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Conference celebrates opening of second immigration clinic

Conference celebrates opening of second immigration clinic

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Conference celebrates opening of second immigration clinic

Feb. 26, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0627}

NOTE: See related story, “Conference immigration attorney gives voice to voiceless,” e-Review FUMNS #0628 at:

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

TAMPA — Panravee Vongjaroenrat can’t explain why United Methodists do what they do when it comes to starting Justice for Our Neighbors clinics throughout the United States, but she’s glad the Florida Conference is committed to the ministry.

Panravee Vongjaroenrat marvels at the dedication and tenacity of United Methodists throughout the country who continue to open Justice for Our Neighbors clinics at the opening of the Florida Conference's second Justice for Our Neighbors immigration clinic in Tampa. Vongjaroenrat is program director and director of legal services for Justice for Our Neighbors, a national ministry of the United Methodist Committee on Relief based in Washington, D.C. Photo by J.A. Buchholz. Photo #07-0523.

An immigration attorney and director of legal services for Justice for Our Neighbors, a national program of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), Vongjaroenrat was one of several guests who participated in the Jan. 27 grand opening celebration of the conference’s second immigration clinic.

The event was held at Faith Community Haitian United Methodist Church in Tampa, the site of the new clinic. One day each month volunteers will be available at the church to provide legal advice to immigrants working through the process of gaining legal status.

“This is the result of a long conversation that has been going on for three years,” Vongjaroenrat said during the worship service that culminated the clinic’s first day of operation. “This is a very unique, ambitious ministry. Each time one of our clinics open, I wonder, ‘How do they do it — how long will it last?’ You people are still doing it with no sign of slowing down.”

Vongjaroenrat, who shared that she is not United Methodist, said she has come to realize United Methodists are passionate about the clinic ministry because it resonates with the tenets of the faith founded by John Wesley. She said the heart of the ministry is centered on hospitality and the ministry’s volunteers do an “amazing” job across the United States. She added that Justice for Our Neighbors is the only ministry of its kind in the nation and “something that nobody else has done.”

Taking the next step

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker said he was pleased this second clinic was opening and grateful to all who have made it and the first one possible. The first clinic has been operating at First United Methodist Church of Pine Hills in Orlando since May 2005, serving about nine to 12 people each month.

Justice for Our Neighbors partners with conferences and districts to establish the clinics. In Florida the conference’s refugee and immigration ministry has taken the lead on developing the conference’s clinics, with UMCOR providing start-up assistance, training for volunteers and a lawyer to help organize the ministry and meet with clients. Vongjaroenrat has provided guidance and assistance in setting up Florida’s clinics and was most often the lawyer meeting with clients at the Orlando clinic, flying in from Washington, D.C., nearly every month. Each clinic is run by a local team that is responsible for purchasing necessary supplies and recruiting volunteers, typically at a cost of about $5,000 a year.

Opening the second clinic and hiring an attorney to oversee both, plus a future clinic planned for the Fort Pierce area, marks the ministry’s move beyond the program-building and organizational stage. Andrew Booth, a GBGM church and community worker, was recently hired as director of the clinics. The conference’s refugee and immigration ministry is providing a portion of his salary, housing and utilities, with funding from a variety of sources, including grants from local bar associations and churches. GBGM will provide the rest of his salary and benefits.

The church’s role in the immigration debate

The Rev. Tamara Isidore (left), pastor of Faith Community Haitian United Methodist Church, and Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker share a moment with participants attending the opening of the conference's second Justice for Our Neighbors immigration clinic at the Haitian church Jan. 27. Isidore said she has been waiting for more than 10 years for the church to open the clinic so she and her church can help those in the Haitian community work through tough immigration issues. Photo by J.A. Buchholz. Photo #07-0524.

The Rev. Tamara Isidore, pastor at Faith Community Haitian United Methodist Church, said she is thankful to Jesus Christ that her dream of providing legal help to many of her Haitian members has finally become a reality. She said she was so excited about the clinic opening she couldn’t sleep. “This is a great day in my life. I’ve been waiting more than 10 years, and I praise the Lord.”

In addition to worship, the day’s celebration included a Creole dinner, children’s choir and liturgical dance team. There was also training for volunteers, the clinic’s first session and time for questions and answers. One question offered a glimpse into some of the painful issues related to immigration. A young woman wanted to know what could legally be done for a single mother whose husband had been deported.

Vongjaroenrat passionately responded that nothing could be done.

“The law should not be the way it is,” she said. “Something is broken. This is an injustice of the law. We must take action in immigration reform. Currently, the law says we don’t care. I think our job is to make the law care.”

Whitaker said there seems to be an attitude of hostility in America surrounding immigrants and United Methodists are called to be a community where that attitude is replaced with one of hospitality. He said the clinics make it possible to visibly show the hospitality of Jesus Christ.

After the service Isidore said the entire day was a sign of hope for the clinic’s clients.

“As Haitians, it has not been easy for us,” she said. “There is such a great need for this in our community. This clinic will go right to the heart of our situation.

“I pray it will be a voice in the Haitian community. I pray that they will know this church, this clinic, is a place they can come and find refuge.”

Isidore said the clinic will be a blessing to people who need help navigating the sometimes murky immigration waters — people like Imelda Morris, who traveled from Lakeland to be one of the clinic’s first clients. She was among the eight people who completed preliminary paperwork and the five or six who began talking with attorneys, according to Medghyne Calonge, the clinic’s case manager. Calonge said she was surprised at the number of people who came to the clinic on its first day, seeking assistance on a wide variety of immigration issues, and attributed the showing to strong word-of-mouth throughout the area.

Morris, a member of Lakeland’s Trinity United Methodist Church, said she learned about the clinic through her pastor. “I am very happy I came,” she added. “I will encourage other people to come.”

Volunteers at the Florida Conference's Justice for Our Neighbors immigration clinic in Tampa wrote their hopes and dreams for the clinic on a wall in one of the rooms at Faith Community Haitian United Methodist Church Jan. 27 during the clinic's opening celebration festivities. The clinic will be open once a month and provide services to people on a variety of immigration issues. Photo by J.A. Buchholz. Photo #07-0525.

Naomi Madsen, who works with UMCOR in New York in the area of immigration and refugee ministry, said the clinics are important on many levels.

“They provide real law services in the context of a congregation,” she said. “The people who need the services are poor people. I get so many letters from people who say they came to a clinic and nothing could be done for them but they were so welcomed and the people were so nice.”

Vongjaroenrat said educating volunteers is a step in the right direction when it comes to immigration reform. She said the reality is the law is extremely harsh and difficult to understand.

“The clinics are for people who need the services and also to form an advocacy group through the volunteers. The volunteers will realize the immigration laws need reform.”

While some churches may not want to be informed about immigration reform or feel removed from the immigration crisis facing the church and country, Isidore summed up what their response should be.

“In The United Methodist Church we are one big family,” she said. “We are a connectional church. If the arm suffers, the whole body feels it. We need to stand together and cry justice.”

Ministry receives national recognition

Last May GBGM recognized the work of the conference’s refugee and immigration ministry by designating it a General Advance Special.

The ministry also received a $10,000 grant of undesignated gifts to the Advance “to start the relationship off,” according to the Rev. Dr. Larry Rankin, director of the conference’s global mission and justice ministries.

“This designation is an affirmation of the good work of the conference team, as well as the opening of the clinic in Orlando and the search for an immigration lawyer/church and community worker,” Rankin said. “It also affirms the fact that the Florida Conference is located in a vital area for doing refugee and immigration ministry.” 
The Advance special is called “Florida Conference Refugee Ministry,” number 901520, and will be recognized through 2008. The designation can be renewed at that time.

The Tampa clinic is open once month from 1 to 4 p.m. and can be reached at 813-899-2845. The Orlando clinic is open one evening a month from 6 to about 10 p.m. and can be reached at 407-293-0545. Booth may be reached at First United Methodist Church, Orlando, at 407-849-6080.

Additional articles about the development of the clinics and the immigration debate are available in e-Review’s archives and may be accessed through e-Review’s search feature at


This article relates to Church and Society.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.