A Tale of Two Cities

Immigrants Welcoming Immigrants in Fargo

Sometimes, a 20-mile road trip is a cross-cultural adventure.  I felt like this during internship, when I drove my electric car from Ann Arbor to Pinckney every day.  🙂  This was also true during my time in Fargo, ND.

95% of Lutherans in the US are white – just like the population of Fargo.  So, a lot of people think of white Scandinavian-Americans when they think of Lutherans, just like the ones on NPR’s Saturday night “Prairie Home Companion” radio show.

lake wobegon lutheran church.jpg

But, every once in a while, we need to hear from our elders about real life – the kind that isn’t on the radio.


At Glyndon Lutheran Church, just a few miles east of Fargo/ Morehead, 45 mainly white-haired saints gather on Sunday morning to worship God together.  These ladies are mother and daughter.  Mom Phoebe raised 12 children, and daughter Grace is one of them.  They welcomed me graciously, and Phoebe is known for her honesty.  She reminded me that her parents were immigrants.

She figures that most of the new immigrants, no matter where they come from or what they look like, are coming here for the same reasons her parents did:
a chance to work, to raise children, to worship God, and to vote.   

When she was so blunt, the others at coffee hour couldn’t really argue with her.  Maybe some of the newcomers, just like some of the old-timers, aren’t completely honest about their motives.  But almost everyone likely wants the same chances as everyone else.

Unfortunately, Glyndon isn’t a town full of immigrants or refugees.
But just a few miles away, Fargo/Moorhead is full of newcomers.

Elim Lutheran Church in downtown Fargo is celebrating their 125 anniversary this year.

This church doesn’t really look any different than the one in Glyndon.
It looks just like every other Lutheran Church on every other corner in Fargo/Moorhead.

But inside, it holds a secret.


Elim Lutheran Church is passionate about its immigration history, and hosts two additional congregations inside its building:  St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (a welcoming community for LGBT Christians), and First Sudanese Lutheran Church.


First Sudanese Lutheran Church was started a decade ago by Sudanese refugees to Fargo/Moorhead.  Their pastor had to recently travel back to Sudan, and so Deacon John and Mr. Son (rhymes with “ron”) are leading regularly.  Most of the service was in Juba-Arabic, one of the languages of Sudan, but they included just enough English for me to follow nearly everything.  They even invited me to give the blessing at the end!

Just like Phoebe expected, these men loved Fargo for the same reasons immigrants have always loved Fargo – safety, work, freedom, democracy, faith.    

Their children can sleep at night, because the neighborhoods are quiet and safe; they can work an honest job and provide for their families; their wives are safe and have opportunities; they can worship God openly and publicly, in their own language.  They miss the Sudan they knew as children, but not the Sudan that exists today.  They don’t mind the snow, or the ‘boring’ life of Fargo.  Those are small problems in a good life.

Deacon John and Mr. Son encouraged me to visit Africa when it’s safe, and to hear their stories.  Pastor Paula, from Elim Lutheran, invited me to join her on a trip to Uganda, where she’ll meet with refugees from Sudan, and John assured me that would be a safe option.  God consistently works through chance meetings and surprising connections.

More stories are coming about my time at South Fargo High School.  Stay Tuned!





Cold Hands, Warm Hearts: Welcome to “North of Normal”

Fargo’s History is full of Immigrants

A century ago, 80% of North Dakota’s residents were immigrants, or children of immigrants.  From 1890-1910, the new state strongly recruited farmers from around the world; most of those immigrants were Scandinavian and German Lutherans.
That means today, there are a LOT of Lutherans in North Dakota!


(The orange color shows counties where ELCA Lutherans are the majority religious group.)

Scandinavian heritage is everywhere.  I went to a dinner hosted at a hall called the “Sons of Norway”, and it was full of art similar to what we saw in Oslo and Stockholm this summer!


Today, Fargo is once again experiencing an immigrant boom.  About 5,000 refugees from 40 countries have settled in Fargo since 1990.  This growth means that the non-white population of the Fargo area has doubled in 25 years.  Even so, the city is still 93% Anglo or European-American.

This creates an interesting situation in the city.


Welcome becomes an action verb.
Hospitality is not the same as inclusion.  

It takes effort to accept that your town feels different.  Neighbors might be difficult to understand.  Classrooms empty out for holidays we’ve never heard of before.  Store shelves are full of foods we don’t recognize.  People on the street look like people in the news.  New Employees have names we can’t pronounce.


In the midst of this fear and confusion, Lutheran Social Services is living out “God’s Work – Our Hands”.  The photo above includes LSS director Jessica, with local refugees.

This agency is the only one placing refugees in North Dakota. They are filling a need – employers don’t have enough applicants, especially for low-skilled, low-wage jobs.  Families want their children to have a global perspective, and many want their town to have an international flavor.

These 5 peace poles each say “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in 4 languages – all 20 Languages represented are spoken in Fargo, and represent the refugees placed by LSS-ND.  

Jessica spends most of her time trying to convince Lutherans that welcoming refugees into our communities and into our lives is worth the ongoing effort.

Do we see people as individuals, or as a collective burden?

Satan will try to convince us to treat people as commodities.  We begin to assume someone’s worth based on what they ‘contribute’ to our society.  But what if people’s stories were their primary contribution?  What if people’s presence was inherently valuable?

When we see each other as children of God, we should see each other differently.  We can love and welcome people, even if they don’t join our church.  We can include people, even if they need a little extra help.  We can make new friends, even if I have to change a little.

I was probably a little too biased against Fargo before I visited 🙂  I am not sure I want to live that far North, or that far from my family.  But while I was there, I met so many nice people – from Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, First Sudanese Lutheran Church, and Fargo South High School.  More stories from all of those places are coming soon!



Fear, Impatience, and Chaos: Golden Calves in a Refugee Camp


One of the Bible’s most famous refugee stories is about the Hebrew Slaves in the Wilderness for 40 years (after escaping Egypt and before entering the Promised land).  While there,the Bible records a rather embarrassing incident when they got impatient with God and created a statue of a Golden Calf.

Last Sunday, I had the chance to talk with the people of Trinity Lutheran Church, Ann Arbor, MI about refugees and Golden Calves.  This link has some visuals, but it is an audio, not a visual, recording of that sermon.




So poor, all he has is money

Priorities and Privilege

Nearly every day, construction workers around the country gather in parking lots looking for work.


Once a week, at a few of these lots in Kener, LA, Pastor Rachel visits to bring prayers, and encouragement, and cold water.

Early September, I got to visit and speak with some of the day laborers with Pastor Rachel. We talked about God’s blessings, and their families, and a new English class at Rachel’s church.  He also gave me an impromptu Spanish lesson (turns out, I’ve been pronouncing my “r”s wrong for years!)

One of the men, Carlos, was willing to talk with me a little bit about Politics.  We happened to visit the same week that a particular US presidential candidate had visited Mexico – and had somehow managed to insult people on both sides of the border.


I falsely assumed that Carlos would want to talk about how that candidate’s opinions and actions were incorrect.  But he didn’t want to waste time with that.  My new friend from Honduras wanted to pray for that braggadocios US presidential candidate.

He has so much money he can get anything he wants –
But he doesn’t have anything he really needs. 

Carlos went on to tell me that he doesn’t want to be rich.  He enjoys the time he can spend at home, surrounded by his family, enjoying each other’s company.  After surviving a very violent country, and a difficult journey here, and spending months or years unsure of his future, Carlos has figured out that anything you can buy can also be taken away from you.  Carlos knows that love and respect cannot be bought.  He feels sorry that this multi-billionaire has such trouble making friends, and such trouble staying married.

Rich Man and Lazarus

This month, many churches heard the story in Luke 16 about the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man treats people so poorly that he is suffering in the afterlife.  But, even that suffering doesn’t change his attitudes – rather than repent, he’s bargaining with God and still hoping a servant will attend to him and ease his suffering.

I couldn’t help think of the rich man and Carlos.

This week, we found out that the rich presidential candidate (for whom Carlos was praying) has avoided paying nearly $900 million dollars in taxes over the past twenty years.  Based on the current US budget for refugee resettlement ($9,00 per person) – that individual’s taxes could have funded 100,000 refugees.

In other words, this one rich man’s taxes could have resettled an additional 5,000 refugees every year for the past 20 years.

But when confronted with the facts of the situation, the rich man is begging for mercy, and still arguing – even with God – about the role of the servants, rather than admit he made a mistake.

He’s still considering people only for their productivity.

I wonder…

I see the face of Carlos in the Luke 16 story.  While he is not sick or begging, like Lazarus, he is the named person in the story, while the rich man is not.  God sees us for who we are, not for what we purchase.  Those of us who are able to live God’s good news are those who are able to prioritize people over profits.