The immigrant experience is nothing new.
At least not for most Presbyterians in North America.
“If you tell the story of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), you tell the story of a number of significant migrations,” said the Rev. Dr. Charles Wiley III, coordinator of the office of Theology and Worship. “It is important for us to recognize that immigration is not a new phenomenon but integral to our very history from the very beginning.”
Wiley opened his workshop, “Immigration: A Theological Perspective,” at last week’s Big Tent 2015 with a brief history of immigration and Presbyterians, beginning with the transatlantic migrations of the Scotch-Irish in the 18th and 19th centuries, followed by the Great Migration of Scotch-Irish into Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina following the end of the Revolutionary War.
His intention was to underscore how central immigration is to Presbyterian identity and history.
“While Native American populations have lived in North America for millennia, the rest of us are the descendants of immigrants,” said Wiley. “But more than just being immigrants, we have embraced our migrations. As we Presbyterians wrestle with current immigration issues, it is important for us to recognize our own recent history in this land. Immigration stories are more immediate for some of us, but they shape all of our lives.”
Although freely owning that immigration is “not normally at the center” of what he does in his work for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, Wiley said that he and his colleague, Teresa Waggener, coordinator for Immigration Issues in the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and an assistant stated clerk for the PC(USA), will be convening a consultation in September in response to a referral from the 221st General Assembly (2014). The consultation will bring together key congregational leaders for the purpose of developing materials to help churches do outreach and advocacy while thinking theologically about immigration.
Earlier that afternoon, Waggener convened a panel composed of the Rev. Wendy Neff, Viviana Vanegas, and Carol Brown from the Bethel Presbyterian Church in Kingston, Tenn., to share the story of how their congregation is addressing the current challenges in immigration outreach and advocacy.
Panelists spoke movingly about how the arrival of Viviana Vanegas’s family—an undocumented immigrant family from Guatemala—influenced their ministry and outreach.
“The members fell in love with this family, and the family was impressed with the warmth of the church and became members,” Waggener said. “Relationship happened. The church began to understand more about the limitations and injustices of our current immigration system through their relationship with Viviana's family. Members called the office of Immigration Issues and received educational resources which helped them better understand immigration law. They also received Bible study materials and intentionally went through them to better understand the theological underpinnings of their desire for a better system for Viviana and others in her situation.”
Neff said that because the church’s experience “really opened our eyes to see that an undocumented person could be on line with you at the grocery store or sitting next to you in school,” the congregation asked itself the question, “What are we going to do for these people in our midst to make this right?”
“At Bethel we’re trying to understand the issue of immigration and attempting to address it from a faith perspective,” she continued. “We are all children of God, brothers and sisters. Borders that separate countries and states do not separate us.”
One new resource that may prove especially helpful along those lines as Presbyterians seek new Biblical paradigms for understanding the immigration landscape is “Being Church Together,” a comprehensive resource from the Waldensian Church of Italy, a member of the World Council of Churches and the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy.
With roots dating back to the 12th century—400 years before the Protestant Reformation—the Waldensian Church began as a movement at the margins of society. At its high point, the church was scattered all over Europe, eventually becoming centered northwest of Turin in the Waldensian valleys of Italy.
The Waldensians, the historic Protestant church of Italy, only obtained civil rights in the mid-19th century at the founding of modern Italy and religious rights after World War II. Because of their marginal status within Italy, Waldensians have been active in fighting for civil rights in all arenas of Italian society. Yet because Italy had never been an immigrant-receiving country until the 1970s and 1980s, welcoming immigrants in large numbers—leading to an increase in Italy’s immigrant population from 0% to 8% over a 20-year period—has been what Wiley called “a huge shock for the country and the church.”
“Because immigration is not popular,” he said, “the Italian church was trying to figure out what this means to them.”
Out of its country’s specific context and challenge, the Waldensian Church produced, “Being Church Together,” a resource that “offers advice to congregations who want to offer themselves to the reality of immigration; trains ministers, elders, and members new skills; and educates the native Italian people that immigration is not only a problem but also an opportunity.”
“When they were asked which Biblical themes informed their work on the immigration issue—for example verses about welcoming the stranger—the church said such passages never even occurred to them because they don’t think of immigrants as strangers or aliens or the ‘foreigner,’” Wiley said. “They are fellow Christians. We are not a church that welcomes immigrants, but a church that is moving together toward a common future.”
In closing, Wiley noted a striking parallel between the themes of “Being Church Together” and another resource new to many Presbyterians, the Confession of Belhar, which in April was approved for inclusion in The Book of Confessions by two-thirds of the PC(USA)’s presbyteries.
“Even though the Confession of Belhar is not about immigration, it raises up these central themes of unity, reconciliation, and justice,” he said. “So often conversations around immigration devolve so quickly into what’s legal and what’s illegal, and the political points overwhelm the conversation. There’s no reason a congregation has to solve all of those problems before it can deal with the immigrants in its midst.”
The OGA’s office of Immigration Issues, in order to assist congregations in addressing the immigrants and immigration challenges in their communities, has created a whiteboard video, a twenty-three minute film—which was shown at Big Tent—and a resource page. Additionally, with the help of the Office of Public Witness, the office of Immigration Issues is collecting signatures on a letter asking the administration not to appeal Judge Dolly Gee’s July 24th ruling, which would release thousands of mothers and children from family detention facilities across the country. Finally, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is able to offer funding and support to ministries doing outreach for these families if their presbyteries make the request.