting also means extending hospitality. The word for hospitality in biblical Greek is philoxenia, which literally means the love of strangers. Matthew 25:35-36 and 40 says, "I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger, and you invited me in, I needed clothes, and you clothed me, I was sick, and you looked after me, I was in prison, and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me".
Jesus commands us to "make disciples of every nation" (Matthew 28:19). In Canada, the nations are arriving at our doorstep. To these new neighbours, the church can continue to offer hope by sharing the message of God's love and working for peace and justice.
2) A human desire to connect with other human beings.
As we begin to understand the needs of immigrants, we will develop a more holistic view of addressing people in all their needs (spiritual, physical, emotional). It takes two to five years for a new immigrant to get settled in Canada. During this time, they need people to come alongside them and help them learn about the country and our culture. Immigrants face many hurdles as they try to find housing, jobs, education for themselves and their children, and as they form new social networks. This time-frame presents a real opportunity for churches. Canadian culture can be a real shock to immigrants coming from countries like India, Afghanistan and China, where the culture is highly relational. The church can step in to fill this void, especially as most Canadians are hesitant or skeptical about connecting with people from unfamiliar cultures.
Some practical steps to get involved:
Someone said there are lots of ways churches can be involved, but that's the thing … to be involved. Here are some practical steps to get involved.
1. Build personal relationships and friendships
Many Christians are more comfortable inviting new immigrants to church programs or Sunday services, than meeting them in their homes or in the community. However, some immigrants will never come to our churches because they are committed to other religions, but they would be extremely happy to join us in our homes for a meal.
Try to recollect the last time you had someone over for dinner. Was it a family member? A friend? A member from your church? We often underestimate the relational power of food and hospitality. Many new immigrants value time as an indispensable aspect of relationship building, especially when spent sharing a meal or coffee with Canadians. Build relationships with newcomers through food and hospitality by:
• Initiating a relationship- Welcome a new family that has moved into the
community as soon as you notice them. On your next visit, maybe bring
them a small gift. Next, invite them over for dinner.
• Hear their story- Newcomers often have a compelling story of their
journey in getting to Canada. Spend time and listen to their story.
• Share your own story- Connect over the common privilege of living in
Canada. Like them, you (or your parents or grandparents) may have been
an immigrant or refugee, or perhaps your ancestors have lived here for
centuries or millennia. There's always a story to tell.
The intentional building of relationships can help new immigrants feel welcomed, supported, and cared for. Paired with the provision of practical help (e.g., rides, how to use public transit, language assistance, housing or job search help) you can hugely influence the life of a newcomer.
2. Offer programs that meet immediate the needs
Immediate settlement needs include both practical and spiritual needs. Examples of practical needs include access to education, transportation, employment, doctors' appointments, English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, legal and paralegal services, housing, and help with shopping for groceries, clothing and furniture.
Examples of spiritual needs include having access to church services in a newcomer's native language and opportunities to connect with others of the same ethnicity and/or faith tradition.
Here are some categories of programs that your congregation could implement:
• Meeting immediate settlement/relief needs (e.g. food, clothing, housing,
• Providing personal development programs (e.g. English language, host
• Providing community development programs (e.g. job development,
• Holding activities to meet spiritual needs (e.g. prayer meetings,
• Becoming a "sibling congregation" for a new immigrant congregation
(e.g. offer support, space, prayer, finances)
3. Join partnership with organizations that reach new immigrants
If we are honest with ourselves, many of us do not have expertise in all things. We also don't need to do it all by ourselves. If we embrace this, we can often change our challenges into opportunities to develop effective partnerships with other organizations. There are excellent Christian organizations that are engaged in ministering to the new immigrants here in Alberta. Here are a couple of options for us as a church to partner in reaching new immigrants.
• Love New Canadians: https://www.lovenewcanadians.ca/
They have been involved in equipping churches for ministry with new immigrants for many years. Their unique program called "Bridges" is a class with people from around the world studying English language, Canadian culture, and Christian faith. This is a bridge from an ESL class to a Bible class.
• Palm Ministry Association: https://palmmin.weebly.com/
Over the last many years, Palm Ministry has been embracing new immigrants with God's love while helping them with practical needs and sensitively inviting them to follow Jesus. If you would like to volunteer with them, there are opportunities to serve new immigrants through them.
Jesus said the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few! The harvest is plenty, not just outside Canada. It's plenty here in Alberta. God has brought people from nations that are closed to the gospel as our neighbours, eagerly waiting for our response to partner with Him in ministering to these precious lives. Let us respond to His call today. Let us roll up our sleeves and reach out to the new immigrants who are waiting for someone to introduce them to the redeeming, restoring and reigniting love of Jesus.
Stay tuned for webinars, blogs, videos, and other resources on ministering to new immigrants.
Jones, David P. A.B.: The Unlikely founder of a Global Movement. Colorado Springs, CO: The Christian and Missionary Alliance, 2019.