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United Methodists continue debate over immigration

United Methodists continue debate over immigration

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

United Methodists continue debate over immigration

March 1, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0629}

An e-Review Feature
By Erik J. Alsgaard**

LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. — Most people agree: the immigration system in the United States is a mess and needs to be reformed. That, however, is where the agreement ends. How to fix the problem is the hard part.

United Methodists from around the country gathered in early February at Lake Junaluska Assembly in the mountains of western North Carolina to explore how the church could respond to the issue of immigration.

“The church needs to be involved,” said the Rev. Clayton Childers, a staff member of the General Board of Church and Society, based in Washington, D.C., and one of the conveners of “Our Call to Hospitality: A Biblical Response to the Challenges of Immigration” conference.

“The religious community has dropped the ball on this one,” he said, “but we’ve come together this week to do Bible study and worship, but mostly to make a statement that God cares about God’s people.”

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung (left) of the Northern Illinois Conference and Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker respond to a presentation by Dr. Joan Maruskin on biblical mandates of hospitality at the “Our Call to Hospitality: A Biblical Response to the Challenges of Immigration” conference at Lake Junaluska Assembly in early February. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #07-0527.

To illustrate the immigration problem, Childers told the 140 participants during a time of welcome that as the United States beckons people to its shores with the promise of the “American Dream” and good-paying jobs it also holds out a stop sign that says “only if you follow the rules.”

“We expect immigrants to be there and, at the same time, we blame them for being here,” Childers said.

Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker was one of two United Methodist episcopal leaders attending the event. Whitaker preached the opening worship sermon from Ephesians 2:11-22, noting that as Christians we are a new humanity with Christ at the center of the whole cosmos.

“The church, the community of Christ, circles around Christ,” he said. “Christ is our center, and from him we received our identification and mission as we move forward in history. It is still true that Christ breaks down dividing walls of hostility.”

The opposite of hostility, Whitaker said, is hospitality, something the church knows plenty about.

“Hospitality is not an option for the church or for a Christian,” he said. “It is an ethical imperative.”

With many immigrants coming to the United States, either with our without documentation, the church’s challenge is how to practice hospitality. The bishop was clear that Christians, who circle around the center — Christ — are called to reject hostility and offer hospitality.

The bishop encouraged people to become involved in the lives of immigrants. “When you do that, they become your friends,” he said, “and you start to realize that the laws of immigration are affecting our friends. Can we be silent about public policies that destroy families? The church needs to speak its voice; the church has a right to speak its voice.”

The issue of separating families is a big part of the debate for Whitaker. In an interview he told the story of a young mother with two children who was separated from her family by a “knock on the door in the middle of the night” to be deported by U.S. immigration officials.

“That was two years ago,” he said. “They are members of our church and they are struggling. When you experience these kinds of things, it really makes you want to be part of the public debate. I think if most Americans realized how some of our laws are being administered they would say, ‘Wait a minute. Is this what we really want to do?’ ”

The immigration debate is once again taking center-stage in the halls of Congress as lawmakers try to come to some agreement after a brief respite from discussing the issue. HR 4437 was introduced in Dec. 2005 and is one of the harshest, punitive pieces of immigration legislation on record, according to Bill Mefford, director of civil and human rights at the General Board of Church and Society. Among the bill’s many provisions was a call for the creation of a 700-mile fence along the United States-Mexico border. The introduction of that bill, Mefford said, is what prompted a number of protest marches and rallies.

A number of signs reflective of issues regarding immigration decorated the walls of the room at Lake Junaluska Assembly where the recent conference on immigration took place. Photo by Erik Alsgaard. Photo #07-0528.

The Senate passed a separate bill in May 2006 that was better, Mefford said, but still not where the church would like to see it. Following the November 2006 elections, where all but three candidates who favored strict immigration laws lost their races, the opportunity to speak about the issue from a faith perspective is here.

A keynote speaker at the event, Dr. Joan Maruskin, helped participants see the biblical texts that impact the issue.

“I greet you in the name of the migrant Christ,” Maruskin said, noting that shortly after Jesus’ birth he fled with his mother and father into Egypt.

Maruskin, director of the York County (Penn.) Council of Churches, is the author of “The Bible as Immigration Handbook.” Her lecture noted several themes of hospitality and caring for the stranger found in the Bible.

In the Hebrew Bible she said there are at least 36 references to caring for three groups of people — “widows, orphans and sojourners/strangers.”

One reference she noted was in Deuteronomy 27:19, “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.”

“As the church,” she asked, noting the story of Moses and Pharaoh, “are we more like Pharaoh or the Egyptian slaves we identify with most often?”

Responding to Maruskin’s lecture were Whitaker and Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, episcopal leader of the Northern Illinois Conference.

“We need to name the demon for what it is: hatred,” Jung said. He challenged clergy to use the pulpit as a place to both challenge and lead the church to areas of “radical hospitality.”

For Whitaker, Maruskin’s talk caused him to ponder the church’s role in the debate.

“We can’t help but be aware of the political dimensions of the debate,” he said. “But the church has, for centuries, helped shape values and beliefs; the church has helped give people direction, namely, toward Christ.

“If you do not know Christ as the center of your life you make something else the center,” he said. “Immigrants today are being accused of being a threat to our culture, our language and our laws. The voice of the church is a distinctive voice, echoing Christ.”


A portion of the information for this story came from United Methodist News Service reports.

This article relates to Church and Society.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.