A joy of working with young people is their open curiosity and delight in new experiences. When paired with their frequent unfiltered honesty, however, that curiosity around new people can be hurtful to individuals or families a young person perceives as “different.” How can we support young people in welcoming immigrant children into learning spaces and immigrant families into communities?
An important preparatory way to support inclusion is normalizing difference in areas like skin color, style of dress, and language. Playing global music, using instruments from other countries, sharing snacks and meals from different cultures, and providing dress-up clothing or decorating with images of international styles of dress are all excellent starts. Regularly using short phrases in languages other than English, such as greetings or directional phrases like "clean up" or "get in line," are easy ways to work other languages into learning space routines. We can also build intentional relationships with immigrant communities by visiting local cultural festivals or performances as an outing or partnering with immigrant or non-English-speaking faith communities for a mission opportunity or volunteer day. Additional creative examples I have encountered include a partnership with a preschool in South America where the children do “show and tell” and teach each other songs or dances in short visits over Zoom, and a joint Vacation Bible School where bilingual large group and culturally based activities were facilitated by volunteers from a Spanish-speaking and an English-speaking congregation that were in the same neighborhood.
We can also encourage young people to connect with their own ancestral backgrounds, reminding them regularly that nearly all of us have roots somewhere else. By uplifting the name, language, and culture of whatever Native American/Indigenous cultures are local to our context, we can support students in learned empathy and reminding them their "normal" may not be someone else’s normal, and certainly not a standard of American reality. Most of us are newcomers together, with different histories and reasons for migration. The website native-land.ca is a delightful tool that allows users to enter a city name or a zip code and generate a colorful map of what Indigenous people historically dwelled on that land—and may remain and still practice their culture to this day.
Adapting current event information for age-appropriateness is certainly necessary, but as we know, our young people are more aware of world and local events than we often give them credit for. Discussing the issues people seeking asylum face in ways that don’t cause trauma or helplessness but are still honest is an important way to tie the many biblical stories of immigrants or people not belonging to the dominant culture of an area being welcomed into the Hebrew or discipleship community. From Moses marrying Tharbis, a Cushite (North African) woman, and an angel appearing to Hagar, whose son Ismael is believed to be the father of Islam, to the story of the good Samaritan and the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the New Testament, immigrants playing an important role in God’s work are frequently and easily found.
When the moral necessity and biblical foundation of immigrant inclusion and celebration is a regular part of faith formation, the introduction of newcomers into community can be a natural and positive experience to all involved in a faith community. Rather than turning the new student or family into an object of curiosity or even derision, we can meet them as a fellow child of God. Learning appropriate pronunciation of new names, knowing the name and location of a young person’s country or culture of origin (for example, a youth may come from Nigeria but consider themselves Yoruba or Igbo, tribes who both reside in lands partially in Nigeria but who speak different languages and have significantly different cultural norms) and offering (but not pressuring or requiring) the student to share their background and experiences are all ways we can practice authentic welcome. Incorporating practices that may support the newcomer’s comfort and familiarity in a space are also important and can be discerned in partnership with the family. Extra patience and grace are never wasted for a child who is very possibly also learning a new language, adapting to a new home, and becoming familiar with new foods, clothing, and styles of interaction. No matter where a young person’s family is from, they are always a beloved child of God, and we can support them in their individual needs as Jesus cares for the hundredth sheep and knows the name of each blade of grass. Our young people are worth our specific care and effort.