I have long been involved and concerned about the plight of refugees and immigrants. In the 1990’s, as a new rector in Connecticut, my parish settled several refugee families from Cuba. In the early 2000’s while serving a parish in suburban Washington D.C., I served on a board and was active in a organization that advocated for the safe treatment of immigrant day workers, many of whom had fled Central America decades before in the aftermath of the civil wars and conflicts – wars where we as a country were very much involved. This is pre-Pottery Barn doctrine: “you break it you pay for it.” I’ve also worked with others to plant Latino congregations and have tried through my mission trips to Latin America to keep my Spanish fluent enough to communicate, preach and counsel.
Which for me leads to today.
There is a whole list of things broken about our immigration system. I have long believed that the vast majority of those who come to our country without documentation, in a more peaceful and prosperous world, would rather remain, live, work and die in the homelands of their birth. Yet for a range of reasons – intractable poverty, political corruption, unfettered capitalism where few taxes from foreign corporations reach the people in need, gang violence fueled by destabilized societies racked by decades war and violence, the insatiable appetite for drugs in the U.S. coupled with weak governments to the south of our border that have failed to corner the cartels -- all these and more make for instability, fear, unemployment and underemployment that drive whole populations from their homes.
And then there is the “little dirty secret.” Undocumented immigrants, unable to acquire legal short term work permits, work in the underbelly of our economy: they pick our vegetables and fruits, build our houses, care for our elderly, process our animals into food, and tend our green grass. When our economy is down, they do not come. When times are booming, the immigrants come in droves -- hired by willing and paying employers.
All valid sociological and economic theory. How about theology? We can quote verses from the Old Testament about the care of the foreigner and we can cite Jesus himself about love of neighbor, but all of that will falter if we are guided more by fear than openness. If our loyalties are more tribal than to the greater human family? We are in a predicament. How do we square faith and loyalty to nation when borders by their very nature keep some out and some in? While few suggest that all borders cease to exist – boundaries have existed between peoples and nations from ancient times forward – how can Christ’s values rule our rules and draw and defend our borders?
Many individuals and churches are trying to discern what to do and think in response to what appears to be dramatic shifts in policy towards undocumented immigrants in this country and refugees seeking asylum from countries around the world – specifically some countries (but not all) where acts of terrorism have been know to have been planned and carried out. What is our Christian responsibility?
We know that to simply say nothing or doing nothing is not an option. Though Holocaust comparisons are by nature perilous, what the world learned in the World War II is that if good people remain silent that there will be few voices left to save even those same good people from harm. We all have something at stake in this conversation and reality.
Some congregation are considering whether they should provide sanctuary for immigrants in fear of deportation. Some communities are increasing their support for refugee families still entering the U.S.
I believe local and demographics matter. My former congregation in Maryland, made up of over 30 nationalities and where I started a Spanish-speaking congregation of mainly Central Americans, is situated in a part of the country where immigrants and refugees would readily know of their presence and be assured of their support. Urban churches, border churches, churches near high density immigrant populations can be magnets for the kind of outreach that offers the foreigner and refugees assistance and perhaps sanctuary -- an expression that honors human dignity.
What might be the role of Christians in Exeter and the Seacoast? First, have open and prayerful hearts. Every person we read about in the news fearing deportation is a human being with a real human story. They have made choices in their lives that they never believed they would have had to make. Many have traveled for far from home, families have been separated, traditions lost. I hope we never lose the compassion of Christ as to think through these issues.
What I decided to do as one person is this: I have begun to volunteer with a group called the New Hampshire Immigration Visitation program at the Strafford County Jail in nearby Dover. NHIVP is a small group of dedicated volunteers who visit the facility to give “know your legal rights” advice, acting not as attorneys but serving as advocates and educators. The jail in Dover receives persons arrested by the Immigration, Customs and Enforcement Department (I.C.E) from Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, as well as some from Massachusetts. Women and men can be detained for more than one year in the facility as they await court hearings for deportation or asylum requests. I began volunteering to add to the volunteer pool that speaks Spanish, as many but not all of the detainees are from Latin America.
Through this work, I was asked to offer worship services in Spanish. Last Sunday I celebrated Eucharist for about 15 inmates from various Latin American countries and one man from Africa who just wanted to receive the sacrament. In this time of Lent, I commented how strange I felt coming from the outside to behind the wall to preach about wilderness. I hope to find a regular routine to visit the jail to offer whatever hope and encouragement I can through the sharing of the sacrament of the Eucharist.
We plan to community forum on Sunday April 30 to learn more about this pressing issue. Stay tuned.