Immigration: Exploring Jesus' 'Outrageous' Hospitality
by Kim Fry
LOS ANGELES, (UMNS ) -- "I am not a burden. I am a useful person."
These are the words of Estela Diaz, an immigrant from Mexico who lives and works in Los Angeles with her husband and children. She dreams of an education for her children and to make a living for her family.
Her personal testimony was shared as church and community leaders explored "Immigration and the Outrageous Hospitality of Jesus" at an April 21 conference designed to put a face on the issue of immigrant rights.
The event was sponsored by the California-Pacific Conference chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action,in partnership with the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights. About 100 people attended the conference at the historic La Plaza United Methodist Church.
Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, leader of The United Methodist Church's Los Angeles area, greeted participants by calling them "spiritual leaders standing in the gap between the center of the community and the edge of the community."
"You can invite strangers from the edge to the center of the community. You can help fulfill Jesus' vision of abundant life for all people," Swenson said.
Other immigrants offered their personal testimonies through an interpreter.
Jesus, who came from Peru, worked at a gas station, but recently was let go because of lack of documentation about his legal status in the United States. He now lives on the street, but still has hope for a better future.
"There are two doors," Jesus said of homelessness. "One door, you can go in and come back out. The second door, you go in and fall into depression and despair. You don't come back out."
Jesus has chosen the first door. He says his homelessness is temporary, and he sells water and soft drinks on the street to pay for his daily needs. "I am surviving," he said. "When I leave this point of just surviving, I want to come back… and help the (others)."
A biblical mandate
The head of the social action agency of The United Methodist Church offered a keynote address highlighting the biblical basis for hospitality to immigrants.
"Anti-immigration viewpoints are all too prevalent today, even from persons who are immigrants themselves, despite a Bible and faith that demands hospitality," said Jim Winkler, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.
Winkler outlined five elements for comprehensive immigration reform:
"The involvement of the church in these issues is so important. Our moral and ethical voice has weight," Winkler said. "Who speaks for the poor, the persecuted … if not us?"
The event included workshops on ways to get involved in the immigrant rights movement.
For instance, the Border Project is a new outreach to people stranded on the U.S.-Mexico border and was highlighted in a presentation by the Joint Commission for Church Extension.
The Institute of Popular Education of Southern California provides economic development opportunities to unemployed, low-income families, assisting and supporting the creation of socially responsible, democratically driven businesses.
The National Day Laborer Organizing Network is a national alliance of community organizations working with day laborers.
Christine Gilbert, of Bellflower (Ca.) United Methodist Church, attended the workshop on the New Sanctuary Movement, which enables churches to help families in danger of being broken up because of deportation.
"Our church has a number of Filipino families," Gilbert said. "They often wait a long time for visas for other family members."
*Fry is communications coordinator for the California Pacific Annual Conference.