United Church of Christ churches, clergy and congregants are reaching out with hope and in faith to migrants at our borders and immigrants across the country. Many more are asking what they can do to respond to the government policies that detain and separate families. The Southwest Conference UCC, acting with Justice and Local Church Ministries, is calling each member of the denomination to build on that immigrant-welcoming effort this fall as one Church to Keep Families Together.
"We hope to shift the thinking of the whole Church toward understanding that border ministry is not geographically focused, but is taking place in every community where migrants live, whether that is in detention or in the community waiting for their cases to be processed," said the Rev. Bill Lyons, Southwest Conference Minister. "That means taking down the walls in our own hearts and preparing ourselves to live into the welcome we proclaim to migrants who are trying to enter our communities as well as our country."
"The United Church of Christ has been very engaged in immigrant justice for years in the fight to stop deportations, welcome refugees, keep families together, and push back against racial profiling," said the Rev. Noel Andersen, coordinator of the UCC Collaborative on Immigration, and grassroots organizer for Church World Service. "Our faith communities have been showing up to stop family separations by taking the streets for marches, hosting actions, vigils and press conferences at detention centers and even risking arrest to stand in solidarity with the immigrant community. Our congregations have helped start day labor centers, built Latino ministries from the ground up, hosted immersion education groups to the border and Central America, created humanitarian aid groups for migrants in the desert and provided services or shelter to asylum seekers and refugees from all different regions of the world. As the crisis of family separation rages on, the UCC will continue to educate, mobilize and organize a moral response until there is a sanctuary for all."
That's why the Southwest Conference UCC and its border churches are issuing two calls to action, one for a faithful witness AT the border, in Arizona at United States border with Mexico August 26-30, and another for a faithful witness FOR the border this fall, in cities and towns across America. This two-pronged, organized effort prepares people of faith to welcome immigrants into our country, our communities and our churches, and to advocate for their humane treatment at the hands of the U.S government. Lyons feels there is a great deal of enthusiasm for this type of work.
"The support we've gotten in the SWC as part of the Keep Families Together movement has been tremendous," he said. "We have received donations, notes of encouragement for our volunteers at our border churches, and notes of welcome addressed to asylum seekers camped on the border. Knowing we have committed partners praying for us, supporting us financially, encouraging us in this work, and offering words of welcome to migrants who otherwise are receiving a hateful reception gives us hope!"
"We now have over 100 UCC Sanctuary Congregations across the country with 8 of the nationwide 44 cases currently claiming sanctuary in UCC congregations," Andersen said. "More than 10 conferences have passed Immigrant Welcoming resolutions and hundreds of congregations are voting to become Immigrant Welcoming."
Resolved to be an Immigrant-Welcoming Church by General Synod in 2017, Lyons hopes this one-Church effort, in collaboration with ecumenical partners, provides a framework for multiplying that mission going forward.
"While one of our goals is convergence at the border," Lyons said, "this is a time to see the border in the eyes of the migrants hoping to enter new lives in our communities and accompany them. We need to multiply the number of immigrant welcoming churches with have in this Kairos moment."
Southwest Conference's call for a week of Faithful Witness AT the Border in late August will include:
· A humanitarian mission to the Mexican side of the border to visit and take supplies to asylum-seekers in shelters and camped out at the ports of entry due to a slowdown in applications being received.
· Solidarity actions and prayer vigils at the detention facilities in Eloy and Florence where parents of kids separated from their families are being held.
· Training and strategy sessions around 'Being an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation' and 'Acting as an Advocate and Ally' with members from the UCC Washington office.
· Conversations with local ministry partners in Arizona—The Samaritans and other immigration ministry groups.
· A visit to Operation Streamline immigration court where parents whose children were taken away are appearing in the hope of finding their kids.
Interested groups should register with the Southwest Conference.
The call for a Season of Faithful Witness FOR the Border is even more critical, Lyons said. "These days of darkness will not last, hope is around the corner, and we want churches to be ready to receive immigrants with the welcome we are proclaiming now. This initiative includes actions and activities that have been identified as most helpful to the people working on the border and most closely with our migrant neighbors."
In a Faithful Witness FOR the Border, the Southwest Conference offers these suggestions for congregations and conferences who plan to host their own events:
·Begin the process for becoming an Immigrant-Welcoming Congregation.
· Raise money and collect supplies for humanitarian relief at the border—PLEASE USE THIS VERY SPECIFIC LIST OF SUPPLIES.
· Write letters of welcome IN SPANISH that can be distributed to asylum seekers as missives of love and welcome, an alternative message to the government.
"Notes of support for volunteers on our conference's border with Mexico, and notes of welcome addressed to asylum seekers have been pouring into our office and are being sent to the border for distribution." Lyons said. "Those notes are carrying the Gospel message of love and welcome to counter the government message of hate. It's a different kind of letter-writing campaign and it seems to be touching the hearts and souls of migrants and disciples when we have not been able to touch the hearts and souls of our legislators."
· Fundraise to support living expenses of migrants seeking asylum and who are prohibited by law from holding employment in the U.S. while their case is processed.
· Participate in an immigrant detention visitation program in your area. Find one here.
· Organize and attend town halls and candidate forums and ask questions about how candidates would approach immigration policy. Set up in-district visits with your members of Congress to share your UCC faith witness on immigration. Submit letters to the editor and editorials in your local and regional papers.
· Host a fellowship event with a local migrants/an immigrant group in your community to get to know one another and listen to their stories.
· Contribute to the UCC "Keep Families Together" campaign.
Currently, almost $20,000 has been donated to the Keep Families Together fund – $9,000 has already been sent to the Southwest Conf. to assist and shelter people on the border seeking asylum, waiting to be processed and for interviews. The other half will be designated as small grants ($250-$500) for which congregations around the country can apply. The money must be used to support ministries dedicated to assisting Central Americans seeking asylum. Congregations can apply for those grants here.
Churches doing ministry FOR the border can report their plans here.
As Lyons said, "With this work, we can offer immigrants the gospel message 'you are welcome here, and we will help you make a new life.'"
Bookmark the Keep Families Together page for updated information.