Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Faith in the Borderlands: A Reflection by AmyBeth Willis

Ten feet from the red-iron beams of the wall that separate Sasabe, Sonora, México, from Sasabe, Arizona, the Reverend John Fife, Moderator of the 204th General Assembly (1992), read from his tattered Bible, “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” As a Presbyterian pastor, John has committed his life to breaking down dividing walls; in 1982, he sparked the idea of the Sanctuary movement with his friend Jim Corbett, a Quaker. For almost a decade, Sanctuary volunteers helped immigrants fleeing the civil wars in Central America to cross into the U.S. unnoticed. They built a network of churches and synagogues that helped transport people to safety, all over the nation. At the time, John was the pastor of Southside Presbyterian in Tucson, AZ. In that decade, over 14,000 people slept at Southside as the first stop in the journey to a more safe and secure life in the United States.

As he read from Ephesians, I thought, “This. This is what faith looks like.”

I stood at that wall as a member of the Presbyterian Immigrant Solidarity Delegation to the Southwest border with PC(USA) Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons and Director for Public Witness J. Herbert Nelson. Our primary mission was to show support for and be in solidarity with two Presbyterian congregations providing Sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, Southside Presbyterian in Tucson, AZ and University Presbyterian in Tempe, AZ. These efforts are part of Sanctuary 2014, a nationwide faith-based movement that has sought to protect 10 immigrants from deportation and separation from their families.

Southside Presbyterian, now under the leadership of Rev. Alison Harrington, has taken up the mantle again in leading the efforts to stand beside undocumented immigrants. In May of 2014, Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, a spouse and father, sought protection from deportation under Southside’s roof. After one month, he received a stay of removal and was able to leave the Sanctuary of the church.

In August of last year, Rosa Robles Loreto sought Sanctuary at Southside for the same reason. During our visit, we sat down with Rosa and heard her story. After she landed in Border Patrol custody because of a minor traffic stop by Tucson police, she was detained for three months in an immigrant detention center, followed by two years of waiting for the court’s decision. In August, she received it: a final order of deportation. Seeing no other alternative, she entered into Sanctuary at Southside, away from her two boys and husband, unable to leave the house of worship.*

On our journey, we learned about the many ways church and community members have walked alongside Rosa and her family. They maintain a twenty-four hour presence at the church in their ‘Solidarity Suite.’ People visit and share meals with Rosa. They also hold a nightly prayer vigil. We were present for one of these vigils, at which we sang, “Lord, Prepare Me to Be a Sanctuary.” We prayed and lit candles for all of the immigrants in Sanctuary. During the vigil, I again thought, “This. This is what faith looks like.”

L to R: Stephanie Quintana (Southside member) and Rosa

Members of the Presbyterian delegation and Southside members singing at the vigil with Rosa and husband Gerardo.

After four months, Rosa remains strong and is a light for the other immigrants living in Sanctuary.** More than that, Rosa tells her story, aware that she represents thousands of other undocumented mothers and fathers who could be separated from their children any day by deportation. As she spoke of her gratitude for the welcome and home she has found at Southside, I thought, “This. This is what faith looks like.”  Her faith could move mountains: she has not given up hope that relief will come. Hers is a testimony to the kind of faith to which God calls us.

For those four days in December, I felt the power of all these individuals’ faith. John, Rosa, Alison, and members of Southside all have faith in what is not yet seen. This faith compels them to act, and lives are changed as a result.

L to R: Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, Teresa Waggener, Olivia Hudson-Smith, AmyBeth Willis, Rosa Robles-Loreto,
Rev. Alison Harrington, Rev. Gradye Parson, and Rev. Toya Richards- Jackson

*  The rationale behind the Sanctuary movement is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has policy forbidding immigration officers from entering places of worship to make an arrest.
** After six months, Rosa remains in Sanctuary at Southside. Her latest petition for a stay of removal was denied. 

Stand with Rosa by taking action here. Look for more ways to support her case in the coming weeks.

AmyBeth Willis is a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in the Office of Public Witness. She primarily works on policy issues of immigration, money in politics, and hunger and nutrition. She served as a YAV in Tucson, AZ, 2013-2014, where she worked at Southside Presbyterian. She helped with Daniel Ruiz’ Sanctuary case.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

'Space at the Table: God Calls Us to Radical Listening' by Young Adult Volunteer AmyBeth Willis

Originally Published in the December 2014 edition of Presbyterians Today in her column 'A Young Adult Volunteer's Journey.' Watch for her next column in the April edition of Presbyterians Today.

On my last day in Tucson, I exchanged tearful hugs with my undocumented day-laborer friends in the parking lot of Southside Presbyterian Church. When I explained the advocacy work I was going to do in Washington, DC, they had one request: take their stories toWashington. They wanted policy makers to know about the blisters they developed during their desert journeys; about the husband and wife able to join hands only through the rusted beams of the border wall; about the hardworking Guatemalan man fighting for legal status.

YAVs AmyBeth Willis and Jenny Hyde
Each day that I go to my Young Adult Volunteer position at the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness on Capitol Hill, I carry with me the struggles of my undocumented friends, the laughter and smiles of fourth graders at Ochoa Community Magnet School in Tucson, and the fight for survival of my friends there who live on the streets.

The Child Nutrition Act, which funds the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefit program, is up for reauthorization in 2015. Our office and ecumenical partners are gearing up to make sure this important legislation passes unchanged. The Tucson mothers and children who depend on this program’s healthy food linger in my imagination. Where are their stories in the political discussion of our country’s need to trim the fat?

Our nation’s immigration policies, moreover, criminalize migrants seeking a better life here. I think of Enrique, who stayed at our YAV house after being released from detention. Because of our country’s immigration and refugee policies, he was forced to fight his case for asylum from a jail cell. Whose voice is louder on the Hill: lobbyists for private prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America, which fill prison beds for profit, or the voice of my courageous friend?

Nationwide, a broad base of groups, including our office, is fighting for legislation that would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Those in opposition say a higher minimum wage would kill jobs. But what about Southside’s neighbors who can’t afford rent, despite working full-time jobs?

As people with immense power and privilege, we must listen to these stories. Already I am acutely aware of how easily the stories are lost in the halls of power. My undocumented friends are called illegal, and families who benefit from WIC are accused of gaming the system. In these frames, their humanity is lost. It’s easy,then, to understand why our nation’s policies exploit and endanger the most vulnerable in society.

That’s why the stories matter: they exemplify the effects of social structures that oppress and bind. As followers of Christ, we are called to undo these chains, and we have the power to shape policy that would create more kingdom-like systems. The Bible is God’s story of liberating us all from suffering and death; we are called to join with God in this work.

This month, we are reminded that the mere story of the arrival of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was a threat to Herod’s imperial power. How do we share stories with the power to transform oppressive structures, without presuming to speak for the people whose stories we tell? How do we get in the way of the very structures that lift up our voices and not theirs?

Here’s to the strength, grace, and beauty of my friends in Tucson, who are willing to share their stories. Help us all, O God, to listen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson Responds to the Texas Court Ruling on President Obama's Executive Actions

Early this morning, Judge Andrew Hansen in Brownsville, TX issued an injunction in the court case of 26 states, including Texas, that are suing the federal government over the implementation of two deportation-relief programs announced by the Obama administration in November 2014: the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the newly issued Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) for parents of citizen and permanent resident children. The injunction blocks these programs from being implemented until the injunction is appealed and the case makes its way to higher courts.
On hearing the news, the Reverend J. Herbert Nelson, PC(USA) Director for Public Witness, said, "I am deeply disappointed that Judge Hansen has chosen to assert his political ideology, to the cost of millions of our sisters and brothers in Christ who will benefit from the legal protections and work permits (albeit temporary) these programs provide. This is a political move, announced on the day before thousands should have been able to submit applications for the expanded DACA program. The ruling is temporary and the issue remains to be decided by higher courts, but this injunction galvanizes us to continue to pray and to organize for full rights and dignity for our immigrant sisters and brothers.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Responds to Harmful Southwest Border Legislation

Learn more about the PCUSA Office of Immigration Issues here

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is participating in the Interfaith Immigration Coalition's (of which we are a member) Three-week Letter-A-Day Campaign to Members of Congress expressing our concern over damaging legislation that would further the militarization of our Southwest border and do nothing to address the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in our midst in addition to the root causes of immigration. This is the letter sent to Member offices by Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

February 10, 2015

Dear Members of Congress,

I write to you today on behalf of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to express concern about H.R. 399, Secure Our Borders First Act of 2015.

For years there has been bipartisan agreement that our nation’s immigration laws are in need of reform. This notion is well-founded in fact with backlogs in family-based immigration more than twenty years long[1]and hundreds of persons perishing along our southern border each year.[2] Yet session after session, year after year no relief is forthcoming. The explanation for this inaction is always the same:

“We must secure our borders first.”

At first blush this premise seems reasonable but, in truth, it is immoral as it denies the value and dignity of the persons swept up in its grasp. In the name of border security this country has created Operation Streamline, built hundreds of miles of fence, created family detention centers, expedited removals, and doubled the size of customs and border protection. This country has bound up “heavy burdens, hard to bear, and [laid] them on the shoulders of [migrant men, women, and children]”[3] in the name of justice and rule of law all the while acknowledging that the law we are so stridently protecting is so deeply broken.

The human lives caught up in this border security strategy are mothers and fathers, workers, church members, and long-time residents of the United States.[4] In our faith tradition, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is the greatest commandment of all, second only to loving our God.[5] What, then, would I want if a border separated me from my child, my job, my faith community, the place I considered home? What would I be willing to do to be reunited with the life I had created and the people whom I love?[6] This years-long strategy of enforcement alone turns a blind eye to the misery it creates. It neglects mercy and denies our common humanity. It creates criminals of parents and workers whom are just trying to get back to the place they call home in order to parent and work. Even worse, it sometimes kills parents and workers forced to trust coyotes and forced to cross in the most dangerous regions of our southern border.

Securing our borders first is further immoral as it is a moving target that changes with each administration and every session of Congress. In 2011, former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared our border was secure, yet relief did not follow.[7] Now the truth we have all feared has come to light in the language of H.R. 399; a secure border is a perfect border. One in which “operational control” must be achieved and maintained and “operational control” is defined as, “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.”[8] The veil of rationality within the demand to “secure our borders first” is lifted with that definition and the truth is revealed. No level of border security will ever satisfy those that have proffered their support of this bill.

Members of Congress, I implore you to search your hearts. I am certain that the majority of you do not want what this bill requires. I assure you, your constituents do not want what this bill requires. Please oppose H.R. 399 and stop proposing security strategy after security strategy while turning a blind eye to the 11 million who are so desperate for the meaningful relief that only comprehensive immigration reform can afford.

In Christ,

The Reverend Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

[3] Matthew 23:4.
[5] Matthew 22:3640.
[8] 8 U.S.C. 1701 note.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Compassion, Peace and Justice Training Day Announces Keynote Speakers! Register Today!

Compassion, Peace and Justice Training Day Announces 2015 Keynote Speakers
April 17, 2015

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church

in Washington, DC

Register today to hear how Presbyterians are paving the way for justice!

On April 17th, Presbyterians from across the country will gather in Washington before the start of Ecumenical Advocacy Days. Together, through workshops and plenaries,  we will look at issues of Mass Incarceration and Systems of Exploitation and learn how individuals and congregations can make an impact in their community and their nation.

Rev. Alonzo Johnson

The Rev. Alonzo Johnson is the new Mission Associate with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. Alonzo has concluded his service as the pastor/head of staff of Oak Lane Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA. He is a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (LPTS) and is currently a candidate for his Doctor of Ministry degree at LPTS. He is passionate about peacemaking and social justice issues and has rich experience in urban ministry with a focus on mentoring youth in the arts.

Eric LeCompte

Eric LeCompte is the Executive Director of Jubilee USA Network and represents a civil society coalition of 75 US member organizations, 400 faith communities and 50 Jubilee global partners. Jubilee USA Network has won critical global financial reforms and more than $130 billion in debt relief to benefit the world's poorest people. He serves on expert working groups to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights. Eric has more than 15 years of experience working with faith-based organizations to impact global policy on poverty, conflict and human rights. Eric serves on several boards of faith-based and antipoverty organizations as well as institutions that work for greater financial transparency, including the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency (FACT) Coalition, where he serves on the executive board. 

Gail Tyree

Tyree has had a long and distinguished career in grassroots and labor organizing in the South. She has been an international representative for the Workers United Labor Union; campaign director and organizer with Grassroots Leadership in Charlotte, North Carolina; campaign director for the Southern Faith Labor and Community Alliance in Memphis, Tennessee; and for 15 years was a project labor organizer with the Communications Workers of America. She has extensive experience planning organizing and campaign strategy; training and developing the leadership capacity of individuals and groups; and working closely with a range of constituencies, including religious congregations, labor, immigrant communities, and policymakers at the local and statewide level. Tyree is a member of the Federation of Union Representatives and a prior board member of the Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

J. Herbert Nelson Visits South Sudan; Meets with U.S. Embassy Officials

Office of Public Witness Director Meets with United States Embassy Officials in South Sudan

Washington, DC, February 3, 2015 – The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson returned this past weekend from ten days in South Sudan. While there, he investigated ways that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness (OPW) can better partner with World Mission to more effectively engage partner churches and organizations, mission co-workers, and other personnel, for more effective justice advocacy.

Before leaving Juba, South Sudan, Nelson spoke with officials at the United States Embassy and appealed for their intervention in returning South Sudan pastors who had been arrested in Sudan, back to their families, congregations, and communities. A Presbyterian News Service article dated January 21, 2015, reported that Reverend Yat Michael, a South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) pastor was arrested after preaching on December 21, at Khartoum North, a congregation of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. Subsequently, the Reverend Peter Yen, a SSPEC pastor who was also visiting Khartoum, hand-delivered a letter from the SSPEC General Secretary. The letter called for the release of Reverend Michael. A few days later on Sunday, January 11, Yen was asked to report to security and he too was detained without warrant or charge. No further information is known at this time about Reverend Yen. Click here to See full PNS article.

“I went to South Sudan on a missionary experience and ended on a mission of mercy,” said Nelson. “It is important that we prevent the intimidation and possible loss of life among Church leaders and others who are expressing the gospel’s call for love in a militarized and war-torn part of the world.” The U.S. Embassy in South Sudan was not aware of arrest and promised to investigate the matter with the U.S. Embassy in Sudan. According to Human Rights Watch, since December 2013, up to 10,000 people have died, one million people have been displaced, and 400,000 have fled to neighboring countries. According to those we spoke with on the ground, some estimate the death toll to be as high as 40,000 persons since the beginning of the most recent outbreak of violence. 

The PC(USA) Office of Public Witness is now in the fifth year of a plan to revitalize and strengthen the work of advocacy in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Of the trip to South Sudan, the Reverend Nelson said:

“We are intentionally focused on reaching out to entities of the denomination that are working with marginalized people -- those who most often face injustice in the world. World Mission is one entity within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that has historical connections with church partners and global reach to persons and communities. Given the political significance of South Sudan to global politics and the longstanding mission of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Africa, it was important for me to witness first-hand the recent devastation that the people of South Sudan and mission co-workers are encountering.

“It is imperative that we make a connection in the denomination regarding mission and justice. We tend to view mission as an essential element of our historic role as Presbyterians, but oftentimes we fail to see the connections between our mission work and efforts to challenge systemic injustice in our country and our world. We must seek to uphold the human rights of all persons in the United States and around the globe. Jesus affirmed both mission and justice in his ministry. He taught that they are both essential to the promotion of the Kingdom of God. The bible reminds us of both prophecy and mission. These two elements are not mutually exclusive in living out the fullness of the gospel’s intent.

The Reverend J. Herbert Nelson, II, is the Director for Public Witness at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC.