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Immigration 'close to home' for Southwestern UUs

Border state UUs concerned about Mexican immigrant rights.
By Donald E. Skinner
5.26.06

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Immigration is a geographically distant issue for many people, but for Unitarian Universalist congregations in southwest border states it can be just over the fence.

The 120-member UU Congregation of Green Valley, Arizona, is 40 miles from the Mexican border. It is an everyday matter, according to the Rev. Linda Bunyard, to walk out into the desert and find empty water bottles, clothing, campsites, even full backpacks thrown down by people who were fleeing from authorities the night before.

When Bunyard came to the congregation six years ago members wanted to get more involved in immigration issues. So they and members of the local United Church of Christ invited Green Valley residents to a meeting. More than 200 came. Out of that meeting came the Santa Cruz Valley Border Issues Coalition. Members of the coalition routinely walk or drive out into the nearby desert to pick up trash and find immigrants who might need help. They provide emergency food and water and medical assistance. What they don’t do is give rides to anyone they find. That’s illegal. “We’re trying to save lives, not break the law,” Bunyard said.

As part of the local interfaith council, Bunyard speaks to various groups about immigration issues. “We want people to understand the economic and political reasons for such a volume of people making this trek,” she said. “It wasn’t this way 15 and 20 years ago. Parts of Mexico have been devastated by the world economy. Another reason for Mexico’s unemployment is that many factories that used to line the border have moved to Asia for cheaper labor.”

June Wortman is former chair of the social action committee at the Green Valley congregation. The retired social worker, who, as a child, was held in a detention camp by the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II, wears her liberal credentials proudly. On her shirt she wears two pins—a rainbow diversity pin and one that says No More Deaths, the name of a local group fighting to keep immigrants from dying in the desert.

She supports local immigrant aid groups and writes letters to the newspaper responding to some of the anti-immigration letters that appear.

“I’d like to see Unitarian Universalists speaking out much more on this issue,” she said. “All churches should speak out. Jesus taught that we should take care of our brothers and strangers. We’re not doing that.” Many churches in Green Valley are divided on the immigration issue, she said, and consequently don’t take a stand.

The 70-member First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles has a front-row seat on the immigration issue, but no one is sitting down. Members are out marching, lobbying, and supporting immigrants in other ways. That’s partly because the issue is under their own roof. “We have undocumented people in our congregation,” said the Rev. Monica Cummings. “Their landlords threaten to report them and the police harass them while walking for no apparent reason. These are actual Unitarian Universalists who are undocumented. This is very close to home.”

First Unitarian attracts Hispanic and Latina/Latino visitors and members because of its Msgr. Oscar A. Romero Spanish-speaking Ministry, which presents a service in Spanish on the second Sunday of every month and an educational forum on social justice issues every fourth Sunday. First Unitarian has a history of supporting oppressed peoples. It was part of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s, one of many churches to shelter and protect Salvadoran refugees.

The UU Community of El Paso, Texas, with 106 members, is also deeply committed to immigration issues. The youth group volunteers regularly at Annunciation House, a Catholic-run house for refugees. Last year the youth group made a garden for the house. UUs support the house with donations and sometimes cook meals.

The Rev. LoraKim Joyner, the UU Community cominister, is chair of the immigration task force of the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, a community organizing group. UU Community members attend nearly every immigration rally in the area and Joyner has written numerous letters to the newspaper as well as two op-ed pieces about immigration.

Two summers ago the congregation conducted religious services for a detention center that houses unaccompanied minors from Central and South America who are picked up crossing the border. That’s how Joyner and her husband, co-minister Meredith Garmon, came to take in two teenage boys from Honduras. Youth from the detention home are generally sent back to their parents when authorities can identify them, Joyner explained. Because these two boys had fled from abusive homes—and were going to be sent back there—Joyner and Garmon took them in. Both are now in school and pursuing U.S. residency. “It kind of surprised us that we did this,” said Joyner. “We’re middle-aged people who didn’t expect to be raising teenagers. But they have really been a gift to us. They bring us out of our American Anglo world and into the world of healing diversity.”

She said that in some ways the Iraq war is a bigger issue for the congregation than immigration. “We’re an Army town and we have many members of the congregation in the military. Immigration is what we live with every day. It’s just part of our lives. Most of the families we interact with are immigrants. On both these issues, the war and immigration, we have to make sure we are inclusive at church so that it is a safe place for everyone, no matter what their belief.”

She encourages UU congregations to learn as much as they can about immigration so they can push for better immigration policies. “The current system is racist, classist, antiquated, and tears families apart,” she said. “Part of the learning we must do is not just in our heads, but in our hearts. We need to remember what we know deeply in our being—that we are more whole in our diversity and that all are part of the great human family.”


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