LAKELAND—The public face of Audrey Warren is a compassionate, well-respected pastor of a thriving, multicultural Methodist church on palm-lined Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami.
But the 33-year-old Florida native keeps her private face hidden. Few people know about her personal battle to keep the love of her life safely by her side in this country.
|Rev. Dr. Audrey Warren, left, of First UMC in Miami, and Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin, director of Connectional and Justice Ministries for the Florida Conference, lead a discussion about immigration on March 21.|
For the first time, the senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Miami opened up about her three-year marriage to a man from El Salvador and their struggle to obtain legal status for him.
She shared her emotional story March 21 with attendees of the second Concord Conversations event focusing on immigration issues at Concord Coffee, a small coffee shop in Lakeland. The event is part of a series of community conversations organized by the Florida Conference.
Among those attending was Florida Conference Bishop Ken Carter, who noted that immigration has become an especially divisive issue in today’s political climate in which President Trump has issued an executive order cracking down on immigration to the United States.
It’s a topic with which Warren was familiar long before she met her husband.
Her father was a building contractor in Naples who often employed Hispanic immigrants. Her roommate at Florida Southern College in Lakeland was newly arrived from Cuba. And her first pastoral assignment was at a Methodist church in Florida City, which had a large population of immigrants from nearby migrant labor camps.
As their pastor and advocate, Warren said she spent a great deal of time helping congregation members wade through complicated immigration issues and speaking in court on behalf of those fighting deportation.
“I formed a great respect for those people who are moving to this country and working hard to create a better life,” said Warren. “But now it’s become very personal for me.
“I can’t watch a lot of the news anymore,” said Warren. “It’s too difficult to see what’s happening.”
Her story hit home for a number of listeners, including the Rev. Jonathan Sanchez of Faith United Methodist Church in Orlando, an immigrant who is now struggling to obtain legal status for family members and members of his congregation.
“The laws are changing overnight, and we have families who live in constant fear of deportation,” he said. “Listening to her story brought back a lot of experiences I lived personally. Audrey’s story is just one of many. Some end successfully. Others do not.”
Sanchez believes it’s imperative that these stories are told.
“We can’t talk about immigration in the abstract anymore,” he said. “It’s when you listen to the stories…that is when the issue becomes real.”
Bishop Carter addressed the immigration issue during a recent sermon at Trinity United Methodist Church in Bradenton.
“Borders are a construct,” he said. “They do not matter to God. God has no borders.”
Nevertheless, Bruce Clark of Faith UMC and a member of the church’s social justice committee said his multicultural church in Orlando is continually struggling with this issue and needs tools to help its immigrant members.
“It’s a complex issue. There’s not a blanket you can throw across everyone,” he said. “We need to know where we can go. How do we proceed to make an impact?”
The conference is updating its Justice for Our Neighbors website to provide information on the ever-changing immigration statutes, as well as resources to help people wade through the red tape.
Warren is a member of a Conference rapid-response team geared to help people dealing with emergency issues including imminent deportation.
“We’re not going to be able to solve every problem,” she said. “But we need to be there and at least try.”
--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in Valrico.