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."

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