Soon after leaving Guatemala nine years ago, Viviana Vanegas and her family joined Bethel Presbyterian Church in Kingston, Tennessee, near Knoxville. Vanegas, her husband, Orlando, and their three children were the only immigrants in the 264-member congregation.
Since then, another immigrant family has joined, and Vanegas has been ordained as a ruling elder. She teaches Spanish classes for children and adults in her congregation. She also has helped organize a group that meets regularly for Bible study and advocacy on immigration issues. Bethel’s pastor, Wendy Neff, is part of the group.
Vanegas, who grew up Catholic, says what drew her to the Presbyterian church were the people. “They were really friendly and they loved my kids. Now the church is my family.”
The congregation has supported Vanegas as she has become increasingly involved in advocacy for immigration reform. The 46-year-old mother was in Washington, D.C., April 26–28, for an event sponsored by We Belong Together, a national coalition that describes itself as “women for common sense immigration reform.”
Vanegas joined some 1,200 people at a rally urging President Obama to stop the deportation of immigrants. Twelve protesters were arrested for sitting in front of the White House with arms locked and refusing to move. The act of civil disobedience was a response to what organizers called “an epidemic of deportations.”
According to We Belong Together, more than 6 million people have been deported from the United States since 1986. The coalition also says that 5.5 million children in the United States today have at least one undocumented parent and are at risk of losing one or both parents to deportation.
You know, I feel like I’m not alone anymore...
Nearly a decade ago, as skyrocketing immigration and the effects of a broken U.S. immigration system brought new challenges to congregations, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 216th General Assembly (2004) authorized the creation of an Office of Immigration Issues. General Assemblies have consistently called for comprehensive immigration reforms that would give priority to keeping families together.
Teresa Waggener, coordinator of immigration issues for the PC(USA), says the involvement of church members like Viviana Vanegas is the key to bringing about change.
“The church’s policy on immigration comes from General Assembly action that is drafted by and voted on by members,” Waggener says. “It only makes sense that the actions the church takes around immigration are member-driven as well. The Office of Immigration Issues is here to support those members, like Viviana, who are passionate about just immigration reform, with resources, information, and network building.”
Waggener encourages Presbyterians to connect with others involved in immigration issues by joining the advocacy coalition Presbyterians for Just Immigration. Coalition members receive updates on developments related to immigration and information about training events, webinars, and other resources.
Vanegas says she heard about Presbyterians for Just Immigration from a member of her congregation and called Waggener’s office to learn more. Connecting with the national church led to her participation last August in Big Tent, a celebration of PC(USA) mission and ministry in Louisville, Kentucky.
“You know, I feel like I’m not alone anymore,” Vanegas says of her involvement in Presbyterians for Just Immigration. “I have people who support me, who understand why I am here.”
She wishes more U.S. citizens could understand that immigrants “are just people like them who are looking for a better life, who work hard and love America.” Presbyterians who support justice for immigrants can make a difference, she believes.
“I’m asking people to take action,” she says. “They can write a letter. They can make a phone call. People who can vote have the power to change things.”