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Jere Gault, First UMC Lakeland

Jere Gault, First UMC Lakeland

November 18, 2015
This Week’s Storyteller is…
Jere Gault, First UMC Lakeland
Being an American who was interested in our country's current immigration laws and the related plight of undocumented, immigrant farm-workers, I was struggling to reconcile the situation with my personal value system. While I was concerned with our nation's borders, politics, and the economics of the situation, I was also concerned with the multiple needs of the migrant families and their children who reside in our area. Somewhere in the midst of my struggle, I had a conversation with God that went something like this:

  • Me: "God, I'm still willing to do whatever you want me to do. Please show me how to love you more, how to love others more, and how to love myself more. Please help me understand your plan for me as well as how I might reconcile and address this immigration issue. I need to know what you want me to do."
  • God: "Well, there is something I want you to do; but, first, we need to correct a couple of your perceptions."
Shortly thereafter I began to experience a series of seemingly unrelated events...over a 1½ year period...that changed my life.

Soon after my search began, God began sending people into my life...people (migrant families) who either needed love or who (my church friends and others) were willing to give love. It became clear that part of my new work was to somehow connect these two groups of people. I began experiencing a series of seemingly unrelated events that made no sense until later, events such as:
  • Meeting a family with an eight-year-old daughter. The undocumented husband from Mexico had been in the U.S. for 18 years, and for those 18 years he worked six days each week for a small concrete contractor. Sixteen years ago he married his wife, who was a U.S. Citizen. Thus, because of his wife's status as a U.S. Citizen, he was eligible to become a U.S. Citizen. But for a lack of funds for attorney fees, he was still an undocumented immigrant.
  • UMCOR: Learned that this Immigration ministry provides free legal assistance to undocumented immigrants who are eligible for U. S. Citizenship.
  • Immigration and U.S. Citizenship: Completed this online college law course conducted by the Emory University Law School. I enjoyed it so much, I took it twice.
  • Latin American Cultures: Completed this online college course conducted (in English) by the University of Monterey, Mexico.
  • Disciple's Path: A six-week series presented by our First United Methodist Church (Lakeland) generated a number of spiritual insights that profoundly changed my paradigm regarding undocumented immigrants. Somewhere during the six weekly sessions, I was confronted with the following questions:
    • Did Jesus say, "Let the little children come unto me so I can see if they are properly documented."...or did He simply say, "Let the little children (all the little children) come unto me."
    • Did Jesus say, "I died on the cross to save only U.S. citizens from the consequences of their sins."...or did He say, "I died on the cross to save all from the consequences of their sins."
    • And then the clincher: "Are you an American first?...or a Christian first?" Never before had I ever considered that being an American and being a Christian might NOT be one and the same. After considerable thought, I had to decide that I am now a Christian first.
At a civic luncheon, I happened to meet someone who was already doing God's work in the migrant farm-worker community in the Mulberry, Florida, area. This person happened to be a school teacher who was also Polk County School Board's designated Migrant Advocate in the Mulberry area. As we talked, I learned of many opportunities to serve especially the academically talented migrant students and their families in the Mulberry area. These were middle school and high school students, two of which were high school graduates and who each were recently awarded Bill and Melinda Gates Millennium Scholarships. Their respective parents--all undocumented--work "in the fields" and have little, if any, means to financially provide for the students' other college needs...transportation, clothing, health insurance, personal expenses, et al.

Having subsequently toured three migrant camps and met these and other academically talented students, I quickly began to see the opportunities. Meanwhile, God was sending to me people of our church who were willing to share their love with these students and their families, and together we are working to respond to our opportunities.

The people and their stories are most inspiring. The students and their families are most appreciative. Our work is personally most gratifying and rewarding.

Our church has established a ministry called Migrant Student Services. The purpose of our ministry is:

"To identify academically talented migrant students who reside in our community and connect them with mentors, advocates, and resources that can help them accomplish their higher educational objectives and succeed in life."

A close friend, Marcia Alley, and I co-chair this ministry as we assist these students with their applications for college admissions and academic scholarships. We also provide support by providing appropriate attire, SAT testing fees, travel expenses to college interviews, emergency food items for their families, furniture/bedding for their homes, and medical/dental services free of charge.

We currently have 26 students enrolled in college, and each one is attending school on an academic scholarship. One of our students is currently enrolled in Dartmouth University's medical school, and still another was the valedictorian of his high school class. This student is now enrolled as a physics major at Harvard University.

Many people are engaged with this ministry.
  • One family is sponsoring one of our University of South Florida students providing her with clothing, guidance, personal expenses and cultural opportunities.
  • Another family is sponsoring a high school junior by way of providing clothing, personal expenses and monthly trips to the Lakeland Symphony concerts. This family also provides a wi-fi system for her laptop computer so this student can study at home.
  • Another family is sponsoring two artistically talented students by providing art lessons, fees to enter art shows and framing techniques.
  • A retired United Methodist pastor mentors two high school seniors on a weekly basis.
  • Another family sponsors a graduating USF student by providing appropriate clothing for school and work once she graduates from college. This same family provided professional driving lessons to teach the student how to drive an automobile and obtain a driver's she can drive to work.
  • A corporate donor has provided 26 laptop computers to deserving students.
  • Our church's Clothes Closet ministry has provided clothing for a large number of migrant children...from newborns through high schoolers.
  • Our church's Tuesday Tigers have provided transportation, bedding and handy-man services to several migrant families.
  • Our church's kitchen staff provided set-ups and food for our recent Migrant Student Recognition Banquet.
  • Our church's administrative staff have provided internal support and guidance.
  • Another church provided 10 suitcases so 10 of our students could attend a conference (College for Every Student...CFES) in Washington, D.C.
  • Another church provided appropriate shoes and clothing for 11 honor roll students to attend a recognition dinner in their honor.
  • Others provide food items (with the help of the Agape Food Bank) on an emergency basis to approximately 50 migrant farm-worker families each week.
  • Many other compassionate individuals and organizations provide cash donations that give lift to our ministry.
This ministry provides meaningful assistance to our academically talented migrant students and their families, and those who support the ministry find deep meaning and relevance through their gifts. We are grateful to our church for its leadership and support of our mission. 
Up Next Week…
Suzanne Eichler, First UMC Port Orange
Suzanne shares her testimony about how attending Financial Peace University at the church changed her thinking about money, what truly are wants and needs and helped her climb out of debt to the point that she can earn, save and give back for the needs of others. “It all belongs to God, anyway.”