Too often Congress is a place of sanctimony and not sanctity. But Amanda Craft of the PC(USA) Office of Immigration Issues recalled a visit this month to Capitol Hill when “the Holy Spirit was moving among us,” bringing advocates for just immigration policies together with lawmakers.
A PC(USA) delegation including Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, arrived for a meeting with the office of Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware) when — to the group’s surprise — the senator joined them.
Craft, Manager of Immigration Advocacy, said the PC(USA) team was there to advocate for wider protections for immigrants, a cause given added urgency by the Biden Administration’s proposed administrative rule that a recent PC(USA) Office of Public Witness (OPW) Action Alert explained “will effectively bar most of the migrants who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border from asylum.” The church also advocates for passage of the Dream Act and the Afghan Adjustment Act, legislation that would help migrants from around the world.
Members of New Castle Presbytery’s Immigrant Justice Committee (Terry Dykstra, the Rev. Lyle Dykstra, Marj Johnson) and Missional Presbyter, the Rev. Tracy Keenan, formed a key part of the PC(USA) delegation.
Constituent presence encouraged the senator’s personal attention, as well as Presbyterian connections. Coons attends a PC(USA) church in Delaware. His former pastor, the Rev. Jeff Krehbiel, is the brother of Susan Krehbiel, Associate for Migration Accompaniment Ministries with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance — one of the PC(USA) staff members visiting the Hill that day.
Coons, who has a seminary degree, spoke with his visitors for an hour. “We talked about the moment we’re in at the federal level,” Craft said, “and how the senator is seeking humanitarian compassionate relief, including pathways to citizenship for people who don’t currently have access.”
They also discussed the political realities of 2023, which require legislators sympathetic to expanded protections for migrants to negotiate with those who are not. In a visit with Rep. James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), the congressman bemoaned the House of Representatives’ failure to meaningfully debate just immigration reforms after the first months of the Biden administration.
Both Coons and Clyburn asked the PC(USA) for continued engagement, as well as prayer support. Coons asked Nelson to pray at the end of their meeting.
[The Interfaith Immigration Coalition produced a Lenten guide that can be useful in this liturgical season.]
“Most of us are connected to immigrants in this country,” Nelson said after the Hill visit. “When we read the words on the Statue of Liberty they’re saying in essence, ‘we’re welcoming people from across borders.’” Broadening protections for immigrants, including refugees and asylum seekers — “That’s what Jesus Christ would focus on.”
Craft said that Nelson’s presence on the Hill helped draw the time and attention of congressional staffs.
“I had been trying to get a meeting with the office of Senator Kyrsten Sinema [I-Arizona] for some time with help from Arizona church connections but couldn’t until our visit with the Stated Clerk, where we could leverage his position in the church,” Craft said.
Joining Craft, Nelson and Krehbiel on Capitol Hill were Catherine Gordon, Associate for International Issues with OPW, and Brunhilda Williams-Curington, Executive Assistant to the Stated Clerk. Prior to becoming Stated Clerk, Nelson directed OPW, which is now led by the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins.
Craft emphasized the importance of congregational and mid council engagement with immigrant issues. “New Castle Presbytery has an immigration justice committee, which is uncommon at the presbytery level. Immigration issues is usually addressed in larger justice-focused committees.” The group’s visit to the Hill is part of its renewed commitment to direct advocacy for immigrants.
“We are coming out of a time of pandemic, which opened up our ability to talk with senators and representatives over Zoom,” Craft said. “But the pandemic also made distances between people harder. How do we engage in meaningful ways that focus on change and our humanity and compassionate response to those coming to the border? How do we maintain that value knowing that immigration continues to be a tool either side can manipulate, emphasizing crisis over compassion?”
Being willing to speak truth to power, even when that means disagreeing with a legislator’s policy position or voting record, is important for faith groups wishing to bring about change. “We have to be strong and say where we don’t agree,” Craft said. “We want to lead with our values and principles, which guide us and the way we live together as we seek justice.
“Presbyterians have a history that gives us strength in these conversations. We have accompanied and advocated with migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. We have been struggling with these issues for a long time and we consistently land on the side of immigrants.”
[Read the 225th General Assembly (2022) overture declaring the PC(USA) a Shelter and Accompaniment Church.]
Craft noted that one of Nelson’s first trips as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly was to Central America. He has also visited the U.S.-Mexico border and congregations in the middle of the country where immigrant members have been detained by law enforcement or have sought sanctuary. “Being present at places of struggle is important to him,” Craft said.
Citing Nelson’s experience on the Hill with OPW, Craft said, “He embodies patience and understands the long game. That includes the need to push in each moment, even when the answer to a problem isn’t right around the corner. We need to stay committed to seeking justice.”
[Congregations and mid councils can learn more about advocating for just immigration by contacting Amanda Craft directly.]
Nelson spoke about the recent Hill visit in terms acknowledging the long game of politics while urging immediate assistance to immigrant communities.
“Unfortunately, we’re raising these issues now because we’ve forgotten about them,” Nelson said. “Many in this country are trying to keep others out. The nation is changing and becoming more diverse. A fear of change is something that has kept us from becoming what we can become.”
By “we” Nelson means the nation and the PC(USA).
“Immigration is a jump-starter for the church. We have not done the work that is needed in terms of our immigrant communities. We have fellowship churches that are not on the voting rolls of the denomination … Our membership is going to be based on how well we bring immigrants into the PC(USA).”
Nelson told the story of a D.C. church that inspired him with its outreach to immigrant cab drivers, which sees the congregation holding services for hours at a time to accommodate the new worshippers.
“Individuals who have arrived in the USA have created a home here. In many cases, immigrants are people we have taught biblical understanding through our mission work.
“We have to prepare our institutions for more immigrants, including our seminaries and so much else … We have to put our fear in our pocket and pull out what God calls love. We have to welcome people in.”
At the same time Nelson urges the PC(USA) and the wider faith community to engage Congress on just immigration policies, he asks interest groups and voters to examine the problem of money in elections.
“This political machine is broken right now, with the massive amounts a politician has to raise to win re-election. The ability to have a moral and ethical center in both parties is a struggle.
“Until we figure out a way to bring some moral authority to Capitol Hill, we’re going to be in the same place we are now.”
Contact Amanda Craft directly to plan your own PC(USA) church group meeting with elected officials.