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Religious, political leaders speak on immigration reform

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A UMNS photo by Lisa Jo Bezner

The Rev. Dana Wilbanks listens to Rabbi Steve Gutow, executive director of Jewish Council of Public Affairs.
July 25, 2006

By Bill Mefford*

WASHINGTON (UMNS) — Religious leaders from across the United States, along with several key lawmakers and a White House staff person, shared the importance of passing comprehensive immigration reform during this Congressional session.

“Faith and Migration: Diverse Perspectives from Religious Leaders,” was organized by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and held July 12 at the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill.

Bishop Roy Sano, executive secretary of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, spoke of his own journey as the son of Japanese immigrants and the trials his family faced during their internment at the beginning of World War II.

He urged the standing room-only audience to remember that immigration deeply affects people from all nations of the world, including Asian Americans.

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A UMNS photo by Lisa Jo Bezner

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., makes a point during a surprise appearance at the immigration reform event.

The conference featured appearances from several senators who have championed this issue and who spoke of the importance of addressing this issue from a standpoint of faith.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., talked about the many passages in Scripture that call for care to be shown for the orphan and widow and how helping these particular groups is not difficult for most people. But the senator said that alongside the call to care for the orphans and widows in these passages is the necessary call to care for the strangers in the land as well. This is the challenge for people of faith, he said.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., encouraged the audience to be informed by such writers as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who wrote of the need for people of faith to listen to new and strange voices in order to hear the voice of God. Kennedy challenged those gathered to speak truth to power and witness to justice.

The passage of comprehensive immigration reform is the defining issue for America, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during a luncheon speech. He said he was optimistic about passing immigration reform because, in his view, “Americans have always had the angels of our better nature prevail.”

Also speaking at lunch was Barry Jackson, deputy assistant to President Bush. Jackson urged members of the audience to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform with their congressional representatives. People must remember that immigrants have human faces and stories that need to be seen and heard, he said.

Welcoming the stranger

Other featured speakers during the day included Dana Wilbanks, professor emeritus of Christian Ethics at United Methodist-related Iliff Theological Seminary in Denver. Wilbanks spoke of the biblical view of strangers as neighbors. These new neighbors are created in the image of God and are entitled to the recognition of basic human rights simply because of their humanness, he said.

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A UMNS photo by Lisa Jo Bezner

Gideon Aronoff (left), president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and the Rev. Jim Wallis (center), founder of Sojourners, listen to Bishop Roy I. Sano.

He added that the vulnerability of strangers reminds Christians of their own dependence on God and his kindness. Our treatment of the stranger in our midst reflects not only the moral status of our society, but the legitimacy of our trust and intimacy with God, he said.

Jim Wallis, executive director of Sojourners, urged listeners to continue fighting to ensure passage of comprehensive immigration reform. Wallis said whatever policy is discussed and ultimately agreed to regarding immigration must always be, for the people of faith, accountable to the words of Jesus: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

This could be a long-term fight, Wallis said, but the goal is not merely to change the minds of legislators who are so often guided by the direction of the wind but to change the wind itself.

“We are called to be wind-changers,” he said. That means loving the poor, including the marginal and inviting those in positions of power to the redemption that is associated with helping those whose access to resources is often unjustly restricted, he said.

*Mefford is director of human welfare, United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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