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Border consultation lays groundwork on immigration

More than 150 people attend "Embracing My Neighbor," the United Methodist Border Network Consultation in El Paso, Texas. A UMNS photo by Humberto Casanova.

By Valerie K. Maravolo*
Feb. 20, 2008 | EL PASO, Texas. (UMNS)

(From left) The Rev. Edwin Santos, Dionisio Salazar, the Rev. Francisco Cañas and the Rev. David Maldonado chat during a break. A UMNS photo by Humberto Casanova.

Effective ministry and advocacy related to immigration must begin on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border as a partnership of The United Methodist Church and the Methodist Church of Mexico, according to church leaders along the border.

Possibilities for such partnerships were explored during a Feb. 8-10 border consultation called "Abrazando a Mi Prójimo," or "Embracing My Neighbor," sponsored by the Methodist Border Mission Network. The event's goal was to help the church reach across the border and work together as neighbors in common ministry, particularly as the church works to respond to the impact of immigration.

Among the outcomes of the United Methodist Border Network Consultation, the Methodist Church of Mexico resolved to establish centers and church networks to provide assistance and resources to migrants along both sides of the border. In addition, the church will develop and distribute educational materials to inform the public about dangers that lie ahead for migrants on their journey into the United States.

United Methodist participants said immigration-related resolutions would be brought before the 2008 General Conference, the church's top legislative body that meets this spring in Fort Worth, Texas. In addition, a prayer vigil and news conference is planned for April 24 at General Conference, and the Methodist Federation for Social Action plans to erect a symbolic water station at the convention site.

"As a people of faith, we are called to understand and take action based on the knowledge we have and the faith we embrace," said Billie Fidlin, outreach director for the United Methodist Desert Southwest Conference. "People are willing to risk their lives to come here. Are we willing to risk our hearts to accept help and value others?"

'Bilateral ministry'

The consultation drew more than 150 people representing three conferences of the Methodist Church of Mexico, five United Methodist conferences, plus United Methodist general agencies and seminarians. Two years in planning, the event was organized by United Methodist border bishops in partnership with Methodist bishops in Mexico.

"We have to make people see we are brothers and sisters under our skin, and must minister to each other accordingly," says Chad Richardson. A UMNS photo by Valerie Maravolo.

"This consultation was an incredible experience of sharing, bilaterally and in a meaningful way, the depth and complexity of the enormous issues inherent in immigration between the U.S. and Mexico," said Bill Sanford, missionary for outreach ministries for the Desert Southwest Conference. "Attendees could not help but realize more fully the importance of resolving this life and death situation in a joint and collaborative way, and that has to be our goal."

In her opening remarks, United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño of Phoenix emphasized that the church is "called by God to be a faith community of welcome."

Sharing her vision for the consultation and its outcomes, Carcaño said "a bilateral ministry between Mexico and the United States is only a natural way of being by leading with a servant spirit and faithfulness."

While cooperative work between U.S.-Mexican border conferences is not new, it has taken on new urgency as the United States has slowed the flow of undocumented people moving north from Mexico and Central America into the United States. Those who do cross are often in dire need of human necessities. More and more people are being stranded along the southern border, and increasing numbers are being jailed or deported by the United States with no resources to return to their places of origin.

"The challenges, issues and opportunities facing the church in the border region have never been greater. Partnering between the Methodist Church of Mexico and the United Methodist Church has never been more urgent," said an October 2007 letter from organizing bishops on the importance of the consultation.

Complex issue

Keynote speaker Chad Richardson, professor of sociology and director of the Borderlife Project at the University of Texas-Pan American, explained how two strong social issues relevant to immigration––globalization and nationalism––contribute to the complexity of the issue.

Billie Fidlin, of the Desert Southwest Annual Conference, participates in a roundtable discussion. A UMNS photo by Valerie Maravolo.

"While globalization attempts to erase borders, nationalism attempts to establish them," Richardson said. "Social earthquakes and volcanoes happen where two or more social forces come together."

Richardson highlighted common misconceptions of the reasons that immigrants migrate north. They include beliefs that the migrants are seeking government-supported health care and assisted living, or that the migrants are criminals intent on committing more crimes in the United States. He noted the challenges in accurately recording data on immigration and said "bad statistical tracking contributes to faulty facts."

Richardson stressed that changing the pattern of thinking is only the first step in the right direction. "We have to make people see we are brothers and sisters under our skin, and must minister to each other accordingly," he said.

Testimonials were shared at the consultation and served as a clear call to action. Experiences of personal hardship were described by migrants and the "good Samaritans" who have looked out for their safety.

"This event provides a foundation for work that is to be done on both sides, but it really helped demonstrate that we have a lot to learn, too," said the Rev. Jorge Rodriguez, pastor at Seguidores De Cristo Mission in Las Vegas.

Fidlin said the plight of immigrants who migrate for economic reasons is the most difficult. "To hear their journeys opens the door to compassion," she said. "We must begin with the stories, followed by the facts of immigration, and seek reform––on both sides of the border."

Call to action

Bill Mefford, director of civil and human rights for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, called for mobilization to affect public policy––advocating for comprehensive immigration reform at the local, state and federal levels, as well as "within our churches."

Bill Mefford calls for grassroots mobilization to affect public policy. A UMNS photo by Humberto Casanova.

"There is absolutely no political will in Washington D.C., to take leadership on this and to get this done," said Mefford. "… The only way we will get this done is through grassroots organization, through public pressure."

Comprehensive immigration reform, he said, would create a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented migrants; create a legal, orderly way for migrants to work for short periods of time in the United States; and eliminate the backlog of cases in which families are waiting to reunify because of migration, detainment or deportation.

"We've got to organize," said Mefford, urging individuals and churches to create networks and coalitions and identify allies to work with. Even though anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States is pervasive now, "it is not winning elections. We need to remind people of this."

*Maravolo is a communications editor with the Desert Southwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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