Nurturing a New Generation of Immigration Activists in the Church

Witnessing with Young Adults Yields Resources for Congregational Engagement

“How did I never learn about this in school?!”

Last month, I stood with a group of young people at the site of the largest massacre in modern Central American history, El Mozote, El Salvador. More than 1,000 civilians, mostly women and children, were systematically and brutally executed by government forces in 1981. We learned about how the U.S. had provided the training to these forces and the ammunition. Like the teenager who gaped with incredulity when we learned about this massacre, most Americans have no idea what happened in El Salvador with the help of our government. Most of us have no idea how this violent history continues to undermine the basic safety and freedom of Central Americans.

The current situation of instability and violence in Central America, which is causing massive numbers of people to flee their home countries, is complex, and its roots are entangled with decades of US foreign and domestic policy. The gangs that have brought the country of El Salvador to its knees are gangs which are named for the place where they began: streets in Los Angeles, California.

Ten high school-aged young people from my parish participated in an educational program in El Salvador for a week this summer. We joined a group of Salvadoran young adults who are community leaders, volunteering to make their communities better places by providing support to people who are terrorized and displaced by violence. The program is called the Cristosal Global School. With local community leaders, we learned about youth leadership, human rights, and about the violence which is fueling migration to the United States.

In order to prepare for our experience in El Salvador, we first undertook a pilgrimage to the U.S. border. As we walked the mile and a half along the beach in San Diego, we heard the personal witness of people who had crossed the border, and of those who have died or been injured in their journey. We journaled and we prayed, offering prayers of petition and lament. We then helped out at a shelter for asylum seekers in San Diego. We were so moved and grieved by the stories of suffering, but also inspired by the hope and courage of immigrants, and by the love of all those who try to help.

Facing such simultaneously painful and hopeful realities, it’s hard not to call the words of Leviticus to mind: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.” But let’s change up “alien” with “immigrant,” or “migrant,” or “refugee.” It’s not like the people who cross into the United States come from outer space. They come from next door. They are neighbors. The verse goes on, “The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

It’s not like the people who cross into the United States come from outer space. They come from next door. They are neighbors.

The teenagers from my congregation were inspired to participate in this program because they were interested in how to put their faith into action. Rather than doing a mission project like building or painting, they wanted to really get to know people in Central America, learn about the motivations and systemic roots of immigration, and build skills and passion that they could share within the congregation and the wider community when they returned home. The trip was in this respect about nurturing a new generation of activists within the church.

Young adults from our church know that people of faith and good will disagree on immigration policy and the way forward. But one thing people of faith must agree on, whether Christians, Jews, or Muslims, is that our holy scriptures tell us God requires us to treat the immigrant, refugee, or foreigner among us with love. Indeed, God requires that we care for those who are suffering from poverty or illness, but also those who are oppressed by the nations of the world, seeking refuge in our midst. Showing compassion to immigrants is not a partisan issue; it is a mandate of our faith.

While the headlines continue to expose the increasingly cruel treatment of immigrants and growing expressions of anti-immigrant racism in our country, we can get overwhelmed with the enormity of the problem, feeling like there is nothing good that is happening. What doesn’t make the headlines are the thousands of people who give of their time, their resources, and their hearts in small and heroic ways to show love to immigrants. Behind all of this, there are the stories of thousands of immigrants who maintain courage and hope, even in the midst of extreme difficulty, contributing to their communities and our nation. The young people from our congregation are among those who carry these stories into our churches. Their experiences make them agents of insight, information, and change.

Showing compassion to immigrants is not a partisan issue; it is a mandate of our faith.

Such stories stay with me, too, shaping my ministry in profound ways. I met a pastor last year whose church in San Diego had been so changed by their interaction with refugees over the years that they now shelter over 60 people a night at their church. I met government workers at an emergency shelter who were spending a whole month, far from home, in order to be there and help. I met a married couple in Tijuana who cross the border from the U.S. every week to bring supplies to the refugee camp there, and who work with churches in Tijuana to find local families willing to take in refugees. In El Salvador we met amazing staff members at Cristosal, who are struggling to literally save lives and empower communities, despite their U.S. government funding being cut. My own congregation helped get a couple released from Adelanto Detention Center last year, housed them, accompanied them, and rejoiced with them when they were finally (and amazingly) granted asylum.

Each of these stories represent so many lives that have been impacted for good: those helped, those helping, and all who hear of it. These are the stories that inspired and motivated the young people I traveled with to El Salvador, an experience they will be unpacking and weaving into their own life stories for some time, I expect. There’s no telling what shape these stories will take, but I am confident that the experience has changed them and enriched their faith in powerful, practical ways.

The visit to El Salvador made clear to the young adults in my charge this summer that in this current age of cruelty, families and lives are being torn apart. Real families. Real lives. The impact of this trauma will linger. Thankfully, a rising generation of Americans seems clearly to have learned that we must meet such cruelty and trauma only with acts of love and kindness. When we listen to someone’s story, when we lend a hand, when we give, when we open our hearts and our churches and our homes, when we recognize the value and dignity of all people, not only in word, but in action…then we are replacing the current narrative of our nation with the blessed words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

But, of course, this not just kid’s stuff. Whether you are young or old, whether you live near the border or not, there is work for you to do. The following list is a starting place to help you become informed and to discern how God may be calling you to give of your particular talents and passions to build up love, healing and justice in our communities and the world.

Be Informed

Inform yourself, and help inform your congregation. Information can also help those who are living in fear to know their rights and protect themselves.


Portals and toolkits for information and action for immigrants and refugees

Curriculums for parish or group studies

  • Walking the Way of Love – A curriculum from Cristosal weaving together the Baptismal Covenant from the Episcopal Church, with Human Rights theory, to inspire and equip congregations for change work.

Know your Rights


Sanctuary is a term that has a number of different definitions. There are many ways to give sanctuary and assistance to immigrants without breaking any laws. Some people also choose to offer sanctuary for humanitarian reasons, regardless of the legality.

What it means to be a sanctuary church, the how and the why

Direct Action Tool Kit and list of Sanctuary Coalitions

Solidarity, Advocacy, and Organizing

Regionally, there are organizations doing actions like housing people, responding to raids, educating congregations, helping immigrants access resources, accompanying people to court dates, etc. Search the internet for organizations working in your region. Some churches organize pilgrimages to visit and support organizations doing work in these regions near the border. Check out these organizations for an idea of the different kinds of ministry you might be called to do:


Many organizations are offering direct aid in terms of food, legal assistance, and housing to refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.

Refugee Resettlement

Shelters for Asylum Seekers

  • Safe Harbors Network —A single church started this ministry which has now found shelter for over 7,500 people


Work to promote regional solutions for displacement by empowering communities and governments to support human rights.


In prayer, whether personally or in our churches, we are united and supported in our work, and we give to God our hopes and the brokenness of the world, pleading that God’s justice and love break in and illumine this age.

Prayer as activism

Liturgy/Worship resources:

“How did I never learn about this in school?!” There are a lot of reasons. But there’s no reason children, young adults, and adults can’t learn about solidarity with immigrants in church school. Throughout this journey, scripture has had the truest teaching for me and for the young adults I companioned in El Salvador:

Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them far away among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone. (Ezekiel 11:16 )


immigration, migration, Robin Denney, young adults, youth ministry

Robin Denney

Robin Denney is a priest and an agriculturalist. She serves as Associate for Christian Formation at St. Cross Episcopal Church, Hermosa Beach. She graduated in 2017 from Virginia Theological Seminary. Before seminary she worked as a church planter in Gonzales, California.  Prior to that she was an agricultural missionary for the Episcopal Church, serving in Liberia and South Sudan.

Featured Image: Quim Gil, “Children Without Borders” (August 24, 2001). Via Flickr. CC2.0 license.

Photo #1: Paul Salbleman, “It Does Not Say RSVP On The Statue of Liberty” (February 4, 2017). Via Flickr. CC2.0 license.

Photo #2: Markus Spiske, Untitled (March 30, 2019). Via Unsplash. CC0 license.