Spirituality and Integration Work: Welcoming the Alien 7.6

Westy Egmont, Director IIL

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Fifty Muslims were killed at two Christchurch mosques by a radicalized bigot in New Zealand. Synagogues are attacked and vandalized. The Uyghurs are actively persecuted in China, and Christians are targeted in countries like the Philippines, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka. While we who are focused on the integration of newcomers must be among the most inclusive and anti-discriminatory force in our neighborhoods and faith communities, we face a critical challenge: to operate in a secular world with a professional view of faith that transcends our individual beliefs. Religious zealots are a global problem, but individual faith is one of the most powerful sources of resilience in migrants.

Faith is a primary resource. Did you watch the forgiveness offered in New Zealand? The sustaining power of hope, the confidence in a Guide, and the healing of the Almighty are refrains across the globe as sojourners describe their migratory experience. Faith communities report the resurgence in faith brought by newcomers who reclaim faith and active affiliation once they arrive—an expression of gratitude and a way to belong to a familiar community within a new society.

Just as service providers need to be trauma-informed due to trauma prevalence among immigrants, they also need to be faith-conscious and spirituality affirming. However, even in a Jesuit college, the resistance often runs high in discussing spiritual beliefs. It is critical that faith is spoken of freely regardless of the secular environment. Faith-inspired agencies—including Catholic Charities, Jewish Vocational Services, and other smaller organizations working tirelessly on the local levels—are ferociously inclusive communities open to all. Whether agencies are secular or not, they need to provide healing paths where a spiritual refuge is found, and service providers should offer empowering assistance regardless of belief systems. Pilgrims in a new land often have a story that they are eager to share, filled with language and beliefs we hear infrequently. They may talk about being spared and saved, witnessing miracles, ways of being healed, praying for the impossible, and struggling to forgive those who drove them out. A minority of them have never lived in a secular, multicultural community. Providers will do well to learn the Kleinman Eight Questions to approach those of another culture who often have another vocabulary for sickness and health. Trust rests on how one approaches the deeply-held beliefs of those crossing cultural borders.

One wonderful response is what Paul Kline, our featured faculty member this month, calls “an expectation of an encounter with the sacred.” We listen to the immigration story “with ears that hear the echo, the whisper.” We are worthy of trust when we can be trusted with the realm of the inmost current in people’s lives that is not always about religion but their most deeply-held narrative of their lives. The most atheistic of caseworkers have a responsibility to suspend judgment and to aid the migrant in finding community, that place where their inner life and the external community resonate. Bridging and bonding are the pillars of integration work and finding like-minded people, co-ethnics, and fellow believers can be the path to primary supports. The caseworker is in a privileged and powerful place to really listen to those sacred elements that sustain their client, and utilize the migrant’s inner resources to cope with the external situation.

Most migrants are grieving a loss. Many have endured unimaginable trauma while still others face great disappointment in unrealized dreams, and their personal resilience is often found in spiritual perspectives. Likewise, as I have observed as a professor in social work, the number of social workers motivated to the field by their faith-based values is high. Yet the chasm remains.

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One good reader on many aspects of this realm is the Routledge Handbook on Religion and Spirituality in Social Work. While many providers have inner conflicts that surface while hearing the soulful biography of others, the ability to discuss forgiveness, help people resolve their spiritual conflicts, and affirm emerging self-understanding is a powerful accompaniment. Resources for the provider, in self-care and in providing compassionate care day in and day out, are worth exploring. Having seen the abuses of the overzealous, providers need a mature acceptance of their views and a type of spiritual competency that is deeply respectful, warmly accepting, and genuinely affirming of others’ expressed worldviews, permissive of diversity and supportive of alternative conclusions.

One of the best courses in my pastoral counseling education was Jim Fowler’s Stages of Faith at Harvard Divinity School. His analysis is that there is a pattern that moves from projective views to literalism to traditional religion to reflection and living with paradox (and for some, usually later in life, to a type of universalism). Counselors are taught a lot about human development, and providers' spiritual formation is an instrument of understanding and acceptance of those elsewhere on the journey.

Through the life of the IIL, the emphasis has been on the work of social workers, educators, and clergy. Due to their significant roles as early primary contacts for newcomers, these vocations are best situated to be implementers of strategic interventions. One common element among these vocations is their availability and accessibility to those who are marginalized. A primary aspect in these fields is standing at cultural borders. The ability of each to develop radar for the spiritual, to receive others’ truths with reverential care, and to respond to all with generosity creates a life well-attuned to the radical hospitality of welcoming the stranger and treat them as kin.


Roe, E. P., & Bushnell, J. (2018). Refugee empowerment and faith communities: A qualitative study. Social Work and Christianity, 45(3), 35-54.

During the resettlement process, many refugees interact with faith-based organizations. This study consists of 26 qualitative interviews with former refugees, as well as people who work with refugees, to examine their conceptions about these faith-based organizations during resettlement. Results indicated that, by and large, refugees perceive the church as a largely benevolent entity that can offer supportive and long-lasting relationships. Still, several refugees expressed frustration with the church’s efforts to proselytize, and many found this aspect manipulative. Results also indicated a perceived power imbalance between refugees and church members. Based on the findings of this study, social workers assisting refugees within a faith-based organization should work to minimize the power dynamic over refugees, especially as it related to proselytization.

Read the Article

Trinidad, A. M. O., Soneoulay-Gillespie, T., Birkel, R. C., & Brennan, E. M. (2018). Parish collaboration and partnership in welcoming refugees: A case study. Social Work and Christianity, 45(3), 73-92.

Many faith-based organizations do considerable work with parishes when engaging in refugee resettlement. This qualitative case study examines this commonly-found relationship between faith-based organizations and parishes. Perhaps the most critical finding was the central importance of establishing strong partnership agreements with clear structure and goals. Additionally, findings emphasized the importance of relationship building and communication between both entities. This case study highlights how faith-based social service organizations and parishes can work together effectively if certain conditions are met. Ultimately, this successful partnership can more effectively help refugees than either organization could working in isolation.

Read the Article

Kim, S., & Kim-Godwin, Y. (2019). Cultural Context of Family Religiosity/Spirituality among Korean-American Elderly Families. Journal Of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, 34(1), 51-65.

Despite participation in many mainstream religions in the United States, Korean-Americans often rely on Korean cultural beliefs to guide them. This qualitative study of fifty-one elderly Korean-Americans illustrates the unique power that Confucianism, family, and collectivism hold among this population, even as many in it identify as Christians. Based on this study, social workers should be mindful of underlying cultural beliefs that still guide clients from diverse backgrounds. It is essential to explore the underlying belief systems members of certain populations may have to design and carry out appropriate care.

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Morgan-Consoli, M., & Unzueta, E. (2017). Female Mexican Immigrants in the United States: Cultural Knowledge and Healing. Women & Therapy, 41(1-2), 165-179.

Many immigrants occupy a unique space between two cultures. This article discusses the phenomenon in Mexican-American women and proposes therapy that acknowledges this in-betweenness. The authors of this study stress that when working with this population, healing cannot be solely based on Western therapy methods, which they also argue is culturally rooted. Instead, healing practices should incorporate the traditions, values, and healing practices found in this population. By doing this, the needs of Mexican-American women can be addressed in a culturally-appropriate way that acknowledges their identity.

Read the Article

Resources on Spirituality and Integration Work


Agencia ALPHA

Organizational Spotlight

Read more about how Agencia ALPHA helps integrate immigrants into the social, political, and economic fabric of society and improve quality of life in the United States.

Agencia ALPHA


Professor Paul Kline

Faculty Research

Read about Professor Kline's research focusing on the integration of spirituality and social work care, especially as they relate to experiences of trauma.

Prof. Paul Kline


Related Events

They Tried to Bury Us Podcast Recording

Somerville, MA: May 4, 2019

Celebrating What Unites Us!

Boston, MA: May 15, 2019 • Free for Ages 50+

Mygration [sic] Christian Conference

Boston, MA: June 14-15, 2019 • $5-$30