So many of you have asked for an update on the Washington DC trip I took several weeks ago with 21 other Conference Ministers to urge those who represent us to create better policies, practices and procedures for how immigrants are treated in this country.
I must admit that after I returned, I found it difficult to put into words, succinctly, the deeply powerful moments I experienced. I also struggled with the reality that there were some who reached out to me in anger and disgust that I had participated in such an event. This was when I realized there might have been some misunderstanding and misperceptions of why I attended, why the Conference Council (the governing board of this Conference) unanimously affirmed my participation, and what the purpose of the trip was.
First, allow me to share with you the origins of the event being organized by the Council of Conference Ministers, a representation of Conference Ministers from all Conferences of the UCC. After many discussions among the Council of Conference Ministers about the deep concerns and sadness we had about the realities of--- children being separated from families, undocumented and under documented persons being detained in makeshift centers without the needed supplies, as well as the amounts of persons who had died while being detained, we asked ourselves, but what can we do? The definitive answer was we needed to do something.
The something was: we could ask to meet with leaders to discuss our support and our genuine care for them navigating the complex issue of immigration-an issue that would be difficult to provide one comprehensive solution upon which all could agree. We could speak to our work as faith leaders to live out the mandate of Christ to love our neighbors. We could urge our leaders in government to consider alternatives that might not have been identified.
We could also remind those leaders that regardless of our personal opinions as individuals, as faith leaders we wanted to add to more than just the voices of criticism. We wanted our presence and conversation to remind our leaders in government that we are praying for them. Moreover, we wanted them to know we stand ready to help in any way we can in humanitarian efforts that serve to live out our faith and to respond in ways we hope others could continue to expect of our country-with high morals, ethics, and compassion.
Working with the incredible staff of the United Church of Christ office in Washington DC (not only does the United Church of Christ have an office in Washington DC, but so does the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and Presbyterian Church USA), we were offered training and education about the current immigrant policies and procedures. The UCC staff in Washington DC also set up meetings for us with our local Senators and Representatives. They coached us on how to effectively engage the leaders in conversations about the purpose of our presence in Washington DC. We were then broken up into groups (divided by our geographical regions). Each group met with the offices of Senators and House Representatives who agreed to meet with us.
My group had eight in-person meetings over a period of two days. Sometimes we met with the actual senators and representatives; sometimes we met with their support staff. Yet, regardless of to whom we were speaking, the message was the same. We were not there to argue and debate the politics. We did not represent a political affiliation, nor bent.
We were not coming as republicans or democrats. In fact, in the Conferences and geographies in which we serve, there is a wide spectrum of beliefs, opinions, and political views, and we dare not speak as if this reality does not exist. Our choice to come to Washington DC was not a political decision; rather it was a faith decision. One of the reasons I asked you to provide me with letters that I had the opportunity to share with the leaders with whom we met was for them to hear the concerns from individuals grounded in Biblical imperatives of our faith.
Each time, we met to talk about our concerns, our support and our urging for government leaders to consider creative alternatives to detention centers, those with whom we spoke seemed disarmed by our purpose and message. All wanted to know more about the ideas we shared of using community based programs, which could provide jobs and revenue for local communities. They also seemed genuinely surprised to hear we were confident our local churches would be interested in providing humanitarian relief of supplies, such as bedding, toiletries, and other sundries (much like we provide supplies to people through our Church World Service when natural disasters occur).
We articulated an understanding of how things often move quickly without all details figured out, yet we wanted them to know they could call upon other resources for help and support. They seemed grateful to be given a local contact with the UCC office in Washington DC, which could help them coordinate efforts and offer more information about the resource agencies and persons in the states they serve. Moreover, they seemed shocked and awed about our commitment to keep them in prayer, knowing they are in positions that require difficult decisions to be made.
For me, personally the biggest take away was the importance of in-person, civil conversation. I believe strongly this is a fundamental practice of Jesus. Throughout the Gospels we read about transformative encounters people had with Jesus when he met them where they were, listened to their stories and then invited them to consider another story, the story of God’s redeeming grace and love.
Too often in our society and unfortunately in the Church, we do not enter into civil, respectful dialogue. Instead, we enter into destructive monologues of why we are right and others are wrong. We talk past one another. We jump to conclusions, not taking the time to hear about the reasons, the intent, and the purposes of why certain decisions were made or actions were taken. Sadly, we also seem to think the worst of others first, instead of first giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Just imagine how we might change the world and ourselves if we would first be willing to enter into relationships with all people, be willing to enter into conversations (even difficult ones) with grace and mercy and if we worked together to imagine creative, God-led solutions and opportunities to the problems and concerns we face.
Just imagine...for you might find yourself imagining that the kingdom of God of which Jesus taught, preached, and envisioned was possible through us!
Grateful to serve alongside of all of you,
Rev. Shana Johnson, Conference Minister