In an interview with Meg Eubank, Executive Director of Welcoming the Stranger, I explore how faith based groups are making a difference when it comes to supporting immigrants and refugees.
We connected shortly after you read my article on Syrian refugees, in which I specifically referenced the bible passage 'I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.' How does that bible passage speak directly to you and the immensely important work your organization is doing?
Meg Eubank: Welcoming the Stranger's name is derived from the Matthew 25:35 passage you referenced in your article. Our mission is to welcome the strangers in our midst by providing free classes in English, computer skills, and citizenship classes to immigrants and refugees. While the inspiration comes from this biblical passage, classes are offered to all students regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin, and our board and volunteers also come from a variety of religions, races, and backgrounds.
One of my students told me that in our classes, everyone starts out as strangers but then becomes friends, and that is a key part of our program. We get to know each other on a personal level, as human beings. We do more than just teach English, computers, and citizenship; we also build friendships and mutual understanding between cultures. In the U.S., there is much discussion in our media about racial profiling and stereotyping. It is just as common in other cultures to stereotype other groups, but as we get to know one another, people's previous perceptions of different groups change. Each class becomes a microcosm of the world where we get to know each other as people, and are no longer strangers.
Can you tell us a little bit of the history behind Welcoming the Stranger?
Meg: In the 1990s, a group called the Lower Bucks Center for Church and Community noticed an influx of immigrants and refugees moving to the suburban Philadelphia area, and recognized a need for educational classes to teach skills needed to survive in the United States. Our founder, the Rev. S. Sturgis Poorman, Jr., felt the pull to take up the call and begin Welcoming the Stranger. The name was chosen to reflect Jesus' desire that his disciples should always welcome those who are recent immigrants to their homelands.
How many refugees and immigrants have completed your program?
Meg: To date, we have served 3,045 students from 98 different countries around the world. Over 200 of those students have become United States citizens with the help of our citizenship classes.
I love that through encounter and dialogue, you've built relationships with people from all over the world. You certainly have an insight that few Americans possess. That being said: what have you learned from teaching hundreds of immigrants and refugees?
Meg: The more I work with English language learners, and the more I meet people from all over the world, I have found that ultimately, though cultures may be different, people themselves are inherently the same, concerned with achieving the same goals we all are, like taking care of family, finding careers, and getting a good education. One may think that working with people from so many countries, it may become easier to point out the differences between cultures, but I've actually found the opposite to be true. The commonalities are what stands out and what connects us, a shared experience of being a member of the human race.
What's the most rewarding part of your job at Welcoming the Stranger?
Meg: Through my work with Welcoming the Stranger, I have gained a global family who I get to watch learn, grow, and succeed at their goals. A Vietnamese student once said to me that when he came to the United States, he had no ears, no eyes and no legs. He could hear words being spoken but not understand them, see words printed but not read them, and walk but not go anywhere, because he did not have a driver's license yet. He felt disabled until he could learn these skills needed to survive. By the time he could communicate this to me, he had surpassed those obstacles and was pursuing a degree at the local community college. Watching people make great strides in their learning is so rewarding.
For Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Pope Francis has inspired a new generation of social justice activists. Has His Holiness's message of mercy and compassion been felt at Welcoming the Stranger?
Meg: Pope Francis' appeal for a year of mercy calls us to action to help those who are suffering and to reach out to those in need. His message of mercy and compassion is evident almost daily at Welcoming the Stranger because we provide a natural outlet where compassion and caring is the norm; not the exception.
If someone is interested in the kind of work you're doing but is unsure how to get involved, what advice would you have for this person?
Meg: People might not realize that they have the talent or ability to work with English Language Learners. When I began my career, I did not envision myself in this type of work. In fact, when I graduated college with a BA in Elementary Education and a MA Ed in Language Arts, I went to work in an elementary school. While I worked with some children who were learning English at the elementary level, it wasn't until I began tutoring ESL at the local community college that I really decided to pursue this type of work. My ESL tutoring experience lead to ESL teaching positions, which prompted me to return to college again to further study teaching English as a Second Language. It snowballed from there, and this type of work has become my passion.
Lastly, keep your heart and mind open to opportunities and you will be rewarded with the satisfaction of knowing you made a difference in someone's life because you answered the call to the message of mercy, "I was a stranger, and you welcomed me."