Creating a Safe Place to Talk about Immigration

By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (September 6, 2013) — Two members of the Covenant’s Commission on Christian Action (CAC) and a local pastor stressed the need for people to truly listen to one another’s stories and opinions during a roundtable discussion on the proposed Resolution on Immigration.

They also emphasized that the issue was ultimately about individual people and about living as Christians—not about legislation.

The discussion was webcast live Thursday morning and is available online.

“We have to recognize this is a very complicated issue, but it is an issue about very real people,” said Amanda Olson, pastor of Grace Covenant Church in Chicago. “And everyone needs to be heard.”

“First and foremost, it’s really creating a place or a space for community where it’s safe to have those conversations—whether it be immigration, or homosexuality, or women in ministry,” she said. “These are all still very real things. We need to have a safe place where we can disagree.”

Olson also emphasized that “We need to learn skills on how to dialogue and hear one another because our political rhetoric has become so combative. The ‘conversation’ so often is about trying to convert someone and devalue their understanding and where they are that we’re really unable to ask questions and pull stories from people and seek understanding. The truth often is in the middle.”

Having those discussions can be difficult, Olson acknowledged. “There are people who are all over the place on what they believe would be an acceptable form of immigration. It seems to me that most people agree that there needs to be reform. You take the next step of what that’s going to look like, and that’s another whole can of worms.”

She recently preached on immigration, and the church has had multiple conversations on the topic. Olson expressed gratitude that people were willing to share their aspirations and experiences as immigrants. “At the same time we also have to make sure that we don’t shut down people who have other stories,” she added.

John Tanagho, a Covenant attorney, who spoke at the Annual Meeting in June about the legal complexities of immigration, said it’s important to acknowledge the fears and concerns of citizens who are unsure what reform will bring, or those who have been influenced by unfair stereotypes. Such stereotypes include assumptions that people who arrive in the United States illegally often commit crimes, or that attaining citizenship is easy.

Those stereotypes are dehumanizing, participants agreed.

Evelmyn Ivens is a legal immigrant who recently graduated from North Park Theological Seminary, and also a CAC member. She said this discussion can be painful for her friends who are here illegally. Describing friends who arrived on a visa but have extended their stay, she said, “They are…really good members of the community. They pay taxes every year. It’s just hurtful. I think it comes to a label of being kind of invisible when you’re still contributing.”

More important, Christians must approach this issue differently than the rest of the world does, participants said.

“We have to understand what our identity is as a Christian, and we have to decide what is our primary identity. ‘Am I going to be primarily a Christian? Am I going to be primarily a Republican or a Democrat? Am I going to be primarily socially conservative or liberal? What’s my primary identity?’ ” Olson asked.

Olson added that she and others need help with the conversation and moving forward. “For some of us as individuals, we don’t have as much power as we do as a people of the Evangelical Covenant Church…so I look to our denomination to help lead us into those places where I, as a local church pastor, am not going to have the opportunity to meet face to face with other denomination leadership or in Washington or at our local state levels. So leading on that but so also showing me—as a pastor and also as a Christian—what are things that I can do to look at this holistically? Not just putting a Band-aid on a wound that is going to continue to fester, but how is it that we really get at it and help?…How do we live into those messy places?”

Covenanters are invited to submit comments, edits, resources, and thoughts regarding the draft resolution to the CAC through October 15, 2013. The input will help the commission prepare the resolution in its final format for the 2014 Annual Meeting.

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