The Immigrant Hospitality Center (IHC), the first of its kind in Lincolnton, was dedicated Sunday afternoon. Local pastors and officials, as well representatives from the Baptist State Convention of NC (BSCNC) and the Council on Immigrant Relations (CIR) in Raleigh, attended.
The idea behind the IHC started five years ago when its director, Bobby Farmer, was approached by someone who had learned about Farmer’s interest in multiculturalism and reaching out to the Latino community. At the time, Farmer was on staff at a church in West Lincoln and couldn’t take on the extra work. But as his responsibilities lessened, he decided to travel to Minneapolis to take a course called “Immigrant Pathways.”
Farmer cites his faith and distaste for some of the current rhetoric surrounding immigration issues as the driver for starting the IHC.
“I believe that we’re to love our neighbor and the nations are our neighbors, whether we agree on how they got here, or not,” Farmer said. “Part of my Christian responsibility is learning how to love my neighbors. So instead of taking sides on the issues, I’m going to investigate this.”
During the dedication, Farmer said he envisioned a place in Lincolnton where people are welcomed, a place to trust. He wanted to help provide a place where immigrants can get help with maintaining their status and work relationships here in the county.
According to Farmer, the Department of Justice allows immigration law to be practiced by accredited representatives who work with accredited organizations. In addition to the class, 40 hours shadowing an immigration attorney or other accredited individual is required for accreditation.
The IHC will focus on providing immigration services to those who can’t afford an attorney, aren’t able to navigate the process or have been taken advantage of in the past. The center can’t help with civil or criminal matter but can partner with attorneys should those matters arise. With help from local ELS Ministries, the center plans to offer ESL classes.
The IHC’s Main Street location wasn’t an accident. Farmer said that often centers like IHC are housed in a church basement or some other out of the way place.
“This is an issue that needs to be in front,” Farmer said. “Also, for people to be welcomed in the community, they need to feel like they’re going to a main part of the community. If we’re going to focus on community integration, what better place to have it than on main street America.”
The BSCNC calls immigration a gospel issue. During the dedication, Amaury Santos, Hispanic Strategy Coordinator of BSCNC said the organization’s 2015 resolution “was more than just an affirmation of the dignity of every human being regardless of their legal status, but a call to action.”
That call was heard by many members of the community in and around Lincolnton. Keith Hollar, representing the South Fork Baptist Association, which partners with about 70 Baptist churches in the area, is glad his organization is partnering with IHC. He contacted BSCNC and presented Farmer with a check for the first $8,000 approved for IHC.
“We want this to be a hospitality center not just concerned with American citizenship, but about heavenly citizenship,” Hollar said.
When John Gilleland Jr. first heard of Farmer’s idea, he knew it would be a success and assisted with the search for a home for the center. He showed Farmer several buildings and was surprised that Farmer even wanted to see the building at 415 E. Main Street, considering its condition. It had no HVAC, the floors were over 50 years old and “it was raining on the inside.”
When addressing the crowd gathered at the dedication, Farmer called Gilleland and his business partner gracious. He added that although some agreements were made as to who would do the work on the inside, he has yet to have a team perform any work inside the building. Farmer said the community is coming together, not just one group, using their skills and abilities to make the center a reality.
Even before the dedication, Farmer received positive feedback from the community. He’s gotten offers from potential volunteers who share his desire to approach immigration issues positively.
“I want to be a part of the answer in a practical way,” Farmer said. “To bring communities together and work with community integration where we understand that there’s nothing to fear with our neighbors, that they are human beings with dignity and value.
The Immigration Hospitality Center is located at 415 E. Main Street. The center will be open by appointment only until more volunteers achieve DOJ accreditation, allowing them to expand their hours.