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Pastor’s roots as refugee help inspire his challenge to bigotry

Alex Schmidt

Concerned by images of refugees fleeing war and trauma in their Middle Eastern homelands, and risking perilous journeys to seek safety and new lives in Europe, members of several Leavenworth churches formed Leavenworth ReSettles to find how they could respond to the humanitarian crisis.

Alex Schmidt, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church there, helped the group organize. His affinity for immigrants and refugees stems in part from his roots, coming as a five-year-old with his family to Peshashtin, Wash., in 1952.  An orchardist sponsored them to come as refugees from being displaced persons in Germany.

His involvement deepened as he worked to improve lives for Hispanic immigrants in Central Washington and led “Building Bridges of Understanding” workshops to develop cultural self-awareness and awareness of intolerance and racism.

In November 2015, Claudia Elliot from the United Methodist Church came to Alex, wanting to resettle one or two families in the community.  Aware it was a major task, they gathered interested people from the local Catholic, Lutheran and United Methodist churches and the community.

In December 2015, a small group met to explore if their rural area would have resources and be welcoming to “strangers” who might be Muslim. What security would be needed?  What tensions might there be?  What agency might help them?

In January, 20 people came to hear John Forseth, resettlement director for Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCSNW) in Tacoma, and his assistant, Saleem Khan, an AmeriCorps worker who was an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and came as a refugee.   LCSNW is affiliated with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), one of nine federally approved agencies for resettling refugees. 

Participants heard a LIRS quote, “As people of faith, we do not welcome on the condition that refugees are Christian.  We welcome them because we are Christian.”

The presentation convinced the group their community would benefit from cross-cultural connections and relationships of resettling families, so 10 teams formed to plan housing, jobs, food, clothing, education, medical care, transportation and furnishings.

To help families assimilate, they have offered education so the community would be welcoming.

A representative of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound came to speak about Islam and terrorism. They showed the documentary, “Salaam Neighbor,” on life in a refugee camp in Jordan and the vetting process.  They also offer books like My Neighbor Is Muslim, and other resources on Islam. 

There was a backlash of fear and anger from a few, Alex said.

Faith Lutheran held a craft fair with congregational artists, raising $1,200 to sponsor refugees.

“A Kurdish family almost moved here in April 2016, but the week before they were to move, the mother felt she needed to be near other Kurdish women because of the shared trauma they have experienced,” said Alex.

That family visited several weekends.  One time in the summer they prepared a Kurdish feast for more than 30 Leavenworth ReSettles members, who raised $1,300 to assist that family.

Another day, an AmeriCorps member brought a Kurdish woman with three of her six children for a day of respite that included lunch, an outing in the snow and dinner.

By December, they realized it would take longer than they hoped to resettle families, so they agreed to support refugee families in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, while continuing to make preparations in“faithful waiting.” 

Leavenworth ReSettles recently invited area congregations and community members to provide practical support. They assembled 24 refugee kitchen starter kits ($100 value), which they will take to LCSNW in Tacoma.

Now more than 60 area people are interested, said Alex, who retired at the end of 2016 after 17 years as pastor of Faith Lutheran. He continues with this project.

Over the years, Faith Lutheran Church has reached out to Hispanic neighbors—about 30 percent of the population.  Whether they are documented or undocumented, Hispanics contribute to the local economy, he said. They work in orchards, agriculture and tourism business and own small businesses.  While there are few Hispanic teachers and none on city council, there is little hostility to Hispanics because they help sustain the local economy, Alex said.

So he was surprised by the resistance to refugees from the Middle East.

Faith Lutheran members have offered ESL courses, citizenship classes and a free clinic, now a weekly part of Leavenworth’s Cascade Medical Center.  Alex, who learned Spanish before doing missionary work in Bolivia, is one of several interpreters.

For nearly four years, a Faith Lutheran Immigrant Justice Group has offered public forums, engaging local agencies on immigrants and helping families.  They link with state and national organizations for direct services and education.

Alex said his roots and faith play into his involvement.

His father was a German Russian in the Soviet army until Stalin purged German Russians. His father later defected to the German army.  After the war, his parents and two sisters fled to Germany.  They were in a displaced persons camp and then lived with a family in Bayreuth.

Alex’s father worked two years to pay off the Peshashtin orchardist’s sponsorship and then worked in a sawmill and studied electrical engineering.  Much later, he was hired at Boeing in Seattle, where Alex went to high school and completed a degree in oceanography in 1970 at the University of Washington.

Alex’s interest in immigrants and refugees came later in his life.

While in the Army from 1970 to 1973, he had a conversion experience, so he returned to Seattle to complete a degree in biblical studies in 1975 at Lutheran Bible Institute.

He, his first wife and two young children then spent three-and-a-half years with the Lutheran Church in Bolivia through World Mission Prayer League, bringing seminary classes to remote mountain villagers.

On returning, he studied at Fuller Seminary and completed a master of divinity in 1984 at Lutheran Northwestern Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.

Alex served from then until 1999 at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Spokane. His sisters encouraged their mother to write about her experiences in the war.

When he came to Faith Lutheran, the congregation introduced him to social justice.

In the last 10 years, Alex began to connect his roots with racism and bias in the region. He realized his father came home from the sawmill with injuries to his arms and ribs because anti-German co-workers intentionally mishandled the lumber.

Alex started giving interactive workshops on “Building Bridges of Understanding” to help dismantle racism through personal cultural self-awareness, and understanding the historical context and dynamics of intolerance and racism. Each year, he leads three to five eight-hour workshops for school boards, high school classes, secular nonprofits,  congregations, the Wenatchee Diversity Council, and staff of a drug and alcohol center and juvenile detention center.

In retirement, he hopes to offer more workshops, especially to churches, addressing theological perspectives and biblical mandates, the prophets’ call for justice, and Jesus’ work to break the yoke of oppression and work for mercy.

Along with educating, Alex believes work for justice involves affecting decisions in Olympia and Washington, D.C.

“Beyond helping at a community cupboard, we are called to love our neighbors by looking at what it means in terms of working for justice in the legal and political systems,” he said.

Recently he and other community leaders began the North Central Washington United Group, incorporating secular and faith communities for education and action “to wake others up to work towards justice and equity.”

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