WAXAHACHIE, Texas (Mennonite Mission Network) – For three days, Mennonite pastors and lay leaders gathered to re-visit the question originally posed to Jesus by a teacher of the law: “Who is my neighbor?”
Over the course of a weekend, conference goers reclaimed a common humanity and recommitted themselves to welcoming and walking alongside one another, just as the Good Samaritan supported the wounded man.
“This parable teaches us how to deal with “outsiders,” and it shows us that those who come from ‘the outside’ are the ones who teach us. When we talk about our neighbor, we are talking about millions of Christian brothers and sisters,” said Dr. M. Daniel Carroll Rodas, the keynote speaker for the weekend.
Encountering immigration in the Bible
Carroll, a distinguished professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary
, provided three keynote addresses. Raised in a bi-cultural home, Carroll first began to think about issues surrounding immigration when he returned to the United States after teaching for 15 years at SETECA,
a seminary in Guatemala City. Carroll realized that conversations he was having with Christians surrounding immigration weren’t different from secular conversations Since then, he has been working with churches and Christian groups to reframe the conversation surrounding immigration in a Christian framework.
“I believe the Bible responds to human reality right now. It can orient the national, it orients the immigrant, and it can orient us all as we engage each other and the government,” said Carroll.
During the conference, Carroll outlined a biblical framework for looking at and talking about immigration. Beginning with texts from the Old Testament and moving throughout the Bible, Carroll highlighted stories and laws that speak directly to the modern immigration debate.
“In Genesis we learn that humans are the culmination of creation, so when we talk about immigration, we can’t begin the conversation with law and politics. That is where the culture wants to start. We need to begin our conversation with the understanding that all people are made in the image of God,” said Carroll.
Carroll explored how immigrant culture impacted Biblical figures like Daniel, an exile who held on to his cultural traditions in a foreign land, or Ruth, an immigrant to the land of her in-laws who assimilates as much as possible and becomes one of King David’s ancestors. Joseph, sent to Egypt by his brothers, gains prestige in his new home but never forgets his “mother tongue.”
And certainly Jesus’ own life, begun as a refugee in Egypt, is marked by acute understanding of what it means to be a foreigner.
“Each of these ‘immigrants’ acted as protagonists in a different cultural context; they were not simply victims of their circumstances, but rather individuals with the faith and integrity to affect their world in constructive ways, said Carroll.
Carroll also discussed biblical law and its relevance to conversations on immigration. Using examples from Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Carroll illustrated ways that laws of the land reflect a culture’s values, and said God’s law favors the sojourner.
“Biblical law is a lens through which we can see and interpret reality truly. The culture doesn’t have this lens, so it’s the church’s job to raise its voice of truth,” said Carroll.
Worship and work together
Members of several local congregations led communal worship, focusing on themes like “Solidarity and hope” and “Toward a new humanity.” Participants raised songs, hymns and prayers in both Spanish and English.
Workshops designed to equip participants to carry on conversations at home. Latino pastors from the Dallas area shared some of their own experiences with ministry in the city. Many of the pastors minister to congregations with undocumented members, and all but one of the pastors are bi-vocational and work full-time in another job.
“Our key for welcoming people is to present Jesus Christ as he has not been introduced before. Our church has embraced Anabaptism. Violence is a part of the city, and to hear a word of God in the way of nonviolence and truth is unique,” said Esther Vazquez, pastor of House of Healing Mennonite Church in Dallas.
In other workshops, Mennonite Central Committee
representatives shared information from their recent study on immigration among churches in the U.S. and offered other congregational resources. And Dorothy Nickel Friesen, Western District conference minister, led participants in a case study of Anglo congregations engaging conversations on immigration.
Continuing the conversation
On Sunday, Jodi Read led attendees in the process of creating an advocacy plan to use when they returned home. She asked each person to identify several key learnings from the weekend, to choose five people to share this information with, to imagine several ideas for sharing within individual congregations, and to name God’s call to them arising from the weekend.
Marty Troyer, pastor of Houston Mennonite Church
, invited conference-goers to signify their commitment to working together to welcome neighbors. Troyer invited people to kneel and to bow their heads, as a symbol of trust and loyalty.
“Let us go out of here together, hand-in-hand, and go out from here changed into friends. We have lots of work to do,” said Troyer.
A panel of people who work with immigration on a daily basis also challenged participants to get involved.
“I hope that this experience is not just a time of enjoying seeing people, but planning to put into practice what we heard,” said Sandra Martinez-Montes, a member of Iglesia Menonita Mi Redentor (Mennonite Church of My Redeemer) in Richardson, Texas. “Immigration is not just an issue. It is about our own neighbors.”
M. Daniel Carroll Rodas is also the author of a book, Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church and the Bible (Baker, 2008).