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Religious Leaders Stand Up For Immigrants At Border

Mallory Falk
Religious leaders march to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in El Paso.

The crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border has galvanized some American religious communities. Many congregations have thrown themselves into sheltering and advocating for migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. But the issue has also divided some churches.

Credit Mallory Falk / KERA News
Rev. Terri Hord Owens is General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada. She came to El Paso to show solidarity with her fellow religious leaders.

In El Paso, religious leaders from across the country gathered to speak out in support of migrants. On Sunday night, hundreds of people squeezed into El Paso's First Christian Church for a meeting. The crowd included Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Rev. Terri Hord Owens, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada, is the first black woman elected to lead a large Christian denomination.

"We can read our sacred text, we can pray our prayers, but unless we’re going to show up for humanity no one believes us," Rev. Owens said. "Our prayers and our texts are vain unless we show up for our brothers and sisters. Our babies. Our babies."

She said she rejects people using Christian texts to justify current immigration policies. When the Trump administration announced its family separation policy last summer, then-attorney general Jeff Sessions cited a Bible verse in its defense. Several high-profile evangelical leaders have shown unwavering support for President Trump’s immigration agenda. Last month, Jerry Falwell Jr. lashed out at a preacher who criticized conditions in Border Patrol facilities.

That kind of thing doesn’t make sense to Imam Omar Suleiman, who traveled to the meeting from Dallas.

"If you say that Jesus is in your heart but you would put him in a cage today, you are a hypocrite," Suleiman said.

On Monday, the interfaith assembly staged a protest outside an El Paso immigration detention facility. The Rev. William Barber helped organize the event.

"Particularly right now in America we've got this religious nationalism that’s on all the wrong sides of our religious values," Rev. Barber said.

Barber is an acclaimed civil rights leader from North Carolina. At a time where Christianity and politics are so closely intertwined, he said he is disturbed by what he hears from some fellow Christians.

Credit Mallory Falk / KERA News
The civil rights leader Rev. William Barber leads an interfaith meeting in El Paso on Sunday evening.

"They are against health care, they’re against gay people, they’re against voting rights, they’re for guns," Barber said. "They’re talking about 'It’s right to build walls.' And there has to be another witness. There always has been another witness. You had slaveholder religion, but then you had the religion of Frederick Douglass."

Barber said he believes recent changes to U.S. asylum policies contradict basic morals.

"Our deepest faith traditions tell us that we are to welcome the stranger. We are to treat the immigrant as our own family," he said.

Many in the interfaith group with were quick to point out that religious communities have a long history of sheltering migrants. Alison Harrington is a pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. Her congregation helped launch the sanctuary movement, back in the 1980s.

"We understand that sometimes living out our faith, there’s a cost to it," Harrington said. "But there’s a greater cost in terms of, like, our salvation if we fail to follow the commandments of scripture."

Harrigton says, since President Trump came into office, a growing number of churches are offering sanctuary to those immigrating into the country.

Rev. Abhi Janamanchi from Bethesda, Maryland, leads such a church. Janamanchi says came to El Paso to see what’s happening at the border but also to represent Doña Rosa, a woman with a deportation order who's lived in his Unitarian Universalist church since last December.

"She sends her love and her strength and the hope that something will change," Janamanchi said.

Alison Harrington, the pastor from Tucson, says sanctuary isn’t enough.

"It’s not just about providing these safe spaces within our house of worship, but working alongside directly impacted people so that every single inch of our nation is a sanctuary and people don’t have to live in constant fear," Harrington said.

Now, many of these religious leaders hope to bring that spirit back to their faith communities across the country. They’ve borne witness, they say — and now it’s time to push for change.

Mallory Falk covers El Paso and the border for KERA as part of The Texas Newsroom, a regional news hub linking stations across the state. She is part of the national Report for America program, which places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.