Organizers of a call to action at the United States-Mexico border in support of immigrant rights are preparing to welcome several dozen participants from all across the United Church of Christ to the Arizona borderlands August 26-30. The Faithful Witness AT the Border gathering is shaping up as several days of witness, ministry and education. A humanitarian mission of an Immigrant Welcoming Church.
"The itinerary will offer a complete picture of a migrant family's struggles to stay together — from the time they approach the border to the moment some of them are deported," said the Rev. Bill Lyons, Southwest Conference Minister. "It will deal with the many ways families are separated – root causes for migration, criminalization, detention, deportation, border militarization, and death. We will hear from migrants camped at the ports of entry, sheltering near the border, facing Operation Streamline proceedings, living in limbo as their asylum cases crawl through the courts. And through ones who serve them, children in American detention centers. We will give participants first-hand experience doing the things we hope they will continue to do in their own communities."
The work at home is just as important in this ministry going forward. The week of Faithful Witness AT the Border is one of two calls to action initiated by the Southwest Conference UCC, acting with Justice and Local Church Ministries. The other, for a Faithful Witness FOR the Border is slated to continue this fall, in cities and towns across America.
"This (late August) event will present a picture of the UCC actively engaged in ministry in every phase of migrants' families lives on both sides of the border," Lyons continued. "We will hear from our border ministry leaders, our local partners, and our national UCC staff."
Faithful Witness AT the Border already has registered a number of participants from U.S. southern border states of Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico. Others are coming from as far away as Vermont, Iowa, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Ohio.
"I was moved to join this effort for several reasons. First, I feel a moral and ethical obligation as a minister to do what is right and just for all persons," said the Rev. Rachael Gardner Purdy, member of First Congregational Church, UCC, in Columbus, Ohio. "When I heard what was going on, I was not only saddened, but very angry. I knew I was not going to be able to just sit back and watch without doing something. Just stating my opinion was not enough any longer, I had to become active."
Gardner Purdy, an active church member in Columbus, is also a counselor and social worker, specializing in trauma, and said there is no greater trauma for a child "than being separated from your parents tragically and in such a hostile manner as what has happened to these children and youth." As part of her congregation's ministry at home, she is currently setting up a separate counseling practice to help her local community.
The Rev. Joyce Hollyday is part of a group in the mountains of Western North Carolina called Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith). Made up of few dozen people, an equal number of native Spanish speakers and English speakers, they meet weekly for Bible study or to share stories, exchange language lessons and have lunch.
After a member of Mujeres Unidas en Fe shared how she came to be in North Carolina, Hollyday was moved to do something more.
"Rosalinda told the story of her family's escape from desperate poverty and rampant violence," Hollyday said. "It was a harrowing saga of vulnerable hiding places, grueling river and desert crossings, capture and release by Border Patrol agents, and a second attempt — all endured so that her three children would have safety, enough food, and the chance to grow up. It was unimaginable to her — and to all of us — to think that they might have been stolen from her here. I began pondering and praying for a way to address the heartbreak and the outrage. The invitation to the UCC Border Witness came as a godsend."
Hollyday will be joined in Arizona by two others from Circle of Mercy in Asheville. Her husband, Bill Ramsey, is active with the sanctuary movement, and Rebecca Heskamp is a retired Spanish teacher who is part of Mujeres Unidas en Fe.
"As a former Associate Conference Minister for the Southeast Conference, I feel motivated to show up and support the Southwest Conference and other border ministries in this moment of urgency and demand," said Hollyday. "I believe it helps us all to hang on to hope when we stand with one another and remember that we are not alone in the work of justice and compassion that faith requires of us. Circle of Mercy will bless our journey during a church service, and we hope to return with insights and stories that will challenge, strengthen, and inspire us all to continue and expand our ministries with immigrant communities here in Western North Carolina."
The Rev. Helen Boursier is a retired PCUSA minister who is part of the Faith UCC congregation in New, Braunfels, Texas. She hopes her experience will "add enlightenment to my ongoing research, writing, teaching, preaching, and public advocacy on immigration and asylum seeking for the families.
"I have been deeply involved with refugee families seeking asylum since 2014, serving as a volunteer chaplain in various capacities, including two years inside an immigrant family detention facility where I facilitated art as spiritual care with the families (2015-2016)," Boursier said. "I opted to attend the Arizona event to broaden my pastoral and academic perspective from 'just Texas' to the Arizona-Mexico border as well."
The schedule for Faithful Witness AT the border will take participants into Tucson on Monday to witness Operation Streamline proceedings; across the Mexico Border at Nogales on Tuesday to visit migrants seeking asylum, and to share with them letters of welcome and humanitarian supplies. Wednesday takes the group into the desert to visit the memorials of migrants who've died in their journey, and to plant a cross at a new death site. On Wednesday afternoon, participants will be involved in training sessions so they can act on what they have seen and heard when they get home: Immigrant Welcoming Congregations, Get Out the Vote, Sanctuary Church, and Immigration Advocacy/Policy.
Those four initiatives of the Church — the first, a General Synod resolution — are part of the UCC's Faithful Witness FOR the Border this fall.
"Our stories are powerful advocacy tools, and this immersion experience will equip participants with stories and faces to carry to key decision makers," said Sandy Sorensen, director of the UCC Washington D.C. Office. "But everyone can take meaningful action no matter where you are — August is a great time to raise concerns about our immigration policy at candidate events and town hall meetings. We need to stay persistent in our advocacy efforts in this critical fall midterm election season."
"We appreciate your prayers," Lyons said. "We hope this will be a powerful experience for participants, as well a powerful way to tell the story of how the United Church of Christ, working with our partners, is engaged in border ministry and the ministry of keeping families together."
"I hope I will be able to bring back hope for change to our community," Gardner Purdy said. "I hope to bring back the information to nudge others to work toward the change we need to see in the world — and right now on the border. I hope to offer them the knowledge and courage to be able to step out of their comfort zone and speak up for social justice, equality, and human dignity for all people."
Learn more about the Faithful Action AT/FOR the Border ministry here.
UCC congregations engaging in ministries of direct support or legal assistance with families from Central America seeking asylum in the U.S. are encouraged to apply for a grant of up to $1,000 from the special financial appeal of the UCC Keep Families Together campaign. If you would like to contribute to our ongoing immigration work, please give to the Neighbors in Need Special Mission Offering.
Apply for a Grant here.