Salim Kaderbhai is an ELCA Lutheran pastor of a two-point parish in rural Minnesota, Faith Lutheran Church in Madelia and Our Saviour’s Church in Lake Crystal, and a participant in the Collegeville Institute Rural Minnesota Fellows Program. He is also an immigrant and an adult convert from Islam. Kaderbhai came to the United States as a college student after graduating high school in Nairobi, Kenya. He attended Concordia College in Moorhead and Luther Seminary. His family is of Indian descent from Tanzania.
Kaderbhai credits God’s divine sense of humor for placing him in a rural setting in Minnesota after growing up south of the equator and spending most of his ministry development training in urban and inner city ministry. Susan Sink talked to him recently about building relationships between the members of Faith Lutheran and Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church and the local immigrant community. This essay is part of our July series on the lives of rural Christians and the rural Church. To read more essays in this series, please click here.
What are the demographics in the areas you serve?
Lake Crystal is not diverse, and I think my four children are among no more than twenty students of color in their school.
Madelia, on the other hand, is 30% Hispanic/Latino and the school system is evenly split between native English speakers and children for whom English is not their primary language, which includes not just Spanish speakers but also other languages. Although the people of Madelia understand the importance of immigrants to their survival as a small town, some have not seen the need or importance of welcoming and integrating with immigrants in part because it’s harder to cross the language barrier than other cultural barriers. They appreciate the way immigrants contribute to businesses, provide a tax base and buy housing, but the town remains largely segregated. Anti-immigrant sentiments are strong here, especially in the current political situation. You hear the usual rhetoric about building a wall and all that. We had a sign on the church that said “Welcome” and had the word “Bienvenidos” on it. After it had been up awhile, a member of the congregation came to me and said, “Can I take down the ‘welcome Mexicans’ sign?” Welcome Mexicans? I was baffled that he thought it was about Mexicans. I explained that the sign just said ‘welcome’ in Spanish.
Do you have Latin American immigrants in the congregation at Faith Lutheran in Madelia?
We are a welcoming church and I would love to have people of color in the church, but it’s not realistic right now. We have two Latin American members in our church—both adoptees. The biggest barrier is language. I don’t speak Spanish and we don’t have Spanish speaking ministers. Sometimes Latino families visit, but they don’t see other people who look like them in our church. Our church is friendly, but because I serve two churches, I have to leave quickly after the service at Faith to get over to Lake Crystal and do the service there. Mostly, though, the relationships aren’t there.
My short term goal is not so much to integrate the church as to encourage shared experiences between parishioners and the immigrant community in Madelia. I believe what will change attitudes in town is developing relationships that will lead to compassion for the immigrant experience.
Where have you had success in reaching out to immigrants from Latin America?
We’ve been particularly successful with our Vacation Bible School (VBS). It’s a community effort, and usually churches take turns hosting it each year. But when it’s hosted at Faith Lutheran, we manage to get between 90-120 children of various ethnicities. When another church in town hosted, even though many in the immigrant community are members of that church, the number dropped to 20-30 children. One thing that made a big difference was that the church registered the participants for each session, whereas we ran it as a drop-in camp, estimating the numbers but not requiring any paperwork or registration. When parents have to fill out paperwork, that’s a barrier.
We also have different leaders here with different skills. Our VBS leaders include a teacher and a paraprofessional at the school. They brought a lot of children with them, including high school kids who were tracked in as leaders to help younger children. We bring them in as families. The older kids bring their younger siblings to VBS, and friends with younger siblings, and the older kids act as translators for the younger ones.
One goal of the program is to introduce the kids to elements of rural life. One of the teachers is a local 4H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) leader and is trying to figure out how to engage the Latino community in 4H. Among other things, she brought goats to camp last year. Another leader is introducing the kids to Boy Scouts. Our VBS was so successful that the churches agreed to have us host it at Faith Lutheran again this summer, with help from other churches in planning, providing counselors, and providing hospitality.
Another thing we’re trying to do is community gardening. As part of my work with an area coalition around food access, we have built raised garden beds on the church lawn. Faith Lutheran is directly across the street from a poultry processing plant that is the largest employer of immigrants in the area. There are community gardens in Madelia, but they are on the other side of town. I hope to make the beds available to immigrants who want to grow food and garden. They are already coming to this part of town for work.
What is your hope for the congregation and local immigrant population?
I want us to be better neighbors. My hope is that as a congregation we will grow in mercy and compassion for the immigrant experience. My hope is that we’ll become the people God wants us to be. There is a lot of biblical instruction about how to treat the alien. How can people claim to value the Bible and ignore this message of mercy and compassion? I want people to realize it is hard to leave your country and go somewhere else. As we form relationships with each other, we will see our shared humanity and lived experience, and appreciate what our immigrant brothers and sisters bring to the table.
Just in the last two weeks I had an experience like this. A member of the church, a lovely and gentle woman, texted me about a situation. A young man who works with her daughter in Mankato just graduated from high school and he received a letter saying he needed to register or he could be deported in thirty days. He would be a DACA kid. This woman wanted to know who she could contact to help this kid, who had worked hard and was contributing to the community. She is someone who would say “build a wall” but was very upset to see someone lose his opportunity in America. The difference was that she knew him personally.
I wasn’t equipped to give her information. We avoid politics, but I need to know where to direct her. I made several calls, and finally ISAIAH, a consortium of churches in Minnesota working around issues of social justice, gave me the information to pass along. But this whole experience shows that progress on such issues always comes through relationships. People don’t get involved unless they know someone who is affected.
I believe the easiest integration will come through intermarriage. The kids are already dating across racial lines and beginning to intermarry. It’s coming to the community.