Georgia minister joins hunger strike

Georgia minister joins hunger strike

To protest immigration law, Unitarian Universalist minister Jeff Jones launches weeklong fast.


The Rev. Jeff Jones has not eaten for nearly a week, but a newspaper clipping is sustaining him.

It’s an article from his local Georgia paper, The Marietta Daily Journal, about two local men on a hunger strike protesting Georgia’s newly enacted immigration law. Jones was so inspired by their actions that he decided to embark on a hunger strike of his own in solidarity with them.

“I want to stand in affirmation with them and the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” said Jones, minister of the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Marietta. “We’re living the struggle of the civil rights movement. We have to keep lifting up what we value.”

The hunger strikers Jones joined are Salvador Zamora and Martin Altamirano, both members of the Cobb Immigrant Alliance. They began a hunger strike on July 1, the day Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law House Bill 87. The new law empowers Georgia police to investigate the immigration status of suspects. It also tightens hiring requirements for employers and makes it a crime to transport or hire illegal immigrants.

In addition to opposing H.B. 87, Zamora and Altamirano are also advocating for passage of the DREAM Act. An acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, the DREAM Act is a federal bill that would permit some immigrant students who have grown up in the United States to apply for temporary legal status and become eligible for U.S. citizenship if they go to college or serve in the U.S. military.

After Jones read about the hunger strikers and their goals, he got in touch with the director of the Cobb Immigrant Alliance to see how he could support them. And he entered into a two-day period of personal reflection to discern whether he could begin a hunger strike of his own. He decided to embark on a seven-day fast, and he has carried the newspaper clipping with him each day.

When Jones began his hunger strike on July 15, Zamora and Altamirano were taking a hiatus from theirs. Zamora had developed some health issues, so they paused their hunger strike and were contemplating whether and when to resume it. After consulting with his doctor, Jones decided to drink a mixture of water, honey, and lemon three times a day.

On day five of his hunger strike, Jones sent an email letter to members of his congregation informing them about his actions. He also wanted to let them know that he would be holding a press conference the next day in Marietta Square.

Turnout at the press conference was light. A Spanish-language TV crew attended, as did two local clergy and a few members of Emerson UU. Zamora and Altamirano were there, along with Rich Pellegrino, director of the Cobb Immigrant Alliance.

Pellegrino said Jones’s support of the strike was helpful. “The community is very happy for the support of a white minister,” he said. Cobb County, Ga., has been a difficult place to be an immigrant since H.B. 87 passed, said Pellegrino, who reported that many sections of town once inhabited by immigrants have become ghost towns. “This town has always been ground zero for anti-immigrant feeling,” Pellegrino said.

Karen Abel, president of the Emerson UU Congregation, also attended the press conference, wearing her “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirt. ( Standing on the Side of Love is the anti-oppression campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Association.) She noted that the congregation has not taken a stand on H.B. 87, so she was there representing her own views.

“I believe in immigration reform, and the way we’re going at it here in Georgia is more of a reactionary way, having the police rounding people up and tearing families apart. It’s more of a hate bill,” said Abel. She said she wanted to be at the press conference to show her support for reform and for Jones. “He is a man of conscience, and I’m very proud of him,” she said.

Last summer, Jones protested Arizona’s restrictive immigration law, Arizona Senate Bill 1070. He travelled to Phoenix with about 150 other Unitarian Universalists to protest that bill on July 29, 2010, the day it went into effect. Although Jones was not among the 29 UUs who were arrested, including UUA President Peter Morales, he described his experience of participating in the protest as “transformative.”

Jones heard other protestors yelling hateful things that made him uncomfortable. And at the same time, he saw one of his colleagues drop to her knees to pray, and he joined her. “I decided I would rather get arrested while praying,” he said.

After he returned to Georgia, Jones preached a sermon entitled “Arrested While Praying?” He told the congregation that peacemaking begins with peace in the heart. “You need to have peace in the heart, then peace in the home, then you have peace in the community and peace in the world.”

For this calendar year, the Emerson congregation has chosen immigration as a discussion theme. Members of the congregation are showing films and holding educational sessions and discussions to learn about immigration-related issues and actions.

By day six of his fast, Jones was feeling tired, but still very committed to the cause. Jones is five feet eight and had lost eight pounds, down to 158.8 from his already trim 167.

He reiterated that he stands in solidarity with immigrants, and he said he appreciates that “they play a valuable role in our communities and our economies.” Jones expressed concern that H.B. 87 has created a climate of hostility and fear that negatively affects all immigrants and all people of Georgia.

Jones remains hopeful that his hunger strike will call attention to the goal of Zamora and Altamirano and the Cobb Immigrant Alliance to inspire immigration reform rather than what they describe as “the current enforcement-only, harsh approach endorsed by Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, and other incarceration-minded states.”

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