by Gloria Graber, Salem-Zion Mennonite Church
In February, I attended a meeting like no other meeting I've ever experienced. It was four hours long and full of strangers and in a town where I'd never been. it took place in a bar and grill in a South Dakota town 90 miles from Freeman.
The subject of this meeting is what brought me, my husband Gary, and another couple to this unlikely place. As the Freeman Network for Justice and Peace (FNJP) chair, I had been alerted to the dire needs that this community was beginning to experience. Fleeing the violence of gangs and threats of death in their own countries, and at the invitation of family members already living in South Dakota, immigrants have been making their way with only the clothes on their backs to this small rural community.
The strangers we met in this meeting were a motley group. Retired South Dakota State University professors, nurses, a banker, Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic, Mennonite, and non-denominational. The owner of the bar where we met had relocated to this area 10 months earlier and everyday she sees people come in the door, hungry and looking for food. In her compassion, she tries to help them, giving them food and answering their questions. It's overwhelming work.
That day we heard the stories of several immigrants who were struggling to make a place for themselves in the community and to provide for their families. In response, we, along with our new friends, took those requests home to our church communities and began collecting donations of food, money and household items. We've made several trips back and forth, ferrying donations and volunteers for various projects. We've formed relationships and expanded our understanding; we've learned a lot.
At our meeting that day, we discovered an unexpected group of people committing to heeding the call found in Leviticus 19:33-34: "When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself..." We met as strangers, but left as friends...common, ordinary people trying to follow the example of Jesus.
FNJP and several Freeman Mennonite Churches are participating in the work of the kingdom of God in South Dakota by heeding a call that looms large in our backyard; a call to form relationships and to care for these immigrants who were created and deeply loved by God.