Immigration - opening eyes, getting acquainted, working together

By Phil Haslanger

Rev. Marcio Sierra, pastor at Lighthouse Church, set the tone right at the start as people from four different Madison congregations gathered over lunch on April 4 at Centro Hispano.

“The churches in Madison needs to open their eyes to the reality of what we have in Madison,” he said. “A lot of believers here are immigrants.”


The issue before the group was how people from a wide variety of churches might collaborate to help knit together the multicultural fabric of the community.

As Mary Malischke, a lay member at Asbury United Methodist Church put it, “I can do a little by myself but we can do a lot together.”

The gathering was convened by the Collaboration Project as one of a series of affinity groups sharing experiences and hopes around critical community issues.


Karen Menendez Coller, director of Centro Hispano, said that in her 6½ years at Centro, she has seen that churches can be a vehicle to work on issues of racism in safe spaces. She described how congregations have become part of the Dane Sanctuary Coalition, either providing housing or support to undocumented immigrants facing deportation. She talked about efforts to raise money for the legal fund to provides lawyers and bail money for immigrants who have been arrested in deportation efforts. She recalled about the strong response from congregations looking for ways to help during ICE raids in Wisconsin last fall.

Yet she said she saw a need for congregations to find ways to engage with the local Latino community on an on-going basis rather than respond in a crisis and then step away.

Charis Zimmick, a law student at UW-Madison and a member at Asbury United Methodist, said she felt that a lot of time, “the white churches’ response is like a mission trip” - there for a week, then going back to business as usual.

Malischke talked about the challenge she faces as a white woman who only speaks English in entering a predominantly Latino space. But others said that many in the Latino community speak English - 65 percent of the Latino community here was born in the U.S., Collar noted.

There are a variety of places where relationships can start, participants said - a weekly Mercadito at Centro (a farmers’ market and entertainment on Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. until the end of May), a visit to a Latino congregation (services at Lighthouse are in both Spanish and English, member Carrie Torres said - they are at 10 a.m. on Sundays), tutoring children in schools, attending community festivals.

The group talked about the barriers both to collaboration among churches and to churches getting involved with the immigrant communities here. Fear of those who are different, fear of splitting people in congregations, ignorance of the lives of our neighbors, religious divisions between churches.

Baxter Richardson, a lay leader at Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ, stressed the importance of listening to one another and to recognize “what I do not know that I do not know.”

There was a recurring mention of how people avoid connecting with unfamiliar people because it makes them uncomfortable. “How much should we avoid being uncomfortable?” asked Brian Rust, a lay member at Door Creek Church.

“Be as uncomfortable as possible,” Coller replied.

Jon Anderson, the leader of the Collaboration Project, described this gathering as the first around the immigration issue, with the hope that there would be more growing out of this as churches begin to connect around shared concerns.


The next Collaboration Project affinity group will focus on sex trafficking. It will be on Thursday, April 25, from noon to 1:30. More information and registration is here.


Immigration Affinity Group