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Love thy neighbor: Faces of Worthington generates understanding, compassion for immigrants

This compilation of Faces of Worthington shows all six of the team members working to bridge connections and understanding between community residents. The team includes Kathy Lesnar, Father Jim Callahan, Susanne Murphy, Colleen Bents, Kathy Hayenga and Mariana Gutierrez. (Special to The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — On a cold, moonlit evening in February, 16 people gathered around the dinner table at the home of Colleen Bents to share their stories as immigrants.

After all, Bents said, each of us is an immigrant. Perhaps we didn’t make the journey to America, but our ancestors did. Did they face adversity to get here? Perhaps. Did they struggle to learn a new language? Likely. Did they come to America in hopes of a better life? Indeed.

For the past two years, an ecumenical team comprised of Bents, Kathy Lesnar, the Rev. Jim Callahan, Kathy Hayenga, Susanne Murphy and Mariana Gutierrez have brought community residents together to learn about their neighbors.

Each month, a team member or past attendee hosts a dinner with invited guests and a new immigrant willing to share his or her story. There are some simple rules for the evening — to listen with an open mind, to ask questions and to learn.

In February, the guest immigrant shared the difficult details of her journey from Guatemala to Minnesota. She spoke of the fear she lives with each and every day and the sadness of leaving behind her parents and siblings.

She is one of the faces of Worthington.

The Faces of Worthington gatherings are an outcome of a public immigration forum hosted by St. Mary’s Catholic Church in January 2017 in Worthington. Bents, Lesnar and their families attended that forum and heard many stories from the immigrants who were there.

When the two women met the next day to compare their experiences, they realized they had friends and neighbors who needed to see and hear what they did.

“When we broke into groups and heard the stories of immigrants, it impacted us greatly,” said Lesnar. “We were really broken for them. For us, it was the start of opening our heart wider.”

The women planned their first dinner in March 2017 at the Lesnar home. It was a small gathering in a safe environment. Bents said they wanted it to be open to anyone regardless of religion, gender, sexual orientation — whatever — with the goal of learning about their neighbors.

“These are neighbors living next to us and do we really know them?” asked Bents. “How can we educate ourselves about who our neighbors are?”

As Bents says, life could be very different for each of us based simply on where we are born and our family circumstances.

“We don’t know what depths we would go through to provide a better life for our family because we’ve never had to,” she said. “We don’t know what it’s like to have our kids lured by gangs or drugs. We don’t know what it’s like to just live each day to survive.”

By sharing immigrant stories comes the potential to break some of the invisible barriers that exist in communities.

“It’s pretty hard to hear someone’s story about how they came here — especially if it’s a hard story and they’ve endured a lot — and not have some compassion for them,” Bents said. “That’s why I think it’s important to know the stories.”

“Who is our neighbor is an interesting concept,” added Lesnar.

In the Bible, God’s commandment is to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

“To me, we have to because Jesus asked us to,” Lesnar said. “He didn’t ask us to care for the less fortunate, he demanded it.”

Lesnar sees the diversity among us as a blessing — one that allows us to learn from one another.

Addressing myths

One of the frequently circulated myths about undocumented immigrants is that they don’t pay taxes. It’s one of the topics raised at each Faces of Worthington gathering.

Bents shares information from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (itep.org) website that states undocumented immigrants in Minnesota contribute $83,192,000 in state and local taxes (sales, excise, personal income and property tax) per year. Nationwide, their contribution to state and local taxes generates $11.74 billion annually.

In addition, undocumented immigrants contributed nearly $12 billion to the Social Security trust fund in 2010, according to a study from the Social Security Administration. The report noted an anticipated continuation of the positive impact to Social Security.

“To say they don’t pay taxes doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Lesnar. “They pay taxes just like you and I.”

“They contribute to our community,” added Bents. “The workforce alone, the business that is here in town — the economic factor. It really does have a powerful impact for the good.”

Aside from taxes, other questions often arise during the gatherings.

“We like to embrace everyone’s questions,” Lesnar said. “There are no questions that are going to be inappropriate.”

She said guests have asked why immigrants send money back to their home country, why they don’t get a Green Card, and why their kids aren’t with them.

“I think the biggest misconception is that people could get in line and come here,” Lesnar said. “For the vast majority of people who come here, there is no line.”

Measuring success

Since beginning their dinners, the Faces of Worthington team has planned a couple Faces at 5 events, in which past participants are invited to gather to share their experiences with those who have attended at different times.

What the team has learned is that their gatherings are sparking conversations and generating understanding — not only among the invited guests, but the immigrants invited to speak as well.

The immigrants have begun to believe that not everyone is against them as well as starting to see people individually instead of as a large group, Lesnar explained.

“Because it’s (immigration) such a complex issue … we have to educate ourselves,” said Bents. “It’s our civic duty to do that … just so that we know what’s the truth and what isn’t the truth; not just listen to the negativity.”

While the success of Faces of Worthington may not be measurable, the team is working to change the hearts and minds of neighbors one gathering at a time.

“I would hope that the guests would take the immigration issue and boil it down to one person — to hear someone’s story,” said Lesnar. “Our group isn’t in any position to solve the issue. We just want to get to know our neighbors. If we get to know our neighbors, it’s for the good of Worthington.

“One of the greatest things that’s happening right now is the driver’s license bill,” Lesnar added. “Immigrants want to take the test — they want to be safe on the road. That would relieve a lot of stress.”

The Faces of Worthington team encourages people to advocate, whether for the driver’s license bill or the much larger issue of immigration reform.

Bents said she hopes the Faces of Worthington gatherings inspire people to educate themselves and choose kindness.

“We can all live in peace and harmony,” she said. “I think we need to really welcome each other and recognize our own immigrant story.

“Our neighbors have something to offer us, and we have something to offer them.”

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

(507) 376-7330
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