At convention this weekend, United Methodist Women plan to put 'faith, hope and love in action'
I was a stranger and you invited me in ... whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.
— Matthew 25:35, 40
Thousands of people of many faiths are expected to take to the streets of downtown St. Louis Saturday to honor Jesus' call in Matthew to care for the stranger. Passionate disagreement over immigration policy and racial profiling has reignited recently with the news of Arizona's immigration law. But the planners for a national convention here of United Methodist Women have been working on the issues for years.
The group of lay church women has joined with dozens of local organizations to march on Saturday for the rights of immigrant families to stay together. This dovetails with demonstrations across the country, including San Francisco, Seattle, Las Vegas and Chicago, reacting to the Arizona law and renewed discussion in Congress on immigration reform.
Calling for an end to detentions and deportations of undocumented immigrants and an end to racial profiling, United Methodist Women has organized a march and rally, starting at the America's Center at 11:30 a.m. and going to Keiner Plaza for a noon rally. The event is part of the Methodist Women's Quadrennial Assembly, a national gathering expected to draw nearly 7,000 members from around the nation and world. The conference runs from April 30-May 2, with a service day on April 29.
According to the group's website, United Methodist Women, with 800,000 members, is the largest denominational faith organization for women. Its mission includes: "fostering spiritual growth, developing leaders and advocating for justice."
"Every single assembly we have, we take an action for some social-justice issue," said Carol Barton (right), executive for community action at United Methodist Women. "It comes out of the policies of the United Methodist Church -- personal piety combines with social holiness. We have visited prisons and spoken out against slavery. You cannot separate personal faith from social justice."
The organizers are calling this year's assembly "Faith, Hope and Love in Action." Nearly four years ago, when the theme for the assembly was chosen, "we felt one of the most critical issues of the day was immigrant rights, and especially the rights and welfare of families," Barton said.
Immigration issues are, indeed, at the top of the news, after Arizona passed a law last week requiring local police to ask for documentation of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. The law has been roundly criticized for encouraging racial profiling, but a Rasmussen poll released Wednesday said that 67 percent of Arizonans favored the law.
Homeland Security Secretary (and former governor of Arizona) Janet Napolitano has gone on record opposed to the law. And in a speaking tour this week through Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, President Barack Obama said Arizona's approach is "misguided"; Obama says he backs congressional Democrats' plan for a bill that would establish a process for illegal immigrants to gain amnesty and legal entry.
But others have supported Arizona's approach. The Fort Worth Star Telegram reports that two Texas legislators intend to file bills similar to Arizona's law.
"It's uncanny," Barton said. "We've been planning this event in St. Louis for the last six months." The Arizona law "in a sense, renders illegal or at least suspect people who look Latino. But the implication of racial profiling is much broader in St. Louis," which has a broad spectrum of immigrant populations and minorities, she said.
Not that immigration was on a back burner before the Arizona law. The event in St. Louis is taking place just a week before the second anniversary of the largest single-site immigration raid in American history that swept up nearly 400 workers in a meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, on May 9, 2008. In that raid, American-born children were virtually orphaned when their immigrant parents were detained, arrested and often deported. Christians from a number of denominations, especially in Iowa, have offered financial and emotional support for the women and children left behind by deportations.
"How could we be for family values and watch families be divided in this way?" Barton asked. "This is resonating across a broad theological spectrum. We feel families are being wrenched apart by current policies."
This broad spectrum is reflected in the 20 or so partner sponsors of the event, representing many faith groups and non-governmental agencies for refugees, immigrants and minorities. Major sponsors include the Interfaith Committee on Latin America, the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates and the National Farm Worker Ministry, which is headquartered in St. Louis.
"In all our traditions, our people have been wanderers," said Marilyn Lorenz, program coordinator for the Interfaith Committee on Latin America, "going back to Abraham, Mohammed, Jesus. Scriptures say welcome the stranger and care for the widow and orphan. God resides with the poor and outcast, the marginalized."
Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis said immigration is a key issue for the Jewish community.
"We came to this country as immigrants," she said. "Knowing and remembering what this country gave to us, we support fair policies for people who wish to immigrate today."
Fair policies include an end to racial profiling, Talve said.
"We know what it is to be profiled," she said. "We understand how terrible that can be. We understand that profiling alienates the very people who could be your greatest allies in fighting crime, catching the people who really do cause problems. When you profile everybody, you make it unsafe for everybody.
"One of our greatest values in America is giving people the benefit of the doubt. We do need immigration reform, but not more profiling, and not more license or encouragement to profile."
The featured speaker at the Assembly Saturday and at the rally was scheduled to be Rigoberta Menchu, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy for human rights of the Mayan people in Guatamala and other indigenous people in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere. She announced on Thursday that she would not be able to come to St. Louis because of illness.
Other prominent speakers include journalist Judy Woodruff of PBS' NewsHour; former surgeon general Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders; and Mexican singer Lila Downs, whose songs often touch on issues of immigration and social justice.
The Assembly begins Thursday when 700 volunteers arrive to perform a "day of service" with various local agencies and charities. The exhibits, workshops, worship services, plenary sessions and featured speakers begin Friday and continue through Sunday. At the same time as the march and rally, many people registered for the event will take part in a prayer vigil inside the convention center in behalf of immigrant families.
"Women can't be looked at separately from families," said Sung-Ok Lee, assistant general secretary for Christian social action for the UMW. "Our women have for many decades been addressing issues of family. It touches at the core of what we do."
Some information in this story came from the Associated Press.
Virginia Gilbert is a retired journalist and volunteer in urban ministry. She is a 2007 graduate of Eden Theological Seminary. To reach her, contact Beacon issues and politics editor Susan Hegger.