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

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.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My Letter to President Obama

A blog post by Bill Mefford
Please consider writing your own letter to President Obama.

Dear Mr. President,

Last week you made an eloquent statement in response to the Republican budget plan that would take away important programs that benefit the most vulnerable in society and give even more tax breaks to the most powerful and affluent. You said, "Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, or people who are powerless, or don't have lobbyists, or don't have clout. I don’t think that’s particularly courageous.”

Your statement powerfully expressed what so many people of faith feel, including myself, as we watch a national debate regarding the budget that so often ignores the marginalized and vulnerable. These are the people for whom Jesus came to share good news and with whom he incarnated himself among.

Yet, as I listened to you last week I could not help but take note of the stunning hypocrisy in your statement. I fully agree that what is easiest and least courageous is trying to solve national problems on the backs of the poor and most vulnerable. Yet, that is exactly what you are doing in your attempts to solve the broken immigration system.

During the brief tenure of your administration you have deported more immigrants than during the entirety of President Bush's time in office. You have dramatically expanded enforcement programs like 287 g and Secure Communities, which force local law enforcement to act as immigration officials thereby eroding trust by immigrant communities in their local police. These programs have resulted in racial profiling and have made the public less safe. You have also refused to grant deferred status to DREAM Act students and the families of citizen children, though you repeatedly make statements of your support for immigrants and their families.

I know immigrant families whose loved ones have been deported, whose families have been torn apart because of your extreme focus on brutal enforcement programs as the primary means of fixing the immigration system when other solutions such as providing administrative relief to DREAM Act students and families of citizen children are readily available.

The fear of local officials has become so intense that I know of one immigrant family in Iowa whose house was on fire and they called their pastor before they called the fire department in order to find out if they would be in danger of deportation for reporting the fire. I know of countless stories where immigrants are afraid to call the police to report crimes committed against them and their neighbors because they are afraid they might be detained and deported. I know of stories of immigrant women who endure domestic abuse because they are more afraid of themselves or their loved ones being arrested than they are of the continued abuse. The programs, such as 287 g and Secure Communities that you have dramatically expanded, are not bringing greater security to our country. They are simply state-sponsored terror.

You are attempting to solve an enormous problem on the backs of the most vulnerable in our society. You have chosen the easiest and least courageous path and that is through promoting the idea that the problem with our broken immigration system is immigrants. Not US foreign and economic policies which have caused millions of immigrants to flee north for the prospects of economic security; not on US businesses which have thrived on cheap labor. You are punishing the victims and the duplicity is shocking.

And so as I listened to your powerful words last week in response to the proposed Republican budget plan, I could not help but feel extreme sadness. Not even anger – not yet, though I am sure that is coming. The sadness I feel – and I know felt by all people of faith who are incarnated among immigrants and their families – is the same sadness felt by the prophets who came face to face with such blatant hypocrisy and abuse of power against the poor and vulnerable in their time.

Whether it was Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, rebuking Israel’s King for caring more about building his palace than caring for the poor, or Nathan accusing King David for abusing his power for sentencing Uriah to death in battle so that he could take his wife Bathsheba as his own, or John the Baptist’s condemnation of Herod, or Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees, prophets have been misunderstood as angry and irrelevant; someone to tolerate as long as possible, but then ignore, if not eliminate entirely. Prophets are irrelevant to those who want efficiency and who prize order above justice.

The truth is that as people of faith incarnated among immigrant communities, we are not irrelevant if the subject is justice and that is the case here. We are also not out-of-touch. We are quite in touch with the sufferings that immigrant families are enduring at the hands of your policies. And as the prophets who came before us, we are not angry – not yet, I would stress. That is assuredly coming though. We are deeply saddened and disheartened by the promise of someone who seemed at one time dedicated to the welfare of immigrants and their families and now seems bent on tearing those families apart.

Mr. President, you are choosing what is politically the easiest and least courageous pathway forward in refusing to provide administrative relief to DREAM Act students and families of citizen children. You, Mr. President, are choosing what is most politically expedient and least courageous as you continue to dramatically expand programs like 287 g and Secure Communities that are terrorizing immigrant communities. These are people who have no clout, who do not have lobbyists. They have looked to you for leadership and up to this point you have given them nothing. We hear your rhetoric about supporting comprehensive immigration reform, but it rings hollow as your policies continue to wreak terror and bring destruction to immigrant communities and immigrant families.

And so we must request - we must even demand Mr. President – that you heed your own words in regards to the broken immigration system. "Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, or people who are powerless, or don't have lobbyists, or don't have clout. I don’t think that’s particularly courageous.” Amen, Mr. President. I do not think that is particularly courageous either. So, stop the programs 287 g and Secure Communities, and provide administrative relief to DREAM Act students and the parents and families of citizen children. Be strong and courageous Mr. President and we can once again stand beside you. But we will not stand with you today. We stand with our immigrant sisters and brothers who are daily being terrorized by your policies.


Bill Mefford

I encourage you to write your own letter to President Obama so that he can truly hear all of our voices.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hearing the Good Friday Story Again

A blog post by Rev. Yvette Schock

Every year on Good Friday, Christians gather to hear a story that showcases some of the worst of human behavior, individually and collectively. We see Judas sneaking around and conniving to deliver Jesus, his friend and teacher to the authorities who, he knows, want to get rid of Jesus; Peter, who, for all his bravado in drawing his sword in the dramatic scene at Gethsemane, denies he even knows Jesus when the stakes get too high; and the religious leaders, so desperate to keep some kind of peace, they’re willing to manipulate witnesses and evidence to get the conviction they want. We see Pontius Pilate, a slave to political expediency and perhaps his own ambition, and the foot-soldiers of the Roman Empire, demonstrating human ingenuity in torturing those deemed dangerous. And then there’s the crowd of regular folks, people like you and me, standing around to watch the whole show, fearful, excited, willing to play their parts when called upon by this or that authority, so easily caught up in the momentum of the moment, the crowds. And then, too, there is in the story all the detail of Jesus’ suffering—the innocent man convicted, the accused insurgent tortured and humiliated, a broken man crying in thirst and pain.

Some might wonder why we insist on hearing this story again and again, every Good Friday. The stories of the Resurrection, stories of Jesus’ disciples enlivened by the presence of the Risen Christ, touched and moved by the spirit of God to live together, share what they had in common, and minister to the sick and the poor in their communities—these stories one can understand telling again and again. The crucifixion—it’s just not a pretty story. So why is it so important for us to study it, hear it and share it as much as we hear and proclaim those resurrection stories?

Every year on Good Friday I’m reminded of the story of Emmett Till. Emmett was a 14-year old black boy from Chicago who, in 1955, went to Mississippi to visit family. One day he supposedly looked at a white woman the wrong way, and that night three grown men dragged Emmett from his uncle’s cabin, beat him to death and threw his body in the river. Emmett’s body was found four days after he was murdered, and was shipped back to his hometown to be buried. When Emmett Till’s mama first saw the broken body of her son, she said, “Where is his ear?…Where is his eye?” She wept to see it, her son’s body disfigured beyond recognition, but she insisted that his casket be open for the funeral. “Let people see what’s happened,” she said. She knew Emmett’s body told a certain truth about the real consequences of racism and segregation in a way that nothing else could. People lined up around the block from the church to visit Emmett Till’s broken body, and their witness to his death became a powerful catalyst for action in the early days of the civil rights movement.

When we gather each Good Friday to hear again the story of Christ’s suffering and death, we are like all those people who went to visit Emmett’s body; we gather to witness, to confront the truth about human sin written on Jesus’ body. The story about Jesus’ last hours, its central place in the gospels, the ancient tradition of gathering to hear the story in the days before Easter, reveals in our Christian faith the unavoidable call to us to look with clear eyes and to mourn not only the human brokenness and suffering carried on Jesus’ body 2000 years ago, but the brokenness and suffering born by so many of God’s children in our world today, and our own shortcomings in following Jesus, our own bad behavior.

This year as I hear the story of Jesus’ suffering, I’ll be thinking about our immigrant brothers and sisters. I will remember in prayer Arles, a friend in New York, and others who face the choice to stay with their families and watch them starve, or to live far from them in order to provide for them; the families of migrants who die in the desert trying to cross the US-Mexico border; the families of Nery Romero, Boubacar Bah and other detainees who have died in immigration detention; those who are separated from their families in the U.S. due to a broken immigration system that is unjust and dysfunctional; and immigrant children who will live in fear.

On Good Friday we gather to hear again the story of Christ’s suffering, and we must also hear the stories of our immigrant neighbors, because we cannot be credible witnesses to the hope of resurrection if we are not able to see and know the brokenness in us and in our world that cries out for God’s power for new life.

God’s response to the brokenness of our world was the Incarnation; God’s response was to enter into the world and take on the full range of human experience, to pour out love from the midst of it, and to carry all of it to the cross, and beyond.

We know that the power of the One who passed through death into new life is still at work in our world today. We hear this story today, and we remember in prayer the suffering of those who are tortured and hungry and marginalized in our world today, knowing that God promises that what is, is not all that will be. We gather today around the cross, knowing it is not only a place of suffering, but ultimately points to the promise of resurrection, and it is that hope in God’s power to bring new life which strengthens us to open our eyes and to respond to what our eyes see with our hearts and hands and our whole lives.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rethinking Our Approach to Immigration Reform

Dr. Helene Slessarev-Jamir is the Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Studies at the Claremont School of Theology. Her upcoming book, to be released in May of 2011 is, "Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America," (New York: New York University Press) to be released in May, 2011.

This was originally posted on God's Politics.

It is time for those of us who have been advocating for comprehensive immigration reform to rethink our strategies. After a recent visit with executive staff from the White House, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Senate, and House of Representatives as part of a United Methodist Church delegation, I have concluded that at this time our chances of advancing immigrant rights at the national level are minimal. We were told by a deputy director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council that the president is currently unwilling to even consider making administrative changes in the implementation of current detention and deportation policies that have thus far resulted in more deportations than occurred under the Bush administration. They are fearful that any administrative attempts to lessen the scope of programs such as 287(g) or Secure Communities, which claim to target serious criminals, yet frequently lead to the deportation of people picked up for minor offenses, would provoke reprisals from congressional Republicans who would insert burdensome restrictions on the funding of executive branch departments into the FY 2011 budget.

We were equally discouraged by our meetings with Senator Reid and Senator Schumer’s policy staff who told us that they were intending to meet with Glenn Beck’s supporters to find out what types of immigration policies they would be willing to support. The only positive news we received came from our meeting with the Democratic staff of the subcommittee on immigration of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary. The subcommittee staff told us that they felt the Republicans were sufficiently divided amongst themselves that it would be difficult for them to pass any particularly onerous new anti-immigrant measures, including E-verify, which would require all employers to electronically check social security numbers before hiring someone. So, my overall impression from this series of meetings is that we are essentially at a stalemate nationally with little chance of any favorable immigration legislation, but also no new negative legislation in the near future.

However, this does not mean that there is not work to be done. For the time being, I am suggesting that we focus our activities at the state and local levels. We need to prevent the passage of Arizona copycat laws in the various states in which they have been introduced. Even though many of these laws will ultimately be found unconstitutional because immigration policy clearly falls under the purview of the national government, in the meantime, they are making the lives of undocumented immigrants miserable. According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, migrant farmworker families are already keeping their children out of school whenever they enter Arizona. That state’s new laws (SB 1070) have effectively denied access to education for undocumented children by requiring proof of citizenship to enroll school, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that every child is entitled to a public education. Elena Lacayo, the immigration field coordinator for the National Council of La Raza sees these copycat laws as a “trickle up strategy” where state level anti-immigrant laws establish new precedents for future national policy. We should recognize that exactly such strategies have in the past often led to the eventual enactment of new national legislation so it’s important that we stop bad legislation from being passed by the states.

There are other states with well organized, strong Latino political representation, such as my home state of California, in which some progressive pro-immigrant reforms are possible. For example, there is a legislative campaign underway in California to pass a state level DREAM Act, which would make undocumented students eligible for institutional and state financial aid at all of the state’s public universities.

Even if the campaign to pass national comprehensive immigration reform takes some years to finally succeed, we can still build social movements that create what cultural anthropologist, James Holston, has called “insurgent citizenship.” I see organizing efforts by groups such as Interfaith Worker Justice and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) that work with unions to expand immigrant workers’ rights as well as the many local congregational community organizing networks that seek increased access to quality education, health care, and safe communities for people who do not possess formal U.S. citizenship as new forms of insurgent citizenship. Through getting involved in these types of local, regional, and statewide campaigns we are expanding substantive citizenship rights from below for people who are being denied formal rights by the American nation-state. All of these efforts will contribute to improving the quality of life for all immigrants and their children, thereby contributing to the building of shalom even when it is being denied on Capitol Hill. Creating a broader set of rights for immigrants at the local level has indeed already occurred in a number of European countries, where in some cases, non-citizen immigrants are even allowed to vote in local elections.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

How DHS and ICE Drove Me to Prayer

I have to admit, I am anything but a contemplative. I have a restless mind that does not stop. That can be creatively helpful on projects and ideas, but it can also be maddening (as those who work with me can attest).

I have a very hard time identifying with the monastic life. Though I respect those who choose this calling, I must confess, it just doesn't fit me. In seminary, I took a class that looked somewhat at the lives of some of the saints and while my respect for some of them increased, I honestly never really fully understood how they could spend so much of their lives in silent prayer before God. I can get restless just watching a commercial.

I do not discount the need for prayer at all, but I like to go as fast as I can, 150 miles an hour, hair on fire, the whole bit. I like to push as hard as I can, in as many areas as I can. In working on issues of justice, I do not see how else to do it. The injustices are so great, the challenges before us are so enormous and the forces working against us are so structurally and spiritually deep and entrenched. I believe God is out in front of us, going as fast as possible (and sometimes waiting impatiently for the Church to catch up!), pushing hard, and keenly aware of all that is happening to the most vulnerable in our world.

So, in experiencing God, I have always tended to be in motion. I feel God's presence as I see God's Church incarnated among the most vulnerable in society and working on justice on their behalf. I see God's strength when I meet with immigrants and hear the stories of their love and passion for their families even while the U.S. government works to break their families a part. I hear God's voice in the prophets, such as Amos and Isaiah, but also in our modern day prophets like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Gustavo Gutierrez, and so many others. So, yeah, I experience God, but in motion.

I just struggle with being still before God. I am not sure I really get it.

But I think I am learning this the hard way. In fact, the Obama Administration might make me a contemplative in the end.

Recently, I have been as angry and frustrated as I think I have ever been in working for any justice issue in my life. I have grown sick and tired of this issue being framed as a national security issue by government officials, media folks, and even among so-called religious leaders. It is obviously first and foremost a human rights issue and our focus should be on families and defending the rights of immigrants. I am almost entirely disillusioned by the President's rhetoric that seems in favor of positive reform, all the while his administration engages in state-sponsored terror against immigrant communities. The hypocrisy is just startling. Most Republicans are heartless on this issue while most democrats are spineless. I am numb with frustration.

So, a couple of weeks ago, there was a day when I especially felt spent. It was a day when I worked non-stop, without lunch, feeling constantly behind because there is just so much to do, and yet, I see absolutely zero progress in Congress and a total denial of responsibility by President Obama and his administration for the terror they are causing. So, I went to the chapel in the United Methodist Building where I work and I just sat there. I was still. I didn't cry out, I didn't sob, I didn't see angels or hear trumpets.

I was just still. I am not sure I had done that in months - I can't even remember. But man it felt good. I probably sat there for 20 minutes (almost a personal record!), thinking, praying, just alone with Jesus and my thoughts.

I didn't get some tremendous vision for how to fix the impasse we are in. No soul-searching illumination or transformative visions. I just rested and gave my efforts, my failures, my deep resentment, anger, and discouragement to God. And I just rested.

Of course, I eventually got up and I left. It was tempting to stay and rest, Lord knows, it was the best feeling I had had all day. But there is always a time to walk back into the valley and see the crowds and the immense needs and once again work to bring healing and justice. Rest is just laziness unless there is work.

So, for those of you who are not as trained in the art of contemplative prayer and meditation as others, I pray you will find some time in the midst of the madness to be still and allow God to come near. This is not my usual message, but I feel it is appropriate and necessary given the amount of work we have. You may be feeling angry at the situation we face, but God is even angrier at the injustice and oppression being poured out on immigrant families right now. You may be feeling disheartened at the lack of progress and I can testify that God is present with us even in our deep discouragement as well.

I hope you will find your 20 minutes - maybe even just five minutes. Don't worry, the world won't fall apart while you are still. It will still be waiting for you to come back. But you might come back to it a little lighter and that may be just what the world needs anyway.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What Part of Incarnation Do You Not Understand?

A blog post by Bill Mefford

I have unfortunately turned off most of the current praise and worship music. It focuses on a private relationship with Jesus and says little to nothing about the world that Jesus calls us to love. The music reflects and feeds the individualism and detachment that sadly pervades the Church and distorts our true calling to love and serve others, particularly the vulnerable.

But this kind of worship has not always characterized the Church, and certainly not in its earliest stages. This is clearly seen in Paul's letter to the church in Philippi. In his letter Paul uses a hymn sung by early Christians in 2:5-11. In this passage Paul describes Jesus in v. 5 as being in the "form of God [but who] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited." This means that Jesus, though at the same time fully human and fully divine, did not use his divinity for his own selfish purposes. Instead, he gave up the rights to his divinity as he took human form and he poured out his life entirely for others.

Why did Jesus do this? Because incarnating himself among the human race was not enough - he longed to identify himself fully with all of humanity to even the most vulnerable and least powerful. Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross."

The story of God's incarnation among the most vulnerable of humanity did not begin in the New Testament. In Isaiah 57:15, God is described as "the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy; 'I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit.'"

God is incarnated among the most lowly in society because that is in the very nature of who God is. Likewise, incarnation among the vulnerable in society is what God expects of those who follow him. The story of Acts is not just the story of the beginning of the Church, it is the story of God's repeated urgings, pleadings, cajolings to the new followers of the Way to go to those they once believed not worthy of God's love and to incarnate themselves among them and share with them in God's love and transformation. It is through incarnation that not only those we go to are transformed by God's love - so are we. Incarnation in therefore implicitly mutual ni that both the vulnerable and those incarnating themselves among them are transformed. Incarnation is how true biblical community is created.

The implications of the downward trajectory of Jesus' call to his followers in missional engagement are enormous, but all too often ignored. For those of us who wish to receive the benefits of God's redemption, we must also follow in his footsteps into incarnation among the most vulnerable in society. But yet, there are too many in the church who refuse to follow Jesus into incarnational relationships among the most vulnerable, including newly arrived immigrants.

Jesus invites us to follow him into shared existence with the sojourners in our land where their joys become ours, their fears become ours, their hopes become our own. But he also has a stern message for those who sit safely on the sidelines and pass judgment on the most vulnerable. Jesus angrily charges the Pharisees with engaging in the exact opposite of incarnational mission. He tells them, "they tie up heavy burdens hard to bear and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger." (Matthew 23:4) The Pharisees are guilty of offering instruction without empathy and making demands on others when they make no effort to provide support or relief.

And couldn't the same be said of all those who mindlessly repeat the mantra, "what part of illegal don't you understand?" So often, these words are spoken by people who, within the comfort of their isolation, are so willing to offer advice (no matter how bad it might be), but who are not engaging in any missional actions that provide true relief and compassion for immigrants.

So, let me offer a way to respond to the thoughtless mantra. We can now respond, "what part of incarnation do you not understand?" If incarnation is integral to God's character - and it is as we have seen, then anything short of this kind of missional engagement falls short of biblical and missional faithfulness.

Jesus invites and empowers us to follow him into incarnational relationships with those who are vulnerable and too often neglected and demonized by the rest of society. I pray this Lenten season we will accept that invitation for it is an invitation for our own liberation. And anything less, as the Pharisees sadly found out, denies the ultimate gift of transformation for our world, and especially for ourselves.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Making Strangers into Friends

A post by Michelle Thorne

A few years ago I took a spiritual gifts test for a seminary class and was absolutely blown away by the results. Voluntary poverty. Yes, that’s right. Voluntary poverty somehow beat everything else out for the number one spot. Not something that I had ever expected or even believed about myself. Perhaps the gifts assessment was more an assessment of where I want to be, or where I felt I should be, but it definitely was not how I was living currently.

I was reminded of this result recently as I was reading a book by Henri Nouwen, entitled Reaching Out. In it, he writes, “It is indeed the paradox of hospitality that poverty makes a good host. Poverty is the inner disposition that allows us to take away our defenses and convert our enemies into friends. We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend” (73). This statement resonated with me so deeply that I am still chewing on it. We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend.

The prophet Jonah was called to preach impending destruction to the people of Nineveh. Already disgruntled about his mission, when his message prompts the people to repent and God decides instead to spare the city, Jonah becomes angry: ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ (Jonah 4:1-3)

Why is Jonah so upset? Who or what is Jonah defending by his anger? Jonah is having a difficult time accepting that God could show grace and mercy to such cruel people like the Assyrians (whose capital was Nineveh). It is almost as if this mercy were an imperfection, a weakness, which Jonah notices in God’s character. Because the Assyrians were the enemies of his people, Jonah’s pride and defensive stance of his nation and people provoke him to this rather offensive position against the Assyrians. Jonah’s response is dramatic - he would rather die than accept a God who is abundantly compassionate and the forgiveness and pardon this God offers to the city of Nineveh. Jonah is full of pride, self-righteousness, and a spirit willing to revel in the peoples’ annihilation. He lacks the poverty necessary (that of an open and empty spirit) to convert his enemies into friends.

If we are honest with ourselves, we too are often quite like Jonah. We divide the people in this world and our relationships between good and bad, friends and enemies, strangers and neighbors. Furthermore, we, especially in the United States, are often so full that we too lack the poverty to convert strangers into friends. As long as we are filled to the brim with our pride, our material attachments, our selfish thoughts, our idolization of nation, our prejudice and discrimination (based on gender, sexual orientation, race, citizenship, religion, etc.) we lack the ability to show real hospitality to others.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This same poverty of spirit that Jesus mentioned is exactly what Jonah lacked. Poverty of spirit means that we know that our place at the table of grace is a gift from God. Poverty of spirit means that God’s grace has opened our hearts to see other people as God sees them, with dignity and value. Poverty of spirit means that we approach others as equals, not with feelings of superiority or entitlement or with a paternalistic attitude.

We are at a time in our nation’s history, where our superabundance has been called into question. We have begun to feel the repercussions of our greed and our selfishness. Wrong though it may be, we believe that the easy way out of our crisis is to retreat, to close the doors, and to blame the stranger. Wrong though it may be, we clutch our fists and raise our arms to defend our space from the multiple enemies that have come uninvited and undeservedly to pollute our nation with their culture, religion, and accents.

What would it look like to say, “Welcome!” instead of fiercely guarding our “high ground”? What would it look like to offer real hospitality, to let my house be your house, my difficulties be your difficulties, and my celebrations your celebrations? What would it look like to have nothing to defend, but everything to give? What would it look like to really share life together?

During this Lent, let us covenant to empty ourselves, so that with a poverty of spirit we may be able to be more hospitable to the immigrants among us, each as a nation, as congregations, as families, and as individuals. May we always be about the business of converting strangers into friends!!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Undocumented and Unafraid: No Tenemos Miedo

A post by Rev. Yvette Schock

One day in Tucson last summer, as I wove a path through the crowds at a demonstration against SB1070, a young woman approached and held out to me a sign from the stack she had clasped under her arm. On the front was a brightly colored image of another young woman holding a sign that read in bold, block letters, “UNDOCUMENTED, UNAFRAID: NO TENEMOS MIEDO.” I stopped walking, seized by a moment of indecision—I am not an undocumented immigrant, and I do not have to fear the things an undocumented immigrant might, so, I wondered, what did it mean for me to carry this image and these words? Could it be a declaration of solidarity and support for families and students refusing to live in the shadows, and a denunciation of an economic system that requires the existence of an underclass and of a society and political leaders who accept it? Did it honor the courage of immigrant advocates, or was it just a shadow gesture made by someone who risked very little by showing up at a demonstration, in contrast to those who risked a great deal? My moment of indecision didn’t last long; I decided not to overthink it (I’m often guilty of this), held the sign high, and joined in the chanting and singing of the crowd.

But the sign came home from Tucson with me; it sits propped against the wall opposite my desk, and I have had months to reflect on the significance of its message—how it speaks within the context of these times, and what it demands of me in particular. I have begun to reads its words as the kind of defiant, hopeful, confident, David-confronting-Goliath statement of faith we hear again and again in the Psalms. In the face of all kinds of dangers and anxieties, the Psalmists often declared their trust in God and their defiance of any human who might harm them using these words, or something very like them:

In God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
(Psalm 56:4)

It’s not just the Psalmists: very, very often in Scripture, when messengers from God arrive to bring comfort, hope and challenge to people in all kinds of precarious situations, they usually begin the same way: “Do not be afraid.” Maybe it’s because coming face-to-face all of a sudden with a messenger from God is a startling experience, or maybe it’s because God’s messengers so often appear to people with plenty of reason to be afraid, but I think it might also be because of what fear does to us. Fear causes us to shrink, to turn inward, to turn away from God and from others. When God’s messengers arrive, it’s usually not only to comfort and reassure, but also to challenge and move us to action. People who are shrinking in fear are in no state to hear God’s promises, to joyfully dive into the powerful current of God’s vision of life and abundance for our world and allow that current to redirect their lives, to answer God’s call to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

And so, when God’s messengers appear in the stories of our faith, they send up a flare for us: they prepare their listeners (and us, the readers) to hear and receive the promise and challenge that is coming next by reminding them (and us): Do not be afraid. God appears to Abram, elderly and childless, and declares: “Do not be afraid…Look up at the sky and count the stars…so shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15). When Abram’s wife, Sarai, sends her slave, Hagar and her son (by Abram) into the desert to die, God hears their cries and promises: “Hagar, do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” (Genesis 21) God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, saying to the Hebrew people in exile, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west” (Isaiah 43:5). The angel Gabriel appears to Mary to declare, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:30-32)

Fear, it seems, has no part in God’s vision of justice and wholeness for our world, nor in God’s way of working in the world. But fear has it uses for those who would wield it as their tool—human history is littered with far too many stories about political leaders stirring up fear of a particular group of people to distract from a problem the leader may not be able to address, to disguise their own shortcomings or corruption, to maintain their positions of power. Perhaps this is another reason why “Do not be afraid” is the refrain that begins each telling of God’s promises—to point out the universe of difference between God’s order and the order of empires.

Our society is no exception. It is crowded with voices that aim to stir up fear in immigrant and non-immigrant communities alike—candidates for public office, governors, state representatives, county sheriffs and Members of Congress who do not hesitate to paint immigrants in our communities as enemies, criminals, threats to our country’s security and to our families’ well-being; sponsors of state legislation that aims to make life difficult for undocumented immigrants. ICE agents waiting outside of apartment buildings or trolling in grocery store parking lots, increasing numbers of deportations that begin with a routine traffic stop, the threat of immigrant parents being separated from U.S. citizen children—all of these policies and practices are stirring up fear within immigrant communities, and for some, stirring up fear is the point. Though I don’t think the Obama administration would admit this, current immigration enforcement policy, in the absence of immigration reform, is, in effect, a program of attrition through enforcement—a strategy that banks on creating fear and suffering in immigration communities.

And yet some in those very communities are refusing to turn inward, to shrink in fear. I don’t know when the phrase “Undocumented and unafraid” first came into use in the movement for just immigration reform, but one account points to youth leaders working to pass the DREAM Act as the source, which wouldn’t surprise me. A number of DREAM students walked from Florida to Washington, DC early last year, declaring all the way that they were undocumented and unafraid. I imagine them walking through counties with 287g agreements in operation, and meeting with unsympathetic law enforcement officials or Members of Congress, living the words of the Psalmists:

In God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?

They refused to give power to fear, refused to be turned inward, away from their families, their communities, or God.

Perhaps these are messengers from God in our time—they do not come to us encouraging us “Do not be afraid”, but challenge us through their example, their declaration that they are unafraid.

I haven’t answered all of my own questions about the poster from the Tucson demonstration, but I have come to see it as a kind of icon—a living image that reaches out of its frame, grabs my hand, and points me to pay attention to these messengers of our time, to follow the path of the migrant Christ: the One who walks with DREAM students on the way to Washington, D.C., who lives inside apartment buildings where ICE agents wait outside, who sits with school children as they wait for their parents to come home from work, half afraid that they might not arrive; the One who calls us to reject a life shadowed by fear and to seek justice for all people.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Following Bud Fox and Esther in Resisting Temptation

A post by Bill Mefford

It was through the 1987 film, Wall Street, that I learned more about temptation than I ever learned at church. In the film Bud Fox opts for a quick path to affluence by ignoring the ethical constructs with which he was raised. For Fox, it is a battle between two fathers for control of his identity, even his soul. His father, played by Martin Sheen, is the airline mechanic who, though continually beaten down by forces much greater than himself, finds his power through his solidarity with his union and his unwavering belief that hard, steady, honest work is the only way to progress in life and as a person.

Gordon Gecko, on the other hand, is the father of Fox's ambitions: a man of power and wealth, whose monologues throughout the film reflect a cycnical realism where the individual is the final arbiter of all that is good and right. Justice, for Gecko, is ultimately utilitarian; doing anything to maintain one's own position and security at the top of the established social order. At the end of the film, Fox faces an impending jail term for giving in to the temptations offered by Gecko, yet experiences his liberation as he tells Gecko that he betrayed Gecko because he realized in all his attempts to be like Gordon Gecko, he will always just be Bud Fox. His father's ethic is rediscovered and it is that which saves Fox.

Many of these same lessons are found throughout Scripture of course, as we see once again in the story of Esther, which we discussed last week. In this book, all of the characters face temptations as well. And I believe these are instructive for where we are in our struggle to defend the rights of immigrants.

To recall, Haman schemes his way into the number two position in the Assyrian Kingdom and takes great offense at Mordecai's refusal to bow down before him. Haman, like Gecko, determines that justice is best attained through securing one's position and security by any and all means, including elimination of those who oppose him. Any attempts to challenge the rigid social order are seen as subversive to the point that Mordecai becomes a public enemy of the state, and he and his race must be annihilated.

While I think there are challenges to comparing the Scriptural context to the current day, I believe we can find points of convergence in some of the underlying values and messages. For instance, Haman's treatment of Mordecai and the Jews is an extreme form of objectification as he carelessly is willing to throw their lives away when they no longer are deemed useful. While not nearly as extreme, this corresponds with the way that immigrants are often treated today. While it is commonly said by the media and elected leaders, including the President, that immigrants often do the jobs no other Americans want to do and that they are necessary to our economy, there has been little public outcry against the state-sponsored terror initiated by the Bush Administration and increased exponentially by the Obama Administration through indiscriminate raids, indefinite detention, and an alarming increase in the deportations of immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security is undertaking a mass family separation strategy and it is nothing less than immoral. The economic usefulness of immigrants, the demonization of immigrants by the media and elected leaders, the tragic number of deaths in the desert with zero public concern, and the state-sponsored terror directed against them reveal our society's objectification of immigrants.

More instructive though from the story of Esther are the temptations both Mordecai and Esther faced and how they responded.

Mordecai, in chapter 4, is presented with an alluring temptation that could have been disastrous for him and his people. Mordecai, joined by others in provinces where the edict to destroy the Jews was read, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and protests in front of the city gate in order to move Esther to action. Esther's isolation by her place in society is so entrenched that she has no idea what is happening to her own people. Her handmaidens are the ones who have to come and tell her about Mordecai sitting in sackcloth and ashes.

What is so stunning of course, is her response to Mordecai's protest: she sends down clothes for him to put on. Thus, the temptation for Mordecai is to react to Esther's tepid action by stopping his protest and perhaps trying other (more acceptable) ways to protest this edict. Or he could simply accept the current social order where Jews have no rights and are mere objects for the Assyrian rulers to use and then throw away.

Mordecai's choice, I believe, is in some ways a similar choice facing immigrant communities today. Immigrants can accept the status of objects, less than human, used for building the U.S. economy by working perpetually in low-income jobs no one wants, or waiting to be forceably ripped apart from their families and detained in private prisons for months at a time before being deported. Immigrants can be satisfied with the nice rhetoric of the President as he speaks of the importance of immigrants in the history of the United States and of his support for such things like "comprehensive immigration reform" while his policies continue to break up families and deport people at an unbelievable pace. The hypocrisy is stunning. The Administration mouths the words of compassion, while engaging in policies that are terrorizing.

Mordecai refused to accept the clothes sent down by Esther. And in doing so, he refuses to let her off the hook. She must act, she must risk, she must use her access to power redemptively so that those, like Mordecai, who do not have that same access may move from objectification to humanization. Immigrants can follow Mordecai and refuse to buy the rhetoric of politicians like President Obama and force him to act, to risk, to use his political capitol for the good of others and not merely for his own re-election. Immigrants can force him even now to stop such programs of state-sponsored terror as 287g and Secure Communities, and to grant administrative relief to DREAM Act students and the families of citizen children.

And of course, Esther faces her own temptations as well. She tries to get out of risky engagement by sending down clothes to Mordecai. That could have been so easy. Just do a little mercy, satisfy the immediate need identified from the comfort of her (suburban) palace (by other people than herself no less), and she could have gone on with her life. But Mordecai refuses the clothes, reminds her that her own life, her own identity that she has somehow forgotten because of her rise to affluence, is also at stake. And so she now must risk, she must reach out in her position and urge the King to rescind the edict.

She of course does and saves her people. She resists the temptation to allow herself to be paralyzed by the enormity of the injustice, or the enormity of the force of government bearing down on her people. What she did was utter bravery. She resists the temptation to allow her perspective to be tainted - as it so often is for those who benefit from the social order - to see the problem of injustice as one that is actually the problem of the victims than a problem of unjust systems. She could have easily joined others in saying that Mordecai "earned" his fate by not bowing down. No, Esther redemptively uses her place in society to defend the rights of her people, the Jews.

And should we.

Those of us in positions of power (those of us with legal status, in other words) must resist the temptation to feel overwhelmed by the power of the federal government being used right now in a mass family separation strategy and instead, we must fight harder than ever against the enforcement-first (read enforcement-only) strategy of the Obama Administration. We must act and risk our own position in the social order to push President Obama to do the same and provide administrative relief for undocumented immigrants. We must resist the temptation, as benefactors of the current social order, to join the media (and it is not just Fox News) and elected leaders in blaming immigrants for the mess of the broken system. It is not their fault, and they should not be forced to endure state-sponsored terror, discrimination, and massive family separation because the United States benefits from their labor but refuses to ackowledge their dignity.

Mordecai and Esther refused to give into temptation and I thank God for that. I pray we will do the same and that our ending will also find a people saved from danger and restored to full humanity. Like Bud Fox and like Esther, may we find our own liberation in advocating tirelessly for the protection of the rights of our immigrant brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Lessons from Mordecai for Ash Wednesday

A post by Bill Mefford

Although I grew up in the church, Ash Wednesday has been a new thing for me. Of course, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and falls 46 days before Easter. Ash Wednesday is meant to represent a day of repentance and is seen by the mark of ashes on the forehead in the sign of the cross.

The use of ashes to represent a time of mourning is seen in numerous examples in Scripture, but the instance in the book of Esther draws my attention for a number of reasons, including it's correlation to so much of what is happening in our current context regarding the issue of immigration.

In Esther 4, Mordecai, uncle to the beautiful Esther, refuses to bow before the powerful Haman. Haman had schemed his way to being the number 2 man in the Assyrian Kingdom. Deeply offended at not being given appropriate respect, Haman abuses his close access to the ruling King, and manipulates him into issuing an edict condemning all Jews to death. It is a genocide because one man refused to subvert his loyalty to God for loyalty to his ruling authorities.

Upon hearing the announcement of the dreadful edict, Mordecai, along with every province in the Kingdom where the edict was read (who says community organizers aren't in the Bible?) put on sackcloth and ashes and publicly mourned. Mordecai resists the temptation to allow state-sponsored terror and repression to drive him inward. Instead, he and others in every province engage in a very public protest.

Yet, even in the midst of his protest against the edict, the writer is very clear that Mordecai only went as far as the entrance to the King's gate, but could not go any further, "for no one might enter the king's gate clothed in sackcloth." (v. 2) It is fascinating to me that Mordecai has risked not only his own life, but the lives of his people in honoring God over Haman, but then refuses to break this particular law.

Perhaps it is here that we see the real difference between Haman and Mordecai. Haman, so easily offended by the refusal of a single man to bow to him, makes himself the focus of this incident and so his understanding of justice is deeply twisted and swewed. Mordecai, on the other hand, does nothing to spite Haman, and even in the most extreme distress, goes to great lengths to ensure that his message and actions are about the terrible injustice being done to an entire race of people. He cares about the issues and the people directly affected by the issue. Haman only cares about the issues as to how it affects and impacts himself.

There is much to glean from this passage on thie Ash Wednesday regarding the current context we are in. To be godly is to follow the example of Mordecai and the many others in provinces who publicly mourned in protest against unjust laws. With Arizona's SB 1070 leading the way, and with federal enforcement policies like 287g and Secure Communities, we live in a land that is deeply repressive to our immigrant sisters and brothers. But like, Mordecai, our focus must be on those directly affected by the issue and resist making ourselves the center of our concern.

And we live with far too many Hamans in our state and federal legislatures, and sadly, in the Church. We have far too many people who do not look for how the most vulnerable are impacted by these unjust laws and over-enforcement policies, but instead, they think only of themselves. They are easily offended and will lash out in unrighteous anger towards anyone and everyone they deem responsible for that offense (despite what the facts may say).

We need to recognize the Hamans in our communities and on the national scale and follow Mordecai's example with them by refusing to pay them homage. On Ash Wednesday, we follow the mournful, but powerful Mordecai. Like Mordecai, our mourning will not end in self-pity or morose introspection. Our mourning will give way to action and our action gives us hope. Though we know that the dawn of Easter will replace the long, dark night we currently are in, we mourn now on Ash Wednesday, as Mordecai did. Sadly, as Mordecai painfully realized, we mourn the failure of a government to protect the most vulnerable in our society. But, as Mordecai shows us, let our cries of sorrow be the seed of protest that triggers the movement for justice that erases the terror and repression so many of our brothers and sisters are enduring now.