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U.S. churches grapple with immigration issues

By Frank Brown
Assistant Director, Publications

The final session of a May 1-2 immigration conference at Yale Divinity School offered an informative snapshot of how U.S. churches are coping with immigration issues, at both the congregational and denominational levels. The two-hour discussion, attended by about 40 people in Marquand Chapel, was infused with a sense of hope at how immigrants are invigorating and enlivening the church, as well as with feelings of frustration at sometimes-sluggish institutional responses.

“There is just too much at stake to be putzing around with denominational identity,” said Daniel Romero, a longtime United Church of Christ regional leader from Southern California. “One of my greatest disappointments after 37 years in the UCC is that our denomination has done so little for the Latino community.”

Immigration Conference

Moderated by Harlon Dalton, adjunct professor of law and religion at YDS and author of Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites, the session opened with a concise question-and-answer session with each of the five participants, who ranged from a legal expert on immigration issues at a denominational headquarters to a Lutheran minister with over two decades serving Hispanics in New York City.  Their comments were tailored to the conference theme, The Challenge of Immigration: Framing a New American Conversation.

From the session emerged a picture of local pastors sometimes overwhelmed by the legal and material needs of immigrants. Alejandro Siller-González, a pastoral team member with the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, TX, spoke of how small, predominantly white communities in the Deep South were sometimes swamped by a rapid influx of migrant workers when new factories dependent on cheap labor open up. In such cases, Siller-González  related, a local Roman Catholic priest might find the size of his flock doubled by Spanish speakers demanding Masses in their native tongue.

“You have to not just say, ‘You are welcome,’ but you need to say, ‘You belong.’ You need to give them ownership. You need to invite them on the church councils,” observed Siller-González , whose center provides pastoral training and language studies.

A strong message of inclusion and assimilation came from Roman Catholic Bishop Peter A. Rosazza, too, as he responded to a question from audience member Jan Tanner Poskas, '98 M.A.R. and a member of the YDS Board of Advisors, about historical responses of the church to earlier waves of immigration to the United States.

“Little by little people learn, but there is still all this prejudice about. I just don’t know how you stop it. I don’t know the answer,” said the New Haven-based Rosazza, an auxiliary bishop and vicar general for the Hispanic apostolate, as he offered a quick overview of New Haven’s experience with immigrants. “The Irish came and lived in squalor in the late 1800s, then came the Italians, and now you have the Hispanics.”

Heidi Neumark, a Lutheran pastor, spoke about her experience in ministering to Spanish-speaking congregants in New York City and how they mixed with other members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her current church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan operates a shelter for homeless teenagers who are lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transgendered.

"It could have become a point of contention with the immigrants in the church but it hasn't been. There are some connections on what it means to be excluded and demonized," said Neumark, author of Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. "The first dinner for homeless LGBT people was made by Mexican ladies."

Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, chalks up current anti-immigrant sentiment to a feeling of embattlement among some native-born Americans. “It is the sheer numbers that are driving this xenophobia,” said Rodriguez, whose conference serves the estimated 16 million Hispanic born-again Christians in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

In some parts of the country and in some denominations that rely heavily on foreign-born clergy, pastors themselves have immigration issues, especially as they negotiate the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. One particularly tricky maneuver involves changing a pastors¹ visa status so that foreign-born seminarians can transition from being students to religious workers.

"The immigration system is very, very difficult," noted Julia Thorne, an immigration attorney working in the Louisville, KY Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). "Scottish pastors are having trouble. Hungarian pastors are having problems. The law applies to everyone. Being undocumented is being undocumented. We have quite a few pastors who are undocumented."

More than any other participant, Rodriguez spoke of what he sees as the transformative potential of immigration for the country as a whole. “I believe it is a test of our nation. Once again we are in one of those assessment times for our nation, like the civil rights movement, or women’s suffrage. America’s reaction speaks to the spiritual state of the country...If we embrace the immigrant and we embrace the recent arrival, we are going to see great renewal and great revival.”

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