Pat Kelly is the lead pastor at Fredonia Hill Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas. In recent years, the church has seen large influxes of Hispanic and Korean immigrants, as well as Burmese refugees known as the Karen people. When Kelly saw their communities struggling to adjust to life in the United States, he made the church a safe haven. “Our congregation is very diverse, and I don’t want us just rubbing shoulders with people that look the same as us,” he says.
To accommodate all cultures, the church offers services that are translated in multiple languages so that all members of their congregations can worship together. “The heart of Christ is to take in the stranger and to clothe them, and to feed them, and to show them the love of God. That mission,” he says, “is not up for compromise.”
We want to see them succeed—they see this as their home now.
But Kelly’s support of his immigrant population is not only a moral one—it’s also economic. He says the refugees and immigrants in Nacogdoches work hard to achieve economic success, and they fill jobs that the community desperately needs. For example, Pilgrim’s Pride, a $9-billion company that produces and processes chicken, couldn’t find Americans willing to work at its local production facility. “It’s not the most glorious work, deboning chicken,” Kelly says. “But the Karen people, they know how to do it—it wasn’t a skill they had to learn. They had the knowledge and are very efficient. It’s given them a livelihood, and we want to see them succeed—they see this as their home now.” He adds that one of the community leaders of the Karen people, Ker Paw Nah, climbed the ranks at Pilgrim’s Pride and was ultimately recruited by Tyson Foods. “I don’t think his heart is to be in the chicken business forever, but he’s becoming successful as he creates his life here,” Kelly says.
But Kelly says he is disappointed that the government hasn’t done more to help Nacogdoches’ newcomers acclimate. In terms of immigration reform, he wants to see less time spent on keeping people out of the country and more time spent embracing the hard-working people that want to live and contribute to communities here. “We need to build relationships and have an open rapport,” Kelly says. “That’s where we’ve seen success. Early on, sure, it was a little awkward wondering how we were going to relate to these 200 people. It wasn’t government assisting these refugees, it was churches and businesses.” In fact, it was business interests that started calling for change. “It was a manager from Pilgrim’s Pride saying, ‘Hey, we need help.’ We’re missing an opportunity for a bright future when we don’t welcome and work with people who want to make this their home.”