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Justice for Our Neighbors: Treating the Immigrant as Neighbor


 

As long as immigrants are viewed as The Other and thus seen as apart from rather than as a part of there will be a need for programs like Justice for Our Neighbors, a faith-based response to the extra challenges immigrants face in a nation that’s not always immigrant-friendly despite being built by immigrants.  This is a story about some of the efforts of the Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska office led by Emiliano Lerda.

 

©tulipanagroup.com

 

 

Justice for Our Neighbors: Treating the Immigrant as Neighbor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published iin El Perico

 

Welcoming the stranger in our midst is the mandate of Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska, a small nonprofit that holds monthly clinics for low income immigrants in need of legal counsel. The organization’s largely new staff held a March 25 open house.

The clinics, offered in both Omaha and Columbus Neb., provide a friendly, safe haven for individuals, couples and families stressed by uncertain legal status. For some, it may be their only recourse to try and avoid deportation. Potential complications are many. Cases can drag on for years.

Situations in which there’s abuse, illness, or poverty present, for example, make the need for action more urgent.

JFON staff offer free legal services, education and advocacy to help guide clients through the complex immigration maze. Its in-house attorney and legal assistants provide consultation. Referrals are made to community service providers as needed to address health care or employment or economic issues, for example.

Volunteers facilitate the clinics and extend the welcome mat by variously conducting the intake process, acting as interpreters, supervising children and serving food.

The agency’s part of the national Justice for Our Neighbors network the United Methodist Church on Relief Committee launched in 1999 in response to ever more complicated and stringent immigration laws. JFON clinics operate cooperatively with local churches. The Omaha clinic’s held at Grace United Methodist Church, 2418 E St., next door to the JFON-Nebraska office, 2414 E St.

The Nebraska chapter’s recently undergone a major turnover. Emiliano Lerda came on as JFON-Nebraska executive director in January. Charles “Shane” Ellison joined as lead attorney in February. The other two full-time staffers are also relatively new — office manager/legal assistant Darling Handlos and paralegal Shaun Downey.

Originally from Argentina, Lerda, 30, knows the immigrant experience first-hand. Now a U.S, citizen, he was drawn to America’s Midwest because its agricultural environment reminded him of his native Cordoba province. At the University of Northern Iowa he became the first international student elected student body president. After obtaining his law degree from Drake Law School he worked as government relations manager for the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

“When I got here what really grabbed me is the fact this community here has very similar values to the community I grew up in,” he says. “I love working with farmers and I hope at some point in the future I will have the chance again to work with farmers.”

He says JFON-Nebraska allows him to remain in the Midwest while serving the community of newcomers he feels a deep connection to.

“I’m an immigrant myself. I went through the process. I know how difficult it is. I received a lot in life through people that helped me without any self-interest. For years now I have been passionate about giving back to the community. I could not ignore the needs of people that are here in similar shoes that I wore, that are new to this community, that are far away from their family and friends.

“God gave me the talents and skills and the background, and so I thought it was a great fit for me to continue to make a difference by helping people that want to be a part of this community, that want to contribute to this community but cannot because their illegal status is stopping them.”

 

 

 

Lerda

Emiliano Lerda

 

 

 

At its core the JFON-Nebraska mission is to help undocumented immigrants comply with the law and become legal residents, says Lerda.

“Some people may be living in constant fear because their status is not legal,” he says.

Many are separated from family members.

Not everyone has a case though, Lerda stresses.

“Immigration provides very few doors for people to come through, and if you don’t fit within those doors, I don’t care how hard a worker you are or how much you want to do the right thing, you’re just not going to be able to.”

Limited staffing restricts the number of clients served per clinic to 10. Clients are seen on an appointment-only basis.

Lerda’s frustrated that the demand for immigration legal services far outstrips JFON resources. However, JFON does refer to two sister agencies — Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services — that provide similar services at a nominal fee.

He says his agency is currently cleaning out a large backlog of old cases to better focus on new cases. JFON annually handles 300 cases. By year’s end he hopes to pass the bar or receive accreditation as an immigration law attorney.

The polarizing issue of immigration, he says, is best addressed by education, including JFON-Nebraska workshops for service providers and others in the community. To him, educating people about the benefits of being legal is both practical and neighborly.

“If we don’t help people that can be helped to be here legally, so they can go to school and they can make a contribution economically or civically, then I think I’m failing to do my part. That’s why I feel like God gave me this opportunity and I have to do it.”

For a clinic appointment, call 402-898-1349 the first day of the month.

 

Rev. Everett Reynolds Gave Voice to the Voiceless

July 18, 2011 6 comments

Another Omaha elder leader has passed.  The Rev. Everett Reynolds spent the better part of his life fighting the good fight against injustice. The following in memoriam piece I wrote appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Rev. Everett Reynolds leading a march, ©Lincoln Journal-Star photo

 

 

Rev. Everett Reynolds Gave Voice to the Voiceless

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Rev. Everett Reynolds was not from Nebraska but he’s remembered as someone who made a significant mark here.

The St. Louis, Mo. native passed earlier this week in Omaha at age 83.

As a United Methodist minister and community leader he led congregations, worked with parolees, headed the local chapter of the NAACP, founded Cox Cable television channel CTI-22 and advocated for civil rights.

His work followed that of his father and grandfather, who were preachers. But for a long time Reynolds resisted The Call.

As a youth, he moved with his family to Lincoln, Neb., where his father pastored a church. After his father took over at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church in Omaha, Reynolds attended Technical High School.

But school and church were far from his mind. He heeded another calling, music, to become a professional musician in touring dance bands. He sang ballads and blues and played bass violin. He sat in with such legends as Count Basie and Lionel Hampton. He also played for top Omaha Midwest touring bands led by Lloyd Hunter and Earl Graves.

It was a heady time, but as the years went by he got caught up in the night life. Women. Booze. His alcoholism made him a liability. Once, after a week-long bender, he woke up in Houston, unable to remember what happened. Exiled from the band, this Prodigal Son finally returned home.

In a 2004 interview he said after failing to kick his drinking habit, he asked for divine help, and this time he stayed dry. In 1950, he rejoined the church and married. He and his wife Shirley celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary last year. His fall from grace and his subsequent recovery and rebirth, he said, gave his ministry “a message” for anyone straying from The Word. “For I have been there.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He made his ministry an extension of his work as a Nebraska parole officer. In his duals roles he said he often shared with youth his own experiences.

Reynolds, who held a theology degree and a doctorate, eventually took over his father’s pulpit at Clair Methodist. A consistent theme he delivered as a preacher is that “we’re all created equal in the sight of God. One blood are we.” Black or white, he said, shouldn’t matter. “When we reduce our faith to race, we’ve reduced our faith. Each time we make an advance, it’s for all people, not one.”

“My father was against any kind of inequitable treatment of people, of any people,” says Trip Reynolds, one of the late pastor’s three sons. “That’s his hallmark. Some people talk it — my dad was frequently acknowledged for practicing what he preached.”

Rev. Reynolds went on to pastor Lefler United Methodist Church. During his tenure, he assumed leadership of the Omaha NAACP. It was a tough time for the organization, locally and nationally, with declining memberships and a flagging mission.

As a NAACP spokesman he made his voice heard on hot button incidents like alleged police brutality. He raised awareness. He advocated dialogue. He organized protests. He called press conferences. The cable channel he founded, which originated as Religious Telecast Inc. before changing names to Community Telecast Inc., was created as a forum for minority voices to be heard. Trip Reynolds ran the channel with his father and today is general manager.

The late minister is remembered as the conscience of a community.

“He was very strong and intense in what he believed in,” says Metropolitan Community College liaison Tommie Wilson.”Powerful, intelligent. He knew civil rights backwards and forwards, and he stepped out there and he did it — fighting for justice for everybody. He was a fine man and quite a leader.”

“He took on some really difficult and sometime controversial cases, and he did that knowing what the consequences were and being unafraid to address those consequences,” says Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray. “He also helped create alternative programming and an opportunity for different voices.”

Along the way, Reynolds made clear the NAACP’s watchdog mission is still relevant. “Our struggle continues. People are still hurting because of inequities in such areas as education, employment, voting and the criminal justice system,” he once told a reporter.

When Reynolds stepped down as Omaha NAACP president in 2004, he recommended Tommie Wilson succeed him.

“I feel Dr Reynolds is responsible for me appreciating my history and me wanting to follow those big shoes he wore,” says Wilson. “When he asked me to take over it intensified in me my desire to do all I could to do to make a difference.”

Clair United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Ave., is hosting a Friday wake service from 6 to 8 p.m., and a Saturday funeral service at noon.

An Omaha Legacy Ends, Wesley House Shutters after 139 Years — New Use for Site Unknown


Recently, I stumbled across some information on the Internet that surprised me because the United Methodist Church Nebraska Conference website was announcing that a historic social service and community center in Omaha, the Wesley House, was closing. This was news to me, which I found odd since I am in the news business in Omaha and the organization said to be closing was one I was quite familiar with. Yet, I had heard nothing about it and to my knowledge nothing had appeared in the local media reporting this development.  A couple phone calls quickly confirmed that the Web announcement was true and that I was indeed the first journalist on the story.  It has to be one of the first times here or anywhere that an organization serving the community for nearly 140 years, as the Wesley had, was going by the wayside without any mention of it in the press.  The following story I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) rectifies that, providing readers a bit of context for the enterprising role the center played at one time, how it lost some relevance and stature in recent years, and why the powers that be decided it was time to close the Wesley after all this time.
Wesley House

 

 

Omaha Legacy Ends, Wesley House Community Center Shutters after 139 Years - New Use for Site Unknown

©by Leo Adam Biga

As seen in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Omaha’s oldest social service agency closed earlier this year with a whimper, not a bang. The Wesley House Community Center, a United Methodist Church mission since 1872, has ended 139 years of service, confirmed Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede, interim executive director and head of United Methodist Ministries in Omaha.

The agency’s two-acre, twin-building campus at 2001 North 35th St. will be sold, she says. And it’s unclear who will purchase it.

Wesley served the African-American community for the last half century. At its peak, it offered youth and adult programs and spun off a black-run radio station, a community bank, a credit union and a pair of economic development organizations.

But Wesley lost traction in the 1990s. Later, when management came under fire, primary funding support was pulled. By the early 2000s, Wesley barely hung on as a youth center. In 2005, Paul Bryant came on as executive director to shore up the nonprofit’s reputation and finances. He largely succeeded through the youth leadership academy he launched.

In October, Bryant tendered his resignation with the understanding Wesley would continue.

“Last year was our absolute best year at the Wesley House. Things were hitting on all cylinders,” he says, adding that the agency’s annual fundraising dinner and golf tournament were successful.

 

 

Paul Bryant

 

 

However, financial pressures remained. He says the academy struggled competing with larger, better-funded programs with more facilities. It scrambled just to meet operating costs. Besides, he says, “it was time to go, my work there was done. I felt a calling to take this work and expand it outside the walls of Wesley House into the schools.” He’s doing that under his Purpose Leading brand.

Bryant says he offered to remain through 2010 to assist the transition once a new executive director was hired. On Nov. 12, Ahlschwede was appointed. Bryant says he was then asked to clear out and disband the academy by Nov. 19.

Ahlschwede says she and the board intended to keep the center open, but closer examination revealed it wasn’t financially sustainable.

“The type of program Paul envisioned was much more difficult to fund than we realized,” she says. “You’ve got program costs to have things be adequately staffed and nurtured and tended, but you also have overhead, and the property itself comes with a significant amount of overhead because they’re big, old buildings.”

She says the board considered converting the site into an urban farm and food-justice campus, “until we realized the significance of the financial shortfall.”

 

 

Rev. Stephanie Ahlschwede

 

 

With Bryant — the center’s chief programmer and fundraiser — leaving to form his own nonprofit, the board soon decided to close the agency.

“They probably got a first-hand look at what it took to keep that thing afloat — I raised close to $2.5 million in the time I was there,” Bryant says.

Ahlschwede says she and the board concluded it was time to break the decades-old cycle of underfunding and revolving programs.

“We’ve been on a roller coaster here and at some point you can’t ignore it anymore,” she says.

She’s aware a legacy’s come to an end.

“It’s hard to end things and to say no to things,” she says. “When you talk to United Methodists who’ve been around about Wesley House, everyone sighs and is really sad because there’s been all these dreams and a long, rich history with many visionary and charismatic leaders, including Paul.

“It was very difficult. the board really struggled, because the dream and the reality weren’t matching up, and that is heartbreaking.”

Bryant learned of Wesley’s demise from The Reader.

“This is quite shocking to me it’s closed and it’s going to be sold,” he says. “It was so much more than a gym and swim program. In Omaha, at one time, it was the point agency for change.”

While the center received donations from Methodist congregations, even in outstate Nebraska, he says, “It really didn’t feel like we had the whole weight and support of the United Methodist Church behind it.”

Omaha Economic Development Corporation president Michael Maroney shares a heavy heart over the news of Wesley’s closing.

“It had meant so much over the years, particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, when it actually was doing unprecedented things,” says Maroney, who worked there on three occasions.

In a twist of fate, OEDC, which began at Wesley, is weighing a purchase agreement for the site. If OEDC decides to buy, Maroney says, “we would do the best we could to ensure it continues to add value to the community going forward, and no one knows exactly what that means. But we didn’t want to see an abandoned property or an inappropriate use. We wanted to make sure that whatever goes in there is hopefully embraced and supported by the community.”

Bryant and Ahlschwede express confidence in Maroney’s stewardship should OEDC proceed. The OEDC board is expected to decide before June.


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