Yesterday Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson came to our church. He met with Canopy NWA, the refugee resettlement agency we have recently formed. His visit was an honor and a surprise. We were surprised he wanted to meet with the organization personally. We were honored that he took the time, and asked such great and open questions.
It makes you a bit nervous to host the governor. We got pie (he liked the apple), and made sure all the wall-hangings were on straight in our conference room.
This entire week, I've been conducting a comprehensive community consultation. It's something Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service does when it is considering opening a new refugee resettlement site. James Horan, Vice President of Refugee and Community Service from Lutheran Family Service of the Rocky Mountains flew out to serve as consultant. It was particularly helpful to hear from him and spend time driving around our region discussing refugee resettlement, because he has some direct experience opening new sites comparable in size to the one we are considering in our region.
We spent some of our time talking with local and state politicians. In addition to the governor, we met with our congressman, Steve Womack, and local representatives like Bart Hester. We know they are ones likely to get calls on politically charged topics like refugee resettlement, so our conversations with them were both courtesy calls to provide information, and space for them to ask questions about our work.
We were surprised, however, to encounter such great support from these elected officials. Invariably, they graciously said, "Let us know how we can help." Even those whose political position runs counter in some ways to the advocacy work of LIRS still expressed support both for immigration and regional refugee resettlement.
I came to the conclusion sitting down at the table with these political leaders that I should schedule even more such face-to-face meetings. It's worth the time, and you find more points of commonality.
Perhaps it's not so surprising. Christ tells us to welcome the refugee, and in spite of political party, all the elected leaders here in Arkansas are committed Christians. We share a sense that welcoming refugees is both Christian, and the right thing to do.
After the political meetings, we headed to other organizations we believe will be instrumental in providing the quality, long welcome we intend to offer for arriving refugees. We toured a portion of the Northwest Arkansas Community College campus, and learned about their robust adult education and ESL offerings.
We also spoke with their department for nursing and medical sciences. That department can't get as many students as they need, and all their students are employed before they even complete the program, the need is so great for medical professionals in Northwest Arkansas.
In fact, this was something we heard repeatedly in all our conversations. Employers are desperate for employees. Unemployment is at 2.1% in our region. Not only are many of the larger companies looking for talent they can draw to the region, they're also seeking more entry-level and unskilled workers in a variety of areas, the largest being, of course, work in the poultry industry.
We met with Mireya Reith, executive director at the Arkansas United Community Coalition and the Immigrant Resource Center. She helped give us a picture of the current advocacy needs for immigrants in Arkansas. Mireya is a long-time political advocate specializing in engaging marginalized communities, and is a wealth of information, passionate about her work. She also was recently elected chair of the state board of education. Spend time with her, and you begin to see how the Latinx community in Northwest Arkansas is already, and is going to be increasingly, a force for good in our community.
We visited with Mike Malone, CEO and executive director at the Northwest Arkansas Council. The council is the brain child of some of the Fortune 500 companies located in NWA--Walmart, Tyson, and J.B. Hunt. They've worked on major projects in our region like the airport and widening the interstate. Now, they're focused especially on diversity and workforce development. They're committed to sustaining and improving Northwest Arkansas as a great place to live and conduct business. They serve as a catalyst and collaborator for finding solutions to the opportunities and challenges facing this thriving region.
We met with Ed Clifford, CEO of the Jones Trust. He was incredibly warm and supportive. In addition to the community center, which is the most obvious public face of the Jones Foundation (it houses a swimming pool, ice skating ring, gym, and many classrooms and meetings spaces--while we met there yesterday it was hosting the War Eagle day camp), they also have the JTL Shop, a Center for Nonprofits which houses about 80 of the 400 NGOs in Northwest Arkansas.
This includes the Community Clinic, a free clinic that many of our arriving refugees will make use of for health services.
Ed estimates there are 12,000 Marshallese living in Springdale. Add this to the very large Latino population, and you realize how different the Springdale of the 20th century was to the Springdale of the 21st. And again, what all these leaders remark on is the way such diversity has strengthened and contributed to the vitality of the region.
We met with Perry Webb at the Springdale Chamber of Commerce (over the course of our two community consultation weeks we also met with Steve Clarke of the Fayetteville Chamber, and three mayors in the region).
Through these conversations I came to a greater awareness of the strategy in place to facilitate Northwest Arkansas thinking regionally rather than individually by town. We are now one economic and cultural corridor, 525,000 people who make up Northwest Arkansas. And since we're growing (perhaps as many as 40 people per day move to NWA, and Fayetteville anticipates 30% growth by 2030), everyone is aware we need to think intentionally about regional development.
Other past consults have included ESL instructors in the I-40 corridor (NWACC, NTI, public schools, Springer Center, and Ozark Literacy Council), missions pastors at Fellowship Mission Center, public school administrators, Lindsay property developers, public transit officials, Walmart, Tyson, Engage NWA, the Cisneros Center, Community Clinic, dozens of community faith leaders, the Walton Family Foundation (we even had lunch with Lynn Walton), and more.
What's the value of a comprehensive community consultation like this, and in particular, how has it been valuable for me as a pastor?
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a few years will remember that in past years, I've blogged about walking the neighborhood. Typically this was focused on walking the immediate neighborhood around the church.
It's a very different kind of walk to meet with high-level stakeholders throughout the region, but I have to say, if you have good reason to do so, it's worth your time. As a faith voice in the community, my understanding of the assets and needs of Northwest Arkansas has deepened tremendously because of these conversations. I now have an intimate and face-to-face sense of what motivates our community leaders.
If you're new to a community, I still highly recommend the neighborhood walk. But if you've been in a community a few years, you start to get a sense of its opportunities and strengths. If you are thinking about the work of the kingdom of God and what can be planted in your little corner of a great big world, in the process of planting such ministry you will inevitably impact key stakeholders in the region. So it's good to know them by name, and for them to know you.
In a world continually divided by partisanship, people are desperate for stories of real coalition building, and so another great benefit of such community wide consultation is simple: it plants hope. Not only has this work increased the possibility of collaborative work between NGOs around shared purpose, it is also building collaborative bridges between churches and faith communities that often function in more silo fashion.
When I think about how all this has come together, I get goose bumps. We feel God living and active in our Canopy development work. I feel blessed not only to be part of such an amazing organization, and to work with such a diverse and talented set of volunteers who serve on our board and write our grants and conduct interviews and design web sites and more--I also feel blessed as a pastor to be able to gain an even better picture of our region, so the preaching and pastoral work I do each week can be better informed by the needs and perspectives of our community and region.
Next stops for the community consultation: I'm going to try and meet with Tom Cotton and John Boozman, our senators; drive to Little Rock to take our state refugee coordinator out for lunch; attend a service at the Islamic Center; gather a University of Arkansas symposium; get back to actual walking the neighborhood so I can meet landlords for potential apartments for refugees. In the process, might also just meet potential new congregational members!