One part of the church’s Matthew 25 ministry, IowaWINS, aided 32 immigrants following an ICE raid five years ago
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
MT. PLEASANT, Iowa — A day ahead of celebrating the varied facets of its Matthew 25 work, First Presbyterian Church of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, on Saturday shared some of the key people in both the congregation and the community to discuss their work and future plans with Presbyterian News Service.
In addition to a series of stories that will follow this one next week, videos with interview highlights are planned for the weeks to come.
Saturday’s first presentation came courtesy of Tammy Shull and David Suarez, board members with IowaWINs, an acronym for Iowa Welcomes Immigrant Neighbors. Learn more about IowaWINs, a commission of First Presbyterian Church, here or here.
IowaWINs was originally established in 2015 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, Shull said. Then, nearly five years ago — on May 9, 2018 — a Mt. Pleasant factory was raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which detained 32 workers from the plant. “What came to my mind that evening was Tammy Shull,” said Suarez, community development manager for Community 1st Credit Union. “I remembered that First Presbyterian Church has this wonderful organization, IowaWINs, that helps immigrants. They were a well-organized entity who could help those affected by the raid.”
Suarez said he also knew “those families were doing nothing wrong. They are hard workers, and we need that. Mt. Pleasant is small rural community, and we need a workforce. They were that workforce.”
Shull, a member at First Presbyterian Church, said that establishing IowaWINs “has made the church a lot more alive.”
“Because of all the relationships we had formed, we had resources to respond to the raid that night,” Shull said, including immigration attorneys, interpreters and counselors. “That wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t built all those relationships in the community. Our church saw we were really following Jesus and making a difference.”
Once those relationships have been established, “it’s about reaching out to people, recognizing their gifts and seeing their point of view,” Shull said. “That way you can connect with people and magical things can happen.”
Suarez said his work with the nonprofit credit union “is all about the connections, the network. We are all in the same boat, and so we have to help each other.” The demographics in some southeastern Iowa communities are skewing toward diversity, “and we have to be aware of that,” Suarez said.
Long before IowaWINs, organizations in Henry County, which includes Mt. Pleasant, have worked “at making a better future, and diversity was a big part of that” for groups including Healthy Henry County Communities, an initiative of Henry County Public Health, according to Shull. “We have long had efforts to make this place welcoming to newcomers.
Shull recalled fears and rumors dating back to IowaWINs welcoming Syrian refugees in 2015: that refugees “were the way terrorists would come into the country.”
“We worked on educating the community about that,” Shull said. “We were able to bring in people who had worked directly with refugees, like Catholic Services.”
IowaWINs works hard to make its ministry financially sustainable. One solution has been Meals by Nutrimos, which sells nutritious, sizeable entrees to the community and its visitors, including, on occasion, RAGBRAI cyclists. “We came up with these freezer meals. It started small, and it now has expanded to the community,” Shull said. Last year, IowaWINs sold 2,000 Meals by Nutrimos to help support the program.
In addition, a small revolving loan fund — at 0% interest — has helped, for example, a family buy a plane ticket from Guatemala to Iowa so that a family could be reunited.
“For me, this is like a dream,” Suarez said, adding he hopes the microloan program can be expanded.
“I am seeing with my own eyes how the lives of our people are changing with IowaWINs,” Suarez said. “They are changing lives, and that is the most important result of all the work IowaWINs is doing in Mt. Pleasant.”
“It was important we had all that time to build relationships,” Shull said. “When you are under attack like those families were, it can take a long time for them to walk into an institution like a church. Building that trust was very important.”
“It’s amazing how a church can help regular people fix their immediate needs,” said Suarez, who’s not a member of First Presbyterian Church. “That tells me that if a religion can’t help regular people with their needs, how can they help people reach heaven? I think Presbyterians are doing a great job.”
Matthew 25 “is all about welcoming people and treating them well,” Shull said. “We have tried to give people a safe place where they can come, connect and grow. Most of those families are still in our community,” Shull said of the families that received help from IowaWINs following the raid five years ago. “I think that’s a great result for our community.”
The Rev. DeEtte Decker, Director of Communications in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, will preach at the 9:45 a.m. (Central Time) Matthew 25 Celebration Sunday service on April 30 at First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant. Her sermon title is “Essentialism: Clarifying What Really Matters.” Watch the service here.
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Ministries: Matthew 25 in the PC(USA): Join the Movement