Sunday, September 13, 2009

In solidarity: Faith group visits Decorah to learn about local faith coalition's efforts on behalf of immigrant workers

by Julie Berg-Raymond
Pastor David Vasquez
A framed poster leans against the wall outside room 201 at the First United Methodist Church (UMC) in Decorah: "Celebrate our differences, celebrate our similarities," it proclaims.

Contextually speaking, the sentiment is apt -- the people inside the room are listening to a presentation on Decorah UMC's Sister Parish linkage with Potrerillos, El Salvador.

"The idea is to go and be a part of another person's life," they are told.

This delegation of retired and semi-retired people from First Congregational United Church of Christ in Algonquin, Ill. visited Decorah last week. Hosted by the Decorah Area Faith Coalition, the group came here as part of a study trip to learn about immigration issues and reform.

Through the Sister Parish relationship, the visitors learn, participants "travel as peacemakers, opting for and identifying with the poor, being one with Christ and thus reflecting the quality gifts of a shared spirit: a deeper faith, a broader vision, a greater understanding of important issues, and new relationships... The goal is to foster mutual understanding and a commitment to peace and justice among people" (

The idea of embracing a common commitment, across cultures, to peace and justice, is not an unfamiliar one among the people gathered in room 201. One of them, Rev. Michael Mulberry, pastor of the United Church of Byron in Byron, Ill., has spent time in Chiapas, Mexico and in Guatemala -- where, he tells the others, whole communities are without wage earners and heads of household because they've gone to the United States, hoping to make enough money to support their families.

"These are the places where I feel God on my skin," Mulberry says.

Having heard and read about the May 12, 2008 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on Agriprocessors Inc., in Postville, one of the visitors, John Novak, says he "couldn't believe anything like that could ever happen... Ever since, I've been interested in finding out how it happened and why it happened."

Another visitor, Dick Elke, concurs.

"Based on things I've read, and seeing things in the media, it just appeared that there's a lot of injustice going on in immigration today," he says. "[This trip] has been extremely educational, very informative - a real eye-opener... There's a bit of me that's very angry now. I'm looking for a place to help."

Indeed, the visitors all say that's a large part of the reason they came to Northeast Iowa -- to learn how they might help, from people who've been trying to do just that.

Prior to their arrival in Decorah, the group spent time in Dubuque and viewed the film, "POSTVILLE - a pre-raid documentary," and visited Postville -- meeting with Paul Rael of St. Bridget's Catholic Church and with Gary Patterson and the Postville Response Coalition.

Project Jubilee

Once in Decorah, in addition to learning about Sister Parish, the group met with Project Jubilee organizers.

Project Jubilee is a no-interest loan program set up in Decorah to allow nine men who are being detained as material witnesses in the cases against Agriprocessors Inc. resulting from the 2008 raid, to repay the crippling debts they owe loan sharks -- debts they incurred in order to come to the United States, seeking to support their families.

Leslie Sand and Dave and Brenda Carlson, all of Decorah, talked about Project Jubilee with the delegation from Illinois.

"We know they're going to be deported," Sand says, in reference to the nine men. "We wondered, 'How can we help them have something to go home to?'"

Sand described the conditions of the loan program and provided an update on repayment progress -- noting that one of the men owes a remaining balance of only $660 on his loan, and explaining that all the men continue to make payments on their loans.

Don Schmidt, a retired UCC pastor from Algonquin, says he was touched by the commitment of area residents who raised money and awareness with the loan project.

"I salute you folks; this is a wonderful thing you've done and are doing," he says. "With your enthusiasm, you're bound to affect other people."

But Dave Carlson says it's a two-way street.

"This community has given a lot," he says. "But [the nine guys] have given us more."

Faith coalition member, Decorah UMC's Rev. Carol Kress, agrees. "It's changed us as a community," she says about the experience of befriending the nine men. "We're different people, now."

Rev. David Vasquez

and immigration reform

Before heading home to Illinois, the group met with Pastor David Vasquez from Luther College, whose presentation brought socio-economic history and analysis into a dynamic conversation with scriptural texts and teachings.

"Today, we have the largest number of people on the move in the history of the world," Vasquez notes -- between and among countries, and within the U.S., itself.

At the same time, though, outdated and inappropriate U.S. immigration laws -- laws that have always been created, Vasquez says, "to reflect a particular interest on the part of the culture" and that were changed as different groups started coming into the country, over time -- have failed to keep in touch with economic reality.

At a time when a broader shift in the US finds people moving away from rural areas into cities, and when Iowa is facing a tendency to train people and send them off to other states (according to a study commissioned by the University of Iowa), Postville has demonstrated a reversal of those trends.

But, says Vasquez, complicated and out-of-touch immigration laws are disrupting and crippling communities like Postville, even as they are trying to find a way forward.

And we should not forget, says Vasquez, that immigration is nothing new.

"Every single character in the Bible is an immigrant," he says. "Something happens in the immigrant experience that exposes us to the Divine."

Furthermore, these encounters, involving the unfamiliar as they tend to do, can give rise to fear.

In the Bible, Vasquez says, "every time a human being has an encounter with the Divine, one phrase is repeated: 'Do not be afraid.'" In national political life, "the moment we begin to make our national decisions out of fear, we become really stupid."

The Church, says Vasquez, as the voice of the Divine in daily life, has to become involved in the movement for immigration reform. The consequences of not doing so, he says, are dire.

"We will lose our soul if we don't participate in this," he says. "Our children will know if we acted in a way consistent with our values and our faith, or if we were fakes."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Musings from Rev. Michelle Prentice-Leslie

Good News from Guatemala

      What does justice served feel like?  I've never been involved in a lawsuit, let alone one in which I was on the winning side, but some of you may have, so you may  be able to respond to this question more adequately than I. 
      Whatever justice feels like, I think I've experienced some of its feelings, however, this past week, with some surprising good news from Guatemala. As many of you know, I have been doing short term mission work in Guatemala since 1988, through the civil war (yes, with armed soldiers harassing us) and in years following it (yes, with armed soldiers harassing us).  During the Civil War, almost one million indigenous Guatemalans (we call them “Mayans,” you know, the ones who built the pyramids of Central America) were murdered, disappeared (that's a verb in this case) or forced to flee the country.  Guatemala is roughly the size of Tennessee, and had a population at that time of eleven million people.  So, if that number of people lost would be transported to the United States, it would be equivalent to losing to violence about 28 million people.
      I have made friends with, supported and advocated for some of those indigenous Guatemalans who lost family members, and/or those who themselves were tortured and/or raped, suffering all manner of unspeakable brutality, but who survived.  It's been thirteen years since the Peace Accords were officially signed.  There have been numerous excavations of mass graves where massacres occurred and meticulous record keeping of the dead so ill-regarded by their own country.  There have been numerous identifications of perpetrators by indigenous victims or family members of victims.  There have been numerous stays, blocks, intimidations and murders of forensic scientists, attorneys, and judges who have tried to pursue justice for victims. This year, this month, is the first successful indictment, prosecution and sentencing of one military leader involved in any of the atrocities perpetrated by the Guatemalan government and its mercenaries, aided by our USA government (yes, the USA was involved; some of us knew it before the official evidence, then the Freedom of Information Act of 1996 revealed the evidence).  
      Felipe Cusanero was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 150 years' imprisonment for the disappearances (i.e., murder) of six indigenous persons in the village of Choatalum in the Guatemalan state of Chimaltenango.  The 150 years represents 25 years' penalty for each of his six victims (that we know of).  (Another military man was convicted in 1999 of dozens of killings but none of those was termed 'disappearance,' which is an added layer of criminality.) 
      I try to imagine what it must have been like to be sitting in that court room among victims and families of victims.  I try to imagine what they must have thought and felt as they observed and heard legal proceedings, wondering, at any point, the trial would, again as in hundreds of times before, be halted or thwarted by the powers that be.  I try to imagine what they must have thought and felt as they thought about the years Felipe Cusanero has been able to live all these years, as a criminal on the lam in broad daylight, while they endured the pain of grief over lost loved ones.  I tried to imagine what they must have thought and felt when the verdict was delivered and the sentence pronounced.
      I realize I cannot.  What I feel -- so many thousands of miles away, in an entirely different and much safer political context -- is much gratitude, relief, vindication. But I know it would take Jesus Himself to enable me to actually feel what they must have felt.  It would take Jesus Himself for me to know true compassion, from the Latin com paseo, which means “to feel with.”  Still, what I do feel is indescribable.  All I know is that it feels very, very good.
            How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?
            Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the
            lowly and the destitute. - Psalm 82:2-3

Algonquin UCC travels to Postville and Decorah, Iowa

“I went on the trip to Postville and Decorah with my mind pretty much made up about the illegal immigrant. However after hearing about the immigration raid on the meat processing plant in Postville and seeing the awesome commitment of the folk in both places my mind and heart was changed. What an awesome experience!”
The above quote from one of the five participants in our trip to Postville and Decorah comes as a result of the wonderful job Mike Mulberry did in setting up the agenda for us and taking us to meet some very committed and exciting folk who have been involved in the drama of the raid and the aftermath.
Our decision to make this trip came as a result of a seven week study of the immigration issues during Lent of this year during which we looked at where we or our ancestors came from, the Bible as the Immigration handbook, DVDs on the subject, NAFTA, immigration laws over the past 100 years +, and what is happening now in immigration reform.
We were deeply moved by the way people and churches faced the challenge of the immigration raid on the Kosher meat processing plant in Postville late last year. Their efforts to help the women and children left behind and suffering from the harassment and their work with the nine witnesses from Guatemala who have been detained for five months and now await the trial and are deeply in debt. The emotional cooperation between the churches and with in the community was very inspiring.
We urge others to learn about these people and the undocumented workers and work for immigration reform just as we intend to do.

If you are interested in taking a two to three day delegation yourself, please contact Rev. Mike Mulberry, or call him at 815-234-8777.

Join a BorderLinks Delegation to Chicago this Fall

Learn Firsthand about the Realities of the Immigration Debate

We are excited to announce that registration is open for a unique immersion experience in Chicago. For three days this fall we will learn about the realities of the immigration debate from those who live them daily. The tentative agenda includes:
- Lodging at San Adalberto United Methodist Church, a congregation providing sanctuary to immigrants under deportation orders as an act of civil disobedience. Flor Crisostomo, currently in sanctuary there, will host us;
- Participation in a weekly prayer vigil with deportees headed to the airport for immediate deportation;
- A visit with day laborers and a nonprofit which supports justice for immigrant workers;
- A meeting with representatives from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE);
- Worship/Reflection opportunities, cultural events, and suggestions for how to take action for justice in the immigration system.

The delegation is sponsored by BorderLinks, an organization on the US/Mexico border which has been providing immersion experiences for over a decade. This delegation will inaugurate the "Beyond the Border" series: experiences with immigrants around the USA. Leadership of the delegation will be shared between BorderLinks staff and local partners in Chicago.

The November delegation is open to individuals or small groups, but space is limited. If your group of 13+ people (high school age and up) would like to book the entire delegation, please contact the BorderLinks office as soon as possible.

Dates: Thursday, November 12 through Sunday, November 15, 2009. The trip begins and ends in the late afternoon.

For more information, please contact the BorderLinks office in Tucson, AZ at 520-628-8263 and ask for the Education Department.


San Cristóbal de Las Casas February to May 2009   

Dear sisters and brothers, with the strength and warmth of the morning sun and the freshness of the afternoon rains, we send you heart to heart greetings from this beautiful town of San Cristóbal. We also want to share with you news of what has been going on during the last months in our work towards another possible world, one with greater justice and peace for each and everyone. We hope that you will enjoy it and we are, as always, grateful for your support on this path.

*Spring renovation*
Months go by, activities and changes too. In February of this year we had our General Assembly and also a course on John Calvin with a guest, Irena Backus. This was been our way of celebrating the anniversary of Calvin’s birth, recognizing the importance of this figure for many of our churches.

Then in March we received two foreign groups: first brothers and sisters from the Czech Republic, for a few days and a very nice time of exchange. Then a delegation of students came from the US to bring us support in the construction project. We also had the 4th session of the Course on Pastoral Accompaniment in cases of Domestic Violence (DAPVF).

April has been a time for receiving visits and working on our projects with our partners, the Mennonite Central Committee of Mexico and DMexchange and mission from Switzerland. From there, the whole month of May has been dedicated to activities of the Week of Prayer for Unity of Christians, with devotionals, sports, meetings and a beautiful, ecumenical closing ceremony.

In these months the time also came to say thankyou to our friends and colleagues Kirstin Soares, Maeva Arnold and Pascal Feller for al the work, time and commitment they dedicated to INESIN. It is not a goodbye because we know that we shall meet again and we wish them a path with many flowers and blessings.

*Strengthening Communities*
· Ecology workshops for secondary school students in Pablo L. Sidar, Chicomuselo,Pacayal and Zapotillo (February-May)
· Participation in a workshop on sewage water in Comitán (February)
· Birth Workshop in Trinitaria (February)
· Visits to the communities of Chamic and Pablo L. Sidar to present the results of the diagnostic on trash management (February)
· Participation in a forum on adequate energies in Oaxaca (March)
· Manure and compost workshop in Zinacantan (March)
· Presentation of the final report in the trash management diagnostic project (March)
· Visits to rural communities (Pacayal, Zapotillo, Pablo L. Sidar, Chamic, San Gregorio) to support the ecumenical groups of the community gardens project with workshops and socio-cultural presentations (February-May).

*Ecumenical Studies*
· Course on John Calvin at INESIN with Dr. Irena Backus (February)
· Preparation of the Week of Prayer for Unity of Christians 2009 (February-May)
· 1st session of the 2nd generation of the Ecumenical Course on Pastoral Reading of the Bible at INESIN –DLPB (April)
· Preparation, coordination y evaluation of 2 meetings of the Ecumenical Group of Reality Analysis in Chiapas –GEARC (February-May)
· Ecumenical Workshop on Biblical Hebrew for local translators – 3 sessions (February-May)
· Participation in the Peace School of SERAPAZ in Mexico City – 2 modules (March-May)
· Meeting with representatives of 3 catholic parishes for an introduction to ecumenism (April)
· Activities and celebrations of the Week of Prayer for Unity of Christians 2009 in San Cristóbal (May)

*Gender Studies*
· Support to the organization and coordination of the course on John Calvin with Dr. Irena Backus (February)
· Preparation, realization and evaluation of the 4th session of the Course on Pastoral Accompaniment in cases of Domestic Violence – DAPVF (February-March)
· Preparation and coordination of the 5th session of the same course - DAPVF (April-May).

*Mayan Indian Theology*
· 1st follow-up workshop with graduates of the Indian Theology Systematization Course - DISTI (March)
· Correction, printing and distribution of the official report of the 2008 Ecumenical Mayan Indian Theology Gathering (April)
· Participation in the meeting of the Ecumenical Coordination of Indian Mayan Theology in Yucatan (May).

*Capacity Building*
· Excavation work with the delegation to prepare the site for house building (March)
· Synthesis and presentation of annual reports to the Associates of INESIN’s Assembly (February)
· Reception of a group from Czech Republic (March)
· Reception and coordination of a student delegation from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, USA (March)
· Investigation and contacts to hire an architect for the building of the house. (February-May)
· Coordination and systematization of two institutional planning meetings (February-April)
· Realization and systematization of 4 INESIN work team coordination meetings (February-May)
· Renting of lodging and food services to six local groups and civil organizations (February-May)

*External Relations, Contact with partner organizations*
· Visit of Padre Henry Mc Laughlin (February)
· Work visit of Ricardo Torres from the Mennonite Central Committee of Mexico (April)
· Work visit (evaluation and planning) of Nancy Carrasco from DM- exchange and mission, Switzerland (April)
· Edition and distribution of INESIN’s seventh Newsletter in 3 languages (February-March).

Words of evaluation from students of Madison’s Universityof Wisconsin, after spending a week at INESIN:
· My heart is full, filled with people I had never known before. It is broken by many wounds, it will cure trough my actions with others for change. It has hope for the good that so many people are doing…
· What I’m taking into my heart after spending some unforgettable days with INESIN’s people is hope and passion to change. In order to continue fighting. To continue looking for remedies. To look for peace at any time. Not to forget to pray and find God even at the moments when one feels lost. My heart is filled with humility, laughs, good memories and friendships, and above all with Love. Thank you!

Chiapas Global Justice Trip - June 14-24, 2010 United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities

Faculty Trip Leader: Chris Smith

Assistant Leader: Don Christensen

In Country Trip Leader – Teresa Ortiz – Mexican educator from the Twin Cities who lived and worked in Chiapas

Estimated Price: 20 participants - $1750 15 participants - $1875

Airfare and trip expenses included, this price does not include course tuition.

Description: Until the Spanish conquest over 500 years ago, the country we know as Mexico today was the land of indigenous people. This began a long history of slavery, oppression, and genocide that still continues throughout Mexico. This trip will focus on the southern most state of the country, Chiapas. While there we will experience the pervasive strength of Mayan indigenous culture and spirituality. We will meet individuals and communities working for change and liberation there: 1. The ongoing struggle for autonomy and liberation of the Zapatistas, 2. The active non-violence strategies of Las Abejas, and 3. The liberation theology influence of Bishop Samuel Ruiz who served the Diocese of San Cristobal for over thirty years. During our time in Chiapas we will visit co-operatives, ecological projects, religious communities, worship in Acteal with Las Abejas, and spend time with some of the Zapatista leaders.

Deadline For Initial Refundable Deposit: September 15, 2009

This trip is open to UTS students first, and then we always welcome guests. If you have further questions please call Chris Smith at 651-255-6128 or e-mail her at

Name ______________________ E – Mail ________________________

Telephone ___________________ Address ________________________________

For guests, will you please send your $200 deposit made out to United Theological Seminary, and the simple form above into Adam Pfuhl, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, 3000 Fifth Street Northwest, New Brighton, MN 55112


  1. At some point in the process you will need to pay a $225 audit fee
  2. If you are not an alum of the seminary, and you have not enrolled

as a non degree student before this trip, you will need to fill out

a non degree student application form at some point as well

3. If you are a clergy person you will have the opportunity to take the

course for professional continuing education

You do not need to take care of anything right now except the initial deposit and turning in the basic information above to Adam Pfuhl.