In living into "that we may all be one," the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ is offering training sessions around the issue of immigration, to empower churches to "embrace the other."
The Rev. Randy Mayer, pastor of Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, Ariz., helped organize the first workshop which was attended by several dozen people in Phoenix on Sept. 22. He hopes the idea catches on across the UCC and encourages more action around the immigration issue.
"We have written a guide for churches outlining ways to become 'Immigrant Welcoming Congregations.' We are hoping that other UCC conferences and the wider UCC will use it to get more involved in the immigrant struggle," Mayer said. The conference, at its annual meeting in April, decided to make immigration its top justice priority for the upcoming year.
This type of training couldn't come at a better time. The need for workshops around immigration became evident after part of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 went back into effect recently. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton lifted an injunction on the "show me your papers" clause in SB 1070, giving police the authority to check the immigration status of anyone they stop to question.
"There's a lot of pain and fear running through immigrant communities in Arizona," Mayer said.
Opponents of SB 1070 say it unfairly criminalizes otherwise law-abiding people, opens the door for legal racial profiling of Latino/a persons, and forces state law enforcement to interfere with federal immigration policy.
Pastor Noel Anderson was in Phoenix recently to lead the workshop. He works with Church World Service, a cooperative ministry of 37 Christian denominations based in Washington, D.C., as a grassroots organizer for immigration justice.
"We had probably 15 churches represented and over 50 people participating," said the Rev. John C. Dorhauer, UCC Southwest Conference Minister. "Those who attended were moved by the experience and were informed, and went away with promises and commitments to engage their church in conversations about what it means to be an immigrant-welcoming congregation."
The Southwest Conference also had a DREAM Act representative, Daniel Rodriguez is a UCC member of First Congregational in Phoenix, who visited President Barack Obama in the White House, at the workshop. "[He] was one of the key figures in getting [DACA] passed this summer," Dorhauer said.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was announced June 15 by the Department of Homeland Security and President Obama. DACA is only temporary for two years and provides relief from deportation, and gives work permits to youth who arrived under the age of 16 years of age, who have been in the U.S. five years, and have graduated high school or received their GED.
Church World Service also made available a DREAM Act fact sheet on how UCC churches can assist DREAMers while it pushes legislators to fully pass the DREAM Act.
The UCC has an Immigration Task Force that works to develop resources around the immigration issue. The task force, part of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries office in Washington D.C., is headed by the Rev. Maria E. Castellanos.
Castellanos said Mayer's church "has carried the banner for us on this critical human rights issue for a long, long time... Arizona is at the center of this real-life drama."
Mayer said Methodist and Unitarian groups in Arizona have already mobilized their congregations around the immigration issue, and hopes the UCC can follow suit. "We would just like to have a few more resources and programs. This will be a kick-off of a program for congregations welcoming immigrants in the United Church of Christ," Mayer said. "We've never had a list of grassroots organizers. We've had pastors and people interested, but never people in the trenches day in and day out."
The Arizona law also may adversely affect the state's economy. "The reality is, the economy in Arizona is at its very worst, and could be the slowest economy in the country because we're so close to Mexico and they're so tied to each other," Mayer said.
"Our churches are still 96 percent white, and they have some gross misunderstandings about legislative pieces before us," Dorhauer said, "and about the way that immigrants impact our community and economy."
Castellanos outlined how Arizona is a microcosm of the need for national immigration reform.
"SB 1070 is a showcase of what can go wrong with immigration," Castellanos said. "We continue to try to work with people in Congress that we know are strong supporters of comprehensive immigration reform. The immigration issue cannot be solved on a state basis. We need comprehensive immigration reform. Without it, we'll have 50 different problems in 50 different states, and this office and I are commited to making [immigration reform] possible."
JWM has posted online resources for immigration information and the DREAM Act, and how to get involved.