Wedding Photographer

At Milwaukee Church, Refugees Welcomed in Less Suspicious Times

MILWAUKEE (RNS) – Asher Imtiaz is the kind of person who always seems to walk around a big story.

Like back in 2017, when the Pakistani computer scientist and documentary photographer walked into a target in Nebraska and ended up being invited to a wedding hosted by Yazidi refugees from the Middle East.

Imtiaz had traveled to Nebraska to take photos of life in small towns in America during Trump’s time, far from the country’s urban centers. Among his wallet at the time is another Yazidi family, dressed in patriotic clothes and going to a 4th of July picnic.

“I went to America and found these new Americans,” Imtiaz said at a cafe on the north side of Milwaukee last year.

Imtiaz fits in nicely with Eastbrook Church, a multi-ethnic congregation where he is a volunteer lead of outreach ministry for international students at the nearby University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

Eastbrook is a bit of an aberration these days, a place where refugees, immigrants, and international students are welcome at a time when American evangelicals are increasingly wary of newcomers to the United States.

According to data from the Public Religion Research Institute’s Immigration Policy Survey, nearly 6 in 10 (59%) white Evangelical Protestants agreed with the statement “Immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural background. and ethnic ”. In contrast, only 31% of Americans overall agreed with this statement.

Mari Chevako, left, and Asher Imtiaz. RNS Photo by Bob Smietana

At an outdoor service in Eastbrook in August, Imtiaz strolled through the congregation, greeting friends and exchanging hugs as a diverse worship team led the congregation through a mix of traditional and contemporary songs. The service began with the traditional doxology chant, which begins with “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Come”, followed by songs like “You Are Good” and “Way Maker”, from Nigerian gospel singer Sinach.

This was followed by a reading of Psalm 23 in English, Spanish and Yoruba.

The church was founded in 1979 by members of the Elmbrook Church, a mega-church located about 20 miles to the west. The then pastor of Elmbrook hoped to involve church members more in the communities in which they lived. Nicknamed Eastbrook, it was led for three decades by former missionaries Marc and Nancy Erickson. For the past 11 years, the pastor has been Matt Erickson (unrelated).

The proximity to the university campus has led to an intentional outreach of students, especially those from abroad, which continues four decades later.

Each fall, church members take newly arrived international students on a tour of Milwaukee, who are then invited to dinner with church members. Many of those students come from Christian backgrounds and are looking to get in touch with a church, said Imtiaz, who was raised as an Anglican in Pakistan, a country where only about 2% of the population is Christian.

These students are also looking for friendship. Imtiaz pointed to a 2012 study of international students from the South and Northeast, which found that 40% of these students had no close friendships with Americans. Through outreach at Eastbrook, their students often made friends from their first days in the country. Many of them end up vacationing with church members and forming long-standing friendships.

“It’s basically about providing a home away from home,” he said.

The church also operates an international community center on the south side of town, where a number of recent refugees and other immigrants have settled. The center teaches ESL and provides support for issues such as housing and education. About 30 people will end up passing through the center most of the time, Dan Ryan, the church’s senior mission director, said in an interview in early January 2022.

Dan Ryan.  Photo courtesy of Eastbrook Church

Dan Ryan. Photo courtesy of Eastbrook Church

Ryan said the church was helping resettle some recent refugees from Afghanistan. He understands that some of his evangelical colleagues across the country are reluctant to resettle the refugees. Since the refugees are here in the United States, he said, churches must reach out with love.

“Yes, have your political ideas,” he said. “But don’t lose sight of the people involved. “

Ryan said the church and the center are very open to Christian motivations for their outreach efforts. But they also avoid proselytizing. Their main goal, said Ryan, is to show love and welcome to their new neighbors, a point echoed by Matt Erickson.

“It is a ministry of care and concern and a tangible means of loving the people who welcome the people,” he said.

“These people are precious to God and precious in his eyes,” said Erickson, who spent several years on the staff of World Relief, a Christian organization that helps resettle refugees in the United States.

Worshipers attend an outdoor service at Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in August 2021. RNS Photo by Bob Smietana

Worshipers attend an outdoor service at Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in August 2021. RNS Photo by Bob Smietana

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If he does not hesitate to speak of faith, Imtiaz does not consider himself a “Christian photographer”. He said Christians in the United States sometimes see their neighbors as “projects” or potential converts, rather than seeing them first as people. He takes a slower approach, trying to befriend people and see them as a worthy neighbor in the sight of God.

As a photographer, Imtiaz practices what he calls “God at the ‘me’ level” – trying to connect with the people he photographs as human beings, long before he takes pictures of them.

Like many churches in the United States, Eastbrook felt the pressure of the country’s political polarization within the church. Erickson said Eastbrook has always tried to bring people from different backgrounds together, a task made more difficult by the broader conflicts in American public life over race, politics and, increasingly, COVID-19.

He often turns to a verse from the Book of Galatians of the New Testament, in which the apostle Paul urges his readers to “bear one another’s burdens.”

“The past two years have given us many opportunities to experience this,” he said. “Sometimes we do it well and sometimes we don’t. Part of the body is that we have to learn to talk to ourselves, and we have to learn to understand ourselves. “

During his sermon at the outdoor service in August, Erickson urged church members to base their lives on the Bible and its message of love, rather than the noise of the outside world. Without that solid foundation, he said, their lives will not reflect the kind of love God wants them to share.

“Brothers and sisters, I just want to ask ourselves today, are we giving more time to the news, do we give more time to social media than to the Word of God and let it permeate our lives? ” he said. “I’m not trying to be legalistic. I’m just sick of being brainwashed and wanting us to stand in the realm.

Mahitha Voola, left, and Manna Konduri.  RNS Photo by Bob Smietana

Mahitha Voola, left, and Manna Konduri at Eastbrook Church in August 2021. RNS Photo by Bob Smietana

Among those at Eastbrook that Sunday were Mahitha Voola and Manna Konduri, both from India, who came to Eastbrook thanks to the church’s outreach to international students and ended up staying after graduation. their diploma.

From the start, the people at church made them feel at home.

“They say, ‘Oh taste and see that the Lord is good,’” Voola said, quoting a verse from the Psalms. “I tasted this love of God through these people and through the church. I feel very lucky to be a part of it.

The two said they hope to pass on the welcome they have received.

“Today we are the recipients of this love,” Konduri said. “Tomorrow, maybe we’ll be the one to show it to someone else.

Eastbrook’s hospitality ethic, Imtiaz said, has been as much of a boon to him as it has to newcomers.

He is particularly interested in documenting the history of immigrants and refugees, whom he likes to call “New Americans”. For several years he lived in an apartment complex where newly resettled refugees lived so that he could get to know them. He ended up photographing a number of neighbors after forming friendships. When he had COVID-19 – a mild case – one of his former neighbors, an Iraqi woman, sent him soup.

Imtiaz hopes his photographs and work at the church will inspire people to know their neighbors, no matter where they are from.

“If I can go to Nebraska and go to Target and meet 400 Yazidis, anyone else can,” he said.

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