Sunday, December 4, 2011

Relevance or Faithfulness: Why I Will Not Endorse State Compacts

This post is written by Bill Mefford

In Henri Nouwen’s excellent book, In the Name of Jesus, he characterizes the first temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness, to turn stones into bread, as a temptation for relevance. I bristle when I read this because I want the church to be relevant! But I realize after some reflection that what Nouwen is describing is a choice we must make between relevance and faithfulness. I think this applies to our struggle to defend the rights of immigrants today.

In the book Nouwen writes that irrelevance is our “divine vocation that allows [us] to enter into deep solidarity” with those experiencing suffering and vulnerability. Incarnating ourselves among immigrants who are repeatedly marginalized by our society, made to feel invisible or even demonized by current conversations about the issue of immigration, and oppressed even by those who claim to be friends with immigrants (note the record number of deportations by President Obama), will make us irrelevant. We will be tempted to become more relevant in current policy discussions, but the price we pay for relevance will be further disconnection from our calling to incarnation. I have found that too often in policy discussions in Washington DC, immigrants remain invisible, not listened too or entirely removed from the discussion, and so, continually marginalized. This is true even among advocacy organizations working for positive immigration reform.

How is this happening? This happens whenever immigration is defined as a border security and economic improvement debate, rather than a human rights issue.

Unfortunately, state compacts, which began in Utah, and are currently spreading to other states by some of the leading organizations in the immigrants-rights movement, represent a temptation to faith communities to become relevant in the policy debates. But relevance in this case comes at a price: unfaithfulness.

The compacts are focused on conservatives, but all too often faith groups are included to ease their conscience. If we sign on, or so the thinking goes, we can dull the harsh edge found in some of these statements. Practically speaking, the statements contained in the compacts call for a continued militarization of the border (and filling the pockets of defense contractors who thrive off of the money being poured into these failed projects) and the protection of businesses that exploit immigrants without accountability. It furthers the delusion that too many in the movement have that says we can have “comprehensive immigration reform” by convincing [tricking] a few moderate members of Congress into believing that the reforms we ask for are fairly mild and will actually result in greater security and economic benefit, particularly for businesses. Of course, the mild reforms will never truly solve the challenges immigrants face and certainly cannot be called “comprehensive.”

Those of us who have incarnated ourselves among immigrants know that the oppression of our friends, neighbors, family members and fellow church members will not be stopped by smoke and mirrors and DC parlor tricks. The oppression will be stopped by a transformation of our current politics and policies. And transformation does not happen through poll-tested messages and carefully selected catch-phrases, or through convincing (or tricking) a few moderates to vote for something they don’t read or understand.

Social transformation from a biblical perspective happens as we incarnate ourselves among the vulnerable and marginalized and redemptively utilize our access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied. This is the essence of what Jesus has done for us and what he calls us to do for others.

The language of the state compacts, which define immigrants in free-market terms and how low of a threat they are to U.S. national security, is simply not faith-driven language. I am tired of signing on to statements that do not accentuate my voice as a follow of Jesus and someone who cares passionately about this issue. I just won’t sign these kinds of statements any more, not any longer.

I admit I have signed onto statements like this in the past believing people supposedly far smarter than me that this is the only way forward. I have ignored the glaring reality that these statements do not hold my values that this issue is first and foremost a human rights issue. But as the politics in DC grow more toxic and the reality of actually moving meaningful legislation forward becomes more unrealistic, I am tired of my voice not being heard in its truest form. Why should I try and sound like the gutless politicians in DC if they aren’t going to do anything meaningful in the first place? Why should I agree to statements such as these compacts when they haggle the most effective tool we yield as people of faith: our moral voice?

I won’t sell my birthright for a mess of pottage any more. I will not sign or endorse the state compacts, and I will strongly encourage others to not sign or endorse them either. It is time for our voice to be our own.

The truth is that as followers of Jesus we must advocate for policies that treat immigrants as children of God, with inherit value regardless of their function in the marketplace or the threat level that the Department of Homeland Security deems them. Thus, we need policy which protects their basic rights, which allows them to remain with their families, does not require them to pay outrageous fines or wait endless waits in order to begin any pathway to legal status. We need policies that do not separate immigrants from their families, that does not infringe on their privacy and their right to work, or to collectively bargain and gain better working conditions. We want policy that treats immigrants the same that citizens expect to be treated.

The language of the state compacts fits nicely into today’s current broken political atmosphere because it allows business as usual. It allows the current discussion to continue to be about protecting the borders and protecting U.S. business interests.

By keeping the discussion centered on border security, private prison corporations – raking in billions off of the harsh enforcement policies of the Obama administration – will continue to rake in billions because there is no inherit challenge to the continued practice of mass incarceration of people of color. Instead, the compact enhances the need for even more border security.

By keeping the discussion centered on border security, corporations like Boeing and Halliburton to name a couple – raking in hundreds of millions from building the wall and militarizing the border – will continue to rake in hundreds of millions because the language actually endorses this kind of corporate welfare through further emphasizing border security.

By keeping the discussion centered on economic growth for the already economically comfortable, which matches the messaging of supposed leaders like Newt Gingrich, we allow immigrants to be treated like objects, viewed positively only as long as they provide some economic benefit. But even if they bring our country economic benefit and uphold the “free-market philosophy,” they are not deported, but rather, given permanent second class citizenry, which has been suggested by Gingrich and others, because “we in the United States are humane.”

Since when is second class citizenship humane you may ask? Since we allowed the discussion to be centered on national security and economic benefit for businesses, which the state compacts only serve to reinforce.

The choice before us is relevance – signing on to statements like these compacts – or faithfulness. However, even if we opt for relevance, let me ask how smart is it, with national legislation nowhere in sight, to barter away our values and our moral positioning, adopt the language and policies of economic and border security from our opponents, before we are even asked to begin the real negotiations that will happen when the legislation is actually introduced and begins to move through the process? Why are we caving in to demands long before those demands are even formally made? It makes no sense!

As President Obama has found out the hard way, if you give the opposition your foot, your opposition is not going to be happy with the foot you have already given and be moved to compromise and not ask for anything more. How naïve! No, the truth is, if your starting point involves handing them your foot, then be ready to lose your entire leg and probably parts of other limbs as well. The anti-immigrant forces have not proven to be good comprimisers so where you start will largely determine where you end. I shudder to think where we could end up if our starting point is these state compacts. They are not my starting points any longer. I choose faithfulness and reject relevance.

We, as people of faith, as followers of Jesus, need to think through our purpose in this struggle. When we are asked to endorse something like this I know our first inclination is to join in any thing we think might be helpful. We are tired of the stalemate and so we are ready to sign anything that doesn’t sound absolutely horrible, even though parts of these compacts come pretty close.

I urge you to not follow this inclination though. I urge you to consider first what exactly is our role and our purpose in this struggle as followers of Jesus. We should ask, of any statement, does this language capture the essence of our mission among immigrant communities? Is asking for more border security and framing the contributions of immigrants solely in an economic framework convey what we want the world to know of our mission and passion for the rights of immigrants? Would the immigrant communities we are incarnated among be proud of what we are signing on to?

For me, the state compacts answer no to all of these questions, therefore, for me to be faithful, I cannot endorse them unless the language is radically altered. I want to be faithful to the people who are directly impacted by this issue – the people with whom Jesus has incarnated himself and who he calls you and I to incarnate ourselves among as well. More than we want to be politically relevant, we know we first must be faithful. I hope and pray our voice will be lifted up and that the policies directed towards immigrants will be transformed. And that transformation will only come as we faithfully work towards that end, political relevance be damned.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Spread of Toxic Immigration Laws

Chris Liu-Beers is Program Associate with the North Carolina Council of Churches. You can download a new Bible Study on Immigration at http://www.nccouncilofchurches.org/immigration-curriculum

Over the past several months I’ve been shaking my head at my computer screen, reading headlines from across the Southeast about new state immigration laws. This crop of new laws, enacted in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, and modeled after Arizona’s now infamous immigration law, threatens the safety and well-being of communities across the South. And North Carolina legislators are seriously considering whether to follow in these draconian footsteps.

I can certainly understand that the nation is clearly frustrated with Congress’ dysfunction, partisan gridlock, and seeming inability to deal rationally with the many major policy issues facing our communities. I am too. And immigration reform is now seen as one of the most challenging political battlegrounds, thanks in large part to partisan wrangling. Now a handful of conservative legislators are using fear and misinformation to position immigration as a political wedge issue, cashing in on Washington’s inaction and the down economy to pursue a fierce anti-immigrant agenda.

Even though prominent Republican leaders have expressed public reservations about
using a strategy so clearly designed to alienate Latinos and other large voting blocks, and even though all evidence from Arizona suggests that this approach is harmful economically, these anti-immigration hard-liners are undeterred.

Here is a quick look at some of these new laws:

South Carolina (SB 20), enacted June 27, 2011
* Requires that all law enforcement officers must demand proof of citizenship if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that someone is not in the U.S. legally
* Creates its own immigration enforcement agency (i.e. “South Carolina Border Patrol”)
* Requires employers to use E-Verify federal immigration database to determine the immigration status of new hires

Georgia (HB 87), enacted May 13, 2011
* Requires that all law enforcement officers must demand proof of citizenship if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that someone is not in the U.S. legally
* Establishes a seven-member Immigration Enforcement Review Board to investigate complaints about local and state government officials not enforcing state immigration-related laws
* Makes it a crime to knowingly harbor or transport undocumented immigrants
* Imposes harsh penalties for providing false papers to an undocumented immigrant
* Requires employers to use E-Verify federal immigration database to determine the immigration status of new hires

Alabama (HB 56), enacted June 9, 2011
* Requires that all law enforcement officers must demand proof of citizenship if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that someone is not in the U.S. legally
* Makes it a crime to knowingly harbor or transport undocumented immigrants
* Makes it a crime to rent property to undocumented immigrants
* Imposes harsh penalties for providing false papers to an undocumented immigrant
* Requires employers to use E-Verify federal immigration database to determine the immigration status of new hires
* Requires that public schools confirm students’ legal residency status through birth certificates or sworn affidavits
* Bans undocumented students from attending state colleges

This impractical, punitive approach does nothing to move us closer to immigration reform, but it does undermine our deepest values and creates chaos and fear in our communities.

Farm labor shortages have made headlines all summer, as a largely undocumented workforce has been criminalized. While politicians claimed that these immigration laws would create jobs (a claim made right now by almost all politicians about almost all bills), new jobs have failed to materialize. Instead, in these economies driven by agriculture, crops have rotted in the fields, and family farmers have been devastated by losses.

One of the most controversial sections of Alabama’s new state law is the requirement that children show proof of citizenship when registering to attend public school. Proponents of the new law have said that no child will be turned away from school, but that they do want to track state spending on undocumented students. In reality, this “papers, please” approach is creating a climate of fear that is keeping children out of school.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice: “The restrictionist vision for immigration ‘reform’ is playing out in Alabama today, with all of its ugly effects. Crops are rotting in the fields, children are afraid to go to school, and the state is reviving memories of its awful civil rights history. All that, and the Alabama law won’t fix one thing that’s broken about our immigration system. Is this really the type of country we want to be?”

Every day more and more Americans are realizing the devastating effects of this approach in their own communities. Faith communities in particular have helped people in the pews see how we cannot afford to scapegoat immigrants if we want to move forward as a nation.

In Alabama, for example, some denominations sued the state because they believed the new law would undermine their ability to be faithful to the Gospel.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent NPR story:

At First United Methodist Church in downtown Birmingham, clergy from around the city take turns leading a prayer service called in response to the new immigration law. Episcopal priest Herman Afanador, Baptist pastor Amanda Duckworth, and Methodist minister Melissa Self Patrick are part of a growing chorus of critics who say the Alabama law goes too far, criminalizing all kinds of contact with undocumented residents. It’s illegal, for example, to knowingly enter into a contract with, to rent to, to harbor or to transport illegal immigrants.

The state’s United Methodist, Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches have sued, arguing it violates their religious freedom.

Patrick, who runs the inner-city ministry of the United Methodist church in Birmingham, says being a good Samaritan could now be illegal. “This new legislation goes against the tenets of our Christian faith — to welcome the stranger, to offer hospitality to anyone,” she says.

Some here see the issue through the lens of Alabama’s history, including Lawton Higgs, 71, a retired Methodist minister. “And I’m a recovering racist, transformed by the great fruits of the civil rights movement in this city,” he says. Higgs says he and his church were on the wrong side of that moral battle in the ’60s, so he is pleased to see the churches entering the fray now. He likens Alabama’s immigration law to Jim Crow — legislating second-class status for illegal immigrants. “This is an expression of the same — what was called the white Southern redeemers,” he says.

These kinds of public faith witnesses against the new law have received a lot of media coverage, as people of faith have held vigils, marched in Birmingham, and filed lawsuits. While a federal judge recently allowed parts of the Alabama law to stand, congregations are making the connections between their faith and how their immigrant neighbors are treated. More than 150 clergy signed a letter opposing the law that was authored by Rev. R. G. Lyons, a United Methodist minister at Birmingham’s Community Church Without Walls. Clergy and laypeople alike are getting involved in new ways, and it’s making a difference.

Bringing it Home

Will North Carolina be next in line for passing regressive, anti-immigrant legislation? We’ve already seen an Arizona-style bill introduced last session, and there is strong interest from local anti-immigrant organizations in getting one passed. Supporters of mass-deportation are well-aware and seem quite comfortable with the range of negative effects wrought by such measures. As we’re seeing over the last month, these negative effects extend far beyond the targeted undocumented immigrant population and reach young school children, business owners and farmers, state taxpayers, legal immigrants, and the state’s reputation as a force in today’s global economy. Even many conservative legislators realize that this is the wrong approach for North Carolina.

We need serious, responsible solutions from politicians, not more-of-the-same scapegoating and fear-mongering. It’s time for state leaders to reject the politics of fear and to embrace the policies of immigrant integration. It’s time for Washington to enact the DREAM Act and real comprehensive immigration reform that brings people out of the shadows. And it’s time for faith communities of every tradition and denomination to stand with our immigrant sisters and brothers to say “Not in our state. Not in our name.”

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Journey to Emmaus

This piece was originally a sermon delivered by the Rev. Brant Copeland on May 8, 2011, concerning the text, Luke 24:13-35. Rev. Copeland is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, Florida.

You’ll have to forgive me if this sermon is even more incoherent than usual. I’ve just returned from a journey, you see, and I’m still a bit out of breath. It wasn’t a long trip, but it was full of surprises. My heart is still burning with the revelation of what I saw and heard, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it all.

I’ve been to Emmaus, you see. It’s just down the road – south on Adams till you come to a great tall building called the Capitol (with an “O” not an “A”), or as my travel companions call it, “El Capitolio.” I saw Jesus down there. That’s right. Jesus. The same Jesus who was crucified and buried not so long ago. You might have thought he was dead and gone. Many people do. But it’s not true. He was there.

Of course, this not the first time people have been to Emmaus and discovered Jesus, alive and at work. Luke says it happened to a couple of disciples on Easter Sunday afternoon. We don’t know both of their names. We just know the name of one: Cleopas. (That’s short for “Cleopatrus,” which means “son of a renowned father.” That must have been a hard name to live up to.)

Anyway, Cleopas and his friend were on their way to Emmaus and they were feeling mighty low. They had pinned their hopes and dreams on Jesus, you see, and he hat gotten himself arrested and tried and sentenced to death on the cross. Cleopas and his friend, apparently, had witnessed the execution. I doubt that they were talking about that, however.

My guess is, they were talking about how disappointed they were, and how scared. When you pin all your hopes and dreams on a person and that person gets pinned to a cross – well, it makes you feel like never trusting anyone or anything again. Not God, not the Bible. Nothing. It makes you feel like giving up.

That’s how I’ve been feeling lately. Perhaps it’s the same for you. I’ve been feeling like the world is an insane asylum and the inmates are in charge. Leaders don’t seem to look at the big picture. They enact laws that ignore the past and jeopardize the future. They turn 30 years of environmental legislation on its head. They talk about the need for jobs but put thousands of teachers and state workers out of work.

That’s why I was going to Emmaus. Emmaus seems to be the place where you go when you’ve given up – on leaders, on civil authorities, maybe even on God. Surely if God were paying attention, Jesus wouldn’t be dead, the world wouldn’t be in such a mess, and the inmates wouldn’t be in charge.

So these two disciples are on their way to Emmaus and this stranger pulls up alongside them and joined the conversation. “What’s up?” he wants to know. “¿Qué pasa?”

“What rock have this guy been living under?” Cleopas thought, but was too polite to say. They told him about Jesus, and how he was a prophet, mighty in deed and word, and how they were sure he was the one whom God has sent to put everything right again.

“But now he’s dead and buried. Not only that, some ditzy women in our group claim that his tomb is empty and some angels told them he’s alive. But you know women. Emotional. Hysterical. We didn’t take them seriously.”

The stranger was pretty rude. He called them foolish and dim witted. “It’s all in the scriptures,” he said, and went on to explain to them what why Jesus had died and how, despite evidence to the contrary, God was in all this from the start.

Before they knew it, there were in Emmaus at the house where they planned to spend the night. They invited the stranger to stay with them, and even asked him to say grace over the meal. So he took the bread, and blessed it, and broke it, and gave to them . . . and their eyes were opened and they recognized him. It wasn’t a stranger at all. It was Jesus.

What the women told them is true. Jesus is alive. He had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Well, as I said, I’ve just gotten back from Emmaus myself, down there by El Capitolio. Let me tell you, it’s true. Jesus is alive.

It was the last day of the legislative session and so far as I could tell, nobody was looking for Jesus except the folks I was with. They had brown skin, most of them, and the most beautiful children you’ve ever seen. They and their companions have been down at El Capitolio for almost every day of the last three weeks – testifying, telling their stories, and most important of all, praying.

You should hear these people pray. The evangelicals scrunch up their eyes and hold up their hands. The Roman Catholics kneel and make the sign of the cross. I’ve never heard such praying.

And neither, apparently, had anyone in El Capitolio. A seasoned lobbyist I know pulled me aside. “You know,” he said, “We’ve never seen anything like this before. We’ve never seen so many people, behaving so well, bringing their children, and telling legislators that they’re praying for them, day after day, after day. This is the most organized, disciplined, respectful group of people we’ve ever seen. Surely they’re not all Presbyterians.”

“No,” I said. “You can be sure of that.”

These came to Emmaus, to El Capitolio, to show the Legislature their faces. That in itself is an extraordinary brave thing to do, considering that many of these brothers and sisters don’t have papers to prove they are in the country legally. They wanted the politicians to see the human face of the immigration laws they were voting on.

They had a simple message: “Somos Florida.” (We are Florida), whose corollary is “No somos Arizona.” (You can figure out what that means.)

One powerful state senator, who changed his mind about voting “Yes” on the harshest version of the legislation, was asked what turned the tide for him.

“Well,” he said. “I changed my mind when I looked at that little girl.”

I know the little girl he meant. Her name is Karla Amaya and she’s from Tampa. I met her at breakfast right here in the Westminster Room, where she had spent the night, sleeping on the floor. We broke bread together, you could say. I ate a homemade tamal. She ate a bagel with grape jelly.

As it turned out, the House of Representatives never got round to voting on that anti-immigrant legislation, and it died, flatter than a tortilla.

Some say the members of the House lost their stomach for the proposed law when, day after day, they kept seeing those faces. Some say they just didn’t have the votes to pull it off this year. Some say the bill’s sponsor began to worry that he might not win his race for sheriff back home if he didn’t back off now.

I’ll tell you what my new friends say. They say it was the Holy Spirit and the prayers.

Well, on Friday afternoon, there was a small fiesta outside El Capitolio – near the dolphin fountain. We sang and celebrated and told stories, but mostly we prayed. The evangelicals prayed even more loudly. The Catholics made a shrine composed the Holy Mother, Pope John Paul, II, and Mickey Mouse.

And that’s when I saw him. Just out of the corner of my eye. He was breaking bread and blessing it and giving it to everyone who was hungry. And he was eating, too. I think it was a homemade tamal and a bagel with grape jelly.

It was Jesus. No doubt about it. He was made known in El Capitolio, in Emmaus, were hope comes to die but meets instead the risen Christ.

Low on hope this morning? Come to this Table. Unsure that God cares? Have some bread and wine. Don’t stay in Emmaus. That’s no place for Easter people.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

You Don't Need Bullets to Terrorize a Community

This was written by David V., a DREAM Act student, as a letter to President Obama.

Mr. Obama, please take the time to examine how militarizing our border affects Latino communities in border cities, wherever border patrol has jurisdiction to wreak havoc in our communities, and stop catering to calls from white landowners in border states!

You must realize that you don't need bullets to terrorize a community.

I'm not talking about relatively unpopulated towns with ranchers spread out here and there. You would go out of your way to ensure their protection and safety of mind. I'm talking about the cities in which your officers terrorize communities with their presence having no discretion because your system deems us all criminals.

I'm talking about the multiple times I've seen strollers left on the side of the road after mothers have gotten picked up by border patrol. People being afraid of visiting their local grocery store because they have become a trap for deportation--where you have to bus people out.

I'm talking from the sad experiences of my mother, my father, my brother, my sister, my cousins, and uncles getting deported. Where is their peace of mind that they can walk down the street without fear of being asked for their papers? Thousands of families are torn apart everyday by your agents, and when one rancher is killed you respond?

You easily crack under the pressure from some rich white folk while our community has been pleading for years for dignity and discretion. You promised reform and you are delivering a record number of deportations. You are militarizing the border, for what? To prove that you took a stance against the cartels but never took a drastic action to address the high drug demand from your drug-duped nation?

But come November you will easily forget that you need the Latino vote to keep your party afloat, then you will seem to care. Your publicity team will try to spin this and sell it to our community but we are fed up! If every time the first lady asked you to do something and you said, "Yes baby I'll do it," and every time you failed she would have left you a long time ago. Your credibility in our community is diminishing, we have hope but your unwillingness to whip your party to move on immigration reform shows us how much you are really willing to do for a community that helped you win key states in 2008 or did you forget that already?

We elected you based on Hope, not that you were going to change anything individually but that you would move forward with a positive honest dialogue on the issue of immigration but I think you have been brainwashed. You honestly think that the immigration system is functioning when you have 12 million people undocumented in the U.S. living as second class citizens. And you think that you are doing the right thing by sending troops to the border? Please! Spare us the trouble and just tell us that you care more about what people say about your buddies at the Democratic National Convention then you do about people with real pain, real suffering, and whose dreams are shattered because your lack of action.

A little honesty is all I ask. The GOP isn't afraid of saying they repudiate us but want our vote. Why don't you own up to it and admit that, at least tactically, you hold to the same premise?

I have never looked at the U.S. as a land of the free, it's more a land of those misguided by media biases and bigoted diatribes of politicians that care about our community showing up to the ballot and checking off their name.

I call on every one who reads this letter to demand accountability of their politicians for our communities, on all issues not just immigration! Remember that people are not fighting for your party's ideals, we are fighting to win our humanity back, to live better lives in coexistence with our brothers and sisters, and to ensure a better future for our youth.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sheep and Gatekeepers

Rev. Shalom R. Agtarap is pastor of Ellensburg First United Methodist Church, a growing faith community in central Washington State. She and her congregation continue to provide support for Latino families arrested and detained by the ICE raid in January of this year.

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
John 10:2-3

I rarely “get” agricultural images and passages within Scripture. They are difficult to understand without some lived experience. My mother grew up in a small farming community in the Philippines, but I did not. I can try and imagine what that first century agricultural community experienced when they heard these words, but I’m sure I’d miss the point.

So it is with some uncertainty that I talk about sheep and shepherd, the gate and the gatekeeper. How do 21st century readers experience the power of Christ’s words when many of us do not read with first century, agricultural-based knowledge?
How do we make sense of these statements? Are these images relevant?

Still, I know some of the most popular and diverse cultural expressions of Jesus Christ are as the Good Shepherd…whether you are a Southeast Asian, Central American, or African herder, shepherds all over the globe relate best to these images. But Jesus isn’t simply the shepherd whose leadership we follow; Jesus is also the way, the truth and the life. Jesus does not simply point to life, Jesus himself is life.

The words that trip me up when reading the John 10 passage are "gate," "gatekeeper," “thief,” and “bandit.” It would be mean-spirited and cynical (but easy) to believe that those who come to this country without proper papers are ‘thieves’ and ‘bandits’ who choose to break the law by not going through the right processes, who refuse to be checked by the ‘gatekeepers’. All this would be true if we believed that we were the only sheep that belonged to the Good Shepherd. But we most certainly are not. Read a little further and we are provided the perfect reminder for those who believe they are the only ones important to Christ. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)

Our nation’s current immigration policy criminalizes those who come to this country in search of better living conditions. We punish those who seek pasture, those who seek life, simply because they did not go through the “gate.” Would Jesus, the Good Shepherd, reject sheep that are hungry, wandering in the desert, in search of food? Would the Good Shepherd, who knows the names of every creature, deny them the opportunities and nurture all living beings require?

Interpret these words from John however one may like, scripture is very clear in what the Shepherd stands for. The Shepherd has come for one reason: that the sheep “may have life, and have it abundantly.”

As we advocate and work for immigration reform, may we stand up to those who function as gatekeepers who restrict and deny life and model with our lives the invitation issued to experience abundant life. With Christ as our center and our guide, we are sure to never be led astray.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sharing the Passion of Our Immigrant Sisters and Brothers

This blog post is written by Jim Perdue. Jim is the Missionary for Immigration and Border Concerns for Desert Southwest Conference and the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry

A few years back, film director Mel Gibson managed to stun the sensibilities of polite society, including many religious communities, with his interpretation of the “Passion of Christ.” No one ever asked if it would have been possible not to offend polite sensibilities by portraying the suffering of Jesus of Nazareth in his final days. It is not, nor should it ever be so.

Much of the confusion surrounding the movie came from a modern definition of the word passion. Today, passion more commonly refers to strong inner feeling and emotion, whether of love or of hate. We call people passionate who get out in the street to demonstrate, or who yell at a town hall meeting.

But passion has a much older and richer religious meaning, which we must recover. It comes from the Latin as both suffering and putting up with or enduring something unpleasant but unavoidable.

Passions as feelings are fleeting and contextual. Passion as a process or a work is inexorable and focused. We can experience and express our passions, but we must commit to the work of our passion. The challenge facing us now is that the religious community is not called just to have strong feelings about the world. It is also called to commit to suffer with that world and put up with that suffering until they are transformed.

This irreconcilable distinction between passions and passion is highlighted in the language and experiential divides between today’s U.S. undocumented Latino immigrant community and the U.S. citizen religious community, particularly their actions relative to immigration policy impasse.

The Spanish language of the undocumented Latino immigrant community is the same as the original Latin. In Spanish, when the word passion is used, if often refers to Jesus’ suffering. These Spanish speakers don’t often describe strong emotion as passion. Because of their lack of legal status and the increasing probability of their being caught and deported, this community lives in an ongoing, unavoidable process of passion. Most of them are committed to risking whatever might happen, not for themselves but for their children here or their family back home. They suffer constant fear, but they count their suffering as “worth it” in the long run. In fact, their passion runs so deeply that most undocumented people don’t even describe it as suffering. It is what it is, a life that they must endure as best they can. This community’s situation can give the citizen religious community a new window on what the scriptural account for this Sunday portrays as Jesus’ passion.

Today’s American English used in the religious community must struggle to touch this theological bedrock of passion as suffering and enduring. More often, its passions get caught up in cultural arguments that surround those life situations that someone else must endure until a clearer sense of the problem emerges. Those in the church who feel that national law must be maintained above all else fight passionately, just as do those who feel that the law itself must be changed because it fails to establish just treatment of all involved in the situa-tion. But does either commit to engage the passion of the people being ground up in the middle of the argument?

The passion to which God now leads the religious community involves extricating itself from passions and engaging that passion of an undocumented immigrant people who suffer in the midst of confusion that, at the end of the day, injures mainly them. The church must compadecerse in the Spanish, suffer with undocumented people in their struggle for a better life, come what may legally in the interim. It must have compassion.

We may be at a point when any “reform” of immigration policy will do more harm than good, simply because we refuse to touch base with this suffering of honest, hard-working people, which will continue and intensify until we find the political will as a whole people to solve the problems. Gone is the time to just react with the passions. Being at this point, then, we are called to embrace the passion that entails suffering along with those who suffer and put up with life, even as together we endeavor to struggle to organize and change that situation.

Undocumented immigrants have broken immigration law. They are also our Christian brothers and sisters. They live in an untenable situation that has become reality for them. We do not affirm the breaking of laws. Neither do we accept the survival of laws that use a people’s hope and then try to crush it. All of these are true. We cannot desert this call to the passion of Jesus. Let us choose to suffer and endure together in hope.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Church for All People from the Beginning

This blog post is written by Jim Perdue. Jim is the Missionary for Immigration and Border Concerns for Desert Southwest Conference and the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministry

Within the very first “Christian” message there was the commitment to include all who would answer the call and come. (Act. 2:39) All who received the presence and counsel of the Holy Spirit became part of something that would never be bordered in – the loving reign of God.

The church was not only for the children of its members, but for those against whom circumstance often built walls of exclusion. The promise first given to Abram and Sarai in Syria was now extended to “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” A truly global religion was born.

The stranger, long championed by the psalmist and the prophetic community because of the natural tendency of many people to marginalize those who were different, suddenly became the focus of the church. Its focus shifted there because God’s promise was understood to reside there. Not many in the new church would
be “citizens” of the Roman Empire, the governing authority of that time. Instead, the church anxiously sought out and included “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), so that a vast group that “were not a people” (2:10) became God’s people.

As a result, it quickly became unlawful to be a Christian, because they were erasing all the lines in the civil society of the empire. It would not be until around 160 C.E. that a Christian would be officially allowed to serve in the army. Fortunately for many, this had become a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy early on.

Recognizing the sacredness of the life of every potential heir to God’s promise, the church would have remembered the words of the psalmist in a new context: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.” (Ps. 116:15) This would have referred to the suffering masses the church desperately tried to reach, as well as to those Christians giving up their lives to the legal weapons of a persecutor state.

We tend to forget how far the love of God has been willing to go to erase the lines of separation that the world feels comfortable with, and uncomfortable with their elimination.

Undocumented immigrants, including the many Christian ones, are being increasingly, lawfully singled out for “removal” from our land. Each week, the Secure Communities program of our federal government adds thousands of new local law enforcement and governmental hands to the process of tracking down and removing them. What this has come to mean is that silence on the part of those who believe that some sort of immigration reform is needed is increasingly becoming tacit support of those for whom the ultimate solution is the removal of them all.

But lest we loose sight of the texts for this week, we ask the question “How should we (the church) treat people who are under constant threat of deportation?” Is there a place for them in the church? They have broken a law. But, is there a place for them in the church? They may be gone tomorrow. Which of us could that not be said? If tomorrow I’m discovered to suffer from a terminal illness, will the church choose to “not get involved”? And yet, undocumented immigrants suffer daily from a terminal status.

Later in his life, Peter would continue to grow in the universality of God’s promise and love; and he would increasingly counsel the church to live by that kind of love. The good news in the texts for this week promises to all within the church, citizen and immigrant, a quality of life that is eternal – that makes whatever suffering that befalls us bearable because we bear it together.

“Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth, so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22) Regardless of debates, political strategies, or fears, this is something we can grow into together. It’s what we are all meant to be.