"We are agents, not objects, of hospitality"

New immigrant congregation sets out to transform its New Jersey community and the PC(USA)

 by Patrick D. Heery

Google the keywords Christian hospitality and immigrants, and you’ll find a compendium of articles asserting biblical and moral reasons to welcome immigrants. It’s an encouraging discovery—until you realize that most of these articles appear to configure hospitality as charity. Partnership, says Rev. Dr. Victor Aloyo, is a far better definition.

What he means is that we who occupy the dominant spaces of US culture and religion are accustomed to thinking of immigrants as people who need our help. Immigrants are thus rendered the objects of hospitality—the recipients of the faith and resources of white Christian America.  

La Iglesia Presbiteriana Nuevas Fronteras, a multicultural congregation in Plainfield, New Jersey, is trying to change all that. “Here at Nuevas Fronteras we believe that immigrants are the ones who have help to offer—to the church and the nation,” says Aloyo, Senior Pastor at Nuevas Fronteras and the Associate Dean for Institutional Diversity and Community Engagement at Princeton Theological Seminary.   

The church began as a mission outpost of the Presbytery of Elizabeth. But when the members called Aloyo as their pastor 12 years ago, they insisted that it was no longer sufficient to call them a “mission” or a “fellowship.” They were a congregation, and they wanted official recognition both within the denomination and by the state of New Jersey. “We went through an eight-month process of discovering our unique identity as a called people of God,” says Aloyo. That led to the name The Presbyterian Church of New Frontiers and their eventual chartering—with their membership and ministry participation growing from 28 to 180.

The name grows out of what unites the members of Nuevas Fronteras, who represent 17 countries and commonwealths of North America, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. “It was their shared experience of pilgrimage, their collective journey of traveling across dangerous frontiers to reach a new land, that bound them together as one community,” says Aloyo. Now, he says, they’re on a mission to share their journey of faith with others.  

For 12 years, Aloyo and the members of Nuevas Fronteras have worked as agents of hospitality in a rapidly changing urban environment. With almost a quarter of the population under the age of 18 living in poverty, Plainfield struggles with issues of affordable housing, homelessness, violence, and inadequate education. Data from the Educational Law Center shows Plainfield’s K-12 public schools as some of the most underfunded in all of New Jersey.  

When the Plainfield schools began to make significant cuts to the arts, Nuevas Fronteras knew it had to take action. Partnering with the Synod of the Northeast through and Innovation Grant, Nuevas Fronteras developed a conservatory to teach children both music and the value of discipline.  

To address hunger in Plainfield, Nuevas Fronteras hosts a regular community meal. Members prepare their own distinct cultural dishes to share with the community. A short worship program is also offered, along with an information fair about local resources such as housing and ESL classes. According to Aloyo, these meals attract nearly 200 people from the Plainfield area.  

Seeing the danger posed by gangs in the community, Nuevas Fronteras created a Family Space small-group ministry that offers a forum to develop family skills and to discuss intercultural and intergenerational challenges. “Gangs thrive when they find young people not being cared for,” says Aloyo. “We knew we needed to strengthen the family unit. To do that, the Family Space invites parents and children to understand better the pressures they’re each under. Many parents are working two or three jobs, because they lack medical benefits and living wages. So when the kids come home from school, they’re all alone, often leaving the older siblings to take care of the younger. Our goal is to disrupt that isolation.”

Plainfield, however, is not the only target Nuevas Fronteras has in mind. Because of Aloyo’s position at Princeton Seminary, Nuevas Fronteras has functioned as a field-education site for 49 seminarians, equipping future pastors to learn about ministry within the context of an urban, multicultural, multilingual new church development. “We have come to see ourselves as a teaching church,” says Aloyo. “Many of these seminarians have gone on to become candidates for ordination under the care of our congregation. In many cases, these students haven’t been supported by their home congregations—whether because of their gender, sexual orientation, or some other identifying factor. We have welcomed them with open arms.”

The members of Nuevas Fronteras know firsthand what it means to struggle to prove one’s worthwhile standing on the outside of power. “They celebrate life—theirs and the lives of these students—because they know what it means to walk on eggshells every day of your life, to be judged by the dialect of your tongue or by the markings on your body,” Aloyo says.  

One of the goals that emerged early on as Nuevas Fronteras sought to redefine itself was the need to grow the confidence of the community. “They needed to believe that they were worthy of God’s love and worthy of a minister,” Aloyo says.

Now that they have come to see themselves as truly loved by God they want to share that love with others. Their tagline is “bendecidos por Dios para bendecir al mundo” (blessed by God to bless the world).

That doesn’t mean that they and other new immigrants don’t still need help, Aloyo says; it just means that they want to be your partners and co-disciples, not your “project.” Aloyo emphasizes three important lessons for any congregation considering outreach to immigrants.

(1) Don’t reach out to this new demographic simply in order to sustain the budget of your church. They will know that they’re being used. They don’t want to be a pawn for the survival of your congregation. They want to be in relationship with you.

(2) Learn the language. Learn their customs. Learn what they like, what they fear, what they hope for. Don’t ask them to assimilate to your existing format of worship. Don’t preach at them. Walk with them. They will enrich your congregation if you open your hearts to their traditions. Remember that you’re not the only Christians in this relationship. They come from locations where Christianity is at the hub. They are not here to learn Christianity. They come already with faith and spiritual practices of their own.

(3) Integrate. Don’t just give them a corner. Don’t relegate them to the basement. Build an integrated community that worships, eats, and serves together.

 If you do those three things, Aloyo says, you’re bound to be blessed and energized by these new communities.

Aloyo saw that blessing in action recently when he was contacted by an agency in Plainfield, asking if any of his members could give an undocumented immigrant from Honduras—just 19 years old—a home while the agency sought to secure his legal rights with the government and obtain employment for him. The young man had crossed the deserts of Mexico and Arizona, where he was detained and eventually transferred to the detention center in Newark, New Jersey. His father had abandoned them, and his mother had been detained in Honduras, leaving him in charge of his 12-year-old sister. Unable to find work in Honduras, he came to the United States, hoping to send money home to support his sister and his aunt.

Nuevas Fronteras at that time had two families from Honduras, one of which volunteered to give the young man a room. When they met with him for the first time, there was an instant connection. It turned out that he came from a town just five miles away from the town where the couple had grown up. They shared memories and then invited him home.

When he learned two weeks later that his mother had died while in detention, he was heartbroken. He couldn’t return home for her funeral. “The congregation went to him and embraced him,” says Aloyo. “I have never seen such an outpouring of love and care—especially for a young man they had only known for two weeks. Just when he was feeling all alone in the world, this congregation gave him a family.”

May we all be so blessed.