September 16th, many United Church of Christ congregations will mark “Just Peace” Sunday under the theme “Wisdom Cries Out!” The theme is based on the lectionary passage for that Sunday, Proverbs 1:20-33, which begins:
Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks…
This image of the Spirit crying out for justice at the city gates offers a call to action at a time when images of children tragically being separated from families at the border remain etched in our minds and hearts. Our Just Peace identity as a church challenges us to work for justice in a holistic way, and so we must address immigration not only at our border, but also examine the broader systemic push factors that impact our neighbors in Central America.
In May, the Department of Justice issued a new immigration policy that featured the separation of parents and children at the border to serve as a deterrent to those fleeing violence. This was a change from previous immigration practices which have generally allowed families to stay together while people move through the immigration process. This resulted in the separation of more than two thousand children from their families, stoking outrage across the country and world. Although President Trump signed an executive order on June 20th formally ending family separation, the “zero tolerance” approach continues.
The United Church of Christ was one of many communities that spoke out critically of this policy. Our leadership issued a pastoral letter, critiquing the “criminalization of the quest for freedom, and the caging of those whose only crime is to seek shelter from harm.” Through our General Synod resolutions UCC has designated itself an Immigrant Welcoming Denomination and has advocated for just and compassionate immigration reform that reflects our view of the worth and dignity of immigrants. Additionally, as a Just Peace Church, and a denomination that maintains partnerships across Central America, our approach to these issues is not limited to seeing them as immigration concerns alone. Rather, we also understand that the intersecting issues of violence, inequality, corruption, and trauma that are the root causes of the current immigration push, are the result of many dynamics including U.S. foreign policy in the region.
The largest percentage of those seeking asylum at the boarder are from the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These three countries consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world, and the violence experienced there is the result of the influence of drug trafficking, gangs, and political instability, among other factors. High rates of gender based violence and persecution of LGBTQ communities are particularly alarming. The trauma and violence experience by many, and in some cases the inability to meet certain basic human needs, are major push factors for those seeking asylum in the U.S. The United Church of Christ has spoken to these issues in various ways, including a 2013 resolution on Honduras, and continued accompaniment efforts from local churches and Global Ministries.
Yet, we also know we can do more.
As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors. As members of a Just Peace denomination, we are called to welcome the strangers in our land. As part of that welcome, we are also called to address the sources of violence from which these neighbors are fleeing. U.S. foreign policy has been partly responsible for this. Too often, our approach been over-militarized and self-serving, failing to prioritize international law and protect human rights in these nations. Although it is difficult to find ways to address these issues, one piece of legislation, the Central America Family Protection and Reunification Act (CAFPRA) will help. This bill would prohibit family separation while also calling on the State Department and embassies to report on and address the issues of gender based and gang violence in Northern Triangle countries that drives many to flee in search of safety.
As a denomination, we are already active in many ways. This week, the Southwest Conference with Justice and Witness Ministries is gathering over 100 UCC advocates for a “Faithful Witness at/for the Border” to draw attention to these concerns. Over the past couple years, many of our churches have declared themselves sanctuary congregations. In D.C., we advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, and passage of legislation like CAFPRA that would reshape U.S. policy in Central America to address the root causes of violence. And on September 16th, UCC congregations will mark Just Peace Sunday, by praying and following the Spirit of Wisdom in into our public squares and to our city gates, committing themselves to work for immigration policies that reflect our values as a church committed to building peace with justice.
For More Information:
- Just Peace Sunday Website
- UCC’s Immigration Justice Webpage
- Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder on Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle
- Why do some families risk crossing the U.S. border? Because if they don’t, they’ll be killed. (Washington Post)
Rev. Michael Neuroth is the United Church of Christ's Policy Advocate for International Issues.