Immigration conference urges hospitality to 'the stranger'
Feb. 8, 2007
NOTE: Photographs available at http://umns.umc.org.
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS) - Participants at a conference in the cold Great Smoky Mountains were reminded that God created hospitality - not borders and walls.
"God has concern for widows and orphans and marginalized outcasts, and there is nothing you can do about it," said the Rev. A. Clark Jenkins, pastor of St. Andrew-by-the-Sea United Methodist Church in Hilton Head, S.C.
That message was sent home with more than 100 people attending the United Methodist conference called "Our Call to Hospitality: A Biblical Response to the Challenges of Immigration." Held Feb. 1-3 at the United Methodist Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, the event was sponsored by the Southeastern Jurisdiction, which stretches from Kentucky to Florida, and the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the social advocacy agency of the denomination.
Jenkins called hospitality one of God's greatest gifts. "It is appalling to me that we celebrated when the wall in Berlin came down and now we are seeking to build a wall in Mexico," he said.
"We expect immigrants to flip our burgers and take out our trash," said the Rev. Clayton Childers, the board's program director for annual conference relations. "We expect them to be here and then blame them when they are."
The purpose of the conference was to educate and spur United Methodists to work for comprehensive immigration reform. Participants shared ways churches and conferences are working with immigrants and learned how to advocate for immigration reform in local congregations and communities.
Workshops encouraging hospitality included immigration and racism; causes and consequences of immigration; the effects of "English only" declarations; and legal issues in immigration.
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of the Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference and Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the Florida Annual Conference started and ended the conference with worship services.
Immigration has been a hot topic in the United States during recent years and, in December 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a strict immigration bill that stirred protests across the nation. Bill Mefford, program director of civil and human rights with the board, said the Senate passed "not a good but a better" piece of legislation in May 2006, and immigration became "a tool for politics" during the months leading up to Election Day last November.
In opposition to the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Resolution Act, the Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church states in paragraph 162 that "being an undocumented person is not a crime."
The original immigration bill "was a really bad piece of legislation and we don't have it anymore; we are starting from scratch," Mefford said. "But now it is a tougher hill to climb because there is a lot of money behind the anti-immigration side."
Mefford urged Christians to make their voices heard. "One thing I hear over and over again is that lawmakers have to hear from people in favor of immigration reform," he said.
"This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. This is not a left or right issue. It is a faith issue."
"I greet you in the name of the migrant refugee Christ," said the Rev. Joan Maruskin in opening a session on Christian hospitality.
An ordained United Methodist minister and an author, Maruskin led participants on a journey through the Bible, highlighting Scriptures that focus on God's care and concern for "the stranger."
She said the Hebrew Bible advises the people of God more than three dozen times to care for strangers, and the New Testament is full of stories about Jesus welcoming and healing strangers.
"Our salvation, according to the words of Jesus, is directly tied to our welcoming the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the prisoners. Jesus was one with the undocumented," said Maruskin, who is director of the York County Council of Churches, an ecumenical agency of 130 Christian congregations in York County, Penn.
Maruskin called on participants to "vow to increase your circle of true friends to include those different from you."
"The United States is a nation built by design through the blood, sweat, tears and love of immigrant populations. Interestingly, the indigenous people of this land are the Native Americans and the Mexicans," she said.
The Board of Church and Society is advocating for comprehensive immigration reform that is not based on amnesty or open borders, but aims to:
* Provide a path to citizenship * Protect workers * Reunite families * Restore the rule of law and enhance security
Participants called the conference enlightening and expressed a desire to work toward immigration reform in their own churches and communities.
"This whole event has talked about raising awareness of our lack of hospitality to people who are different from us in our churches," said Charlotte Brendel, a member of St. Lukes United Methodist Church in Hickory, N.C. "I am not sure where God is leading me but, when I go back to my church, I will be open and a lot more emphatic to people."
Niranjan Noronha works with the South Asian population in southern Georgia and said the conference was a "very positive experience."
"One thing I learned is that the economic policies of the U.S. brings more immigrants here rather than keeping them in their own countries," he said. "I learned about the realities about what causes immigration and what immigrants face here, especially legal matters."
Lou McNutt, United Methodist Women's social action coordinator in the Holston Conference, said, "The immigrant's view that they are always the visitor, always the guest, was something I had never thought about before."
Maruskin said Christians are living at a pivotal moment in time.
"God is standing on the shores in the form of our undocumented sisters and brothers from Canada, Cambodia, England, Ireland, China, Russia, Poland, Tibet, El Salvador, Haiti, Mexico and the list goes on," she said.
"God is waiting to be welcomed."
Video and audio recordings of the worship services, plenaries and workshops can be ordered from the Southeastern Jurisdiction by calling (828) 452-2881 or e-mailing Kenneth Ratcliffe at email@example.com.
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
United Methodist News Service Photos and stories also available at: http://umns.umc.org