Guest commentary by Wendy Neff
The announcement on Tuesday to let DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) expire in six months was crushing for our community of faith. About 10 years ago an immigrant family from Central America moved to our town and rented a house from a church member. As you do in our part of the world, he invited this new family to worship at Bethel Presbyterian Church. Although they didn’t have a full grasp of English at the time and they were Roman Catholics, they accepted the invitation and came to worship.
Because Bethel is a welcoming congregation, there are no barriers or hurdles to extending hospitality to those who come. The immigrant family was welcomed – those who had a little Spanish offered it to help the visitors feel welcomed. And they did. Within a few months, the family joined the church. In the intervening years, the children have all been confirmed and they have gone on mission trips and to youth conferences. The mother was ordained as an elder and serves on church teams. For several years she taught community Spanish classes to both children and adults. The immigrant family became church family in every sense of the word.
Because we got to know them, members of the congregation began to ask questions about immigration in the United States. What did it entail? Who was legal and who was not? How did one become a legal immigrant? What did all that mean for the church and more importantly what did it mean for these new members of our family?
The church engaged in a series of studies to understand our call as Christians and as people of faith around issues of immigration. We studied Scripture and the PC(USA) positions over the years on immigration and immigration reform. We learned about the process of legal immigration and why people come without documents. We engaged with the PC(USA) Office on Immigration as well as local immigration advocacy groups near us. We listened, we prayed, we discussed and many of us found ourselves transformed in the process.
As we read and studied the stories of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar we recognized that God’s people are immigrant people, always moving into new places. The story of Exodus and the formation of God’s people in the wilderness made clearer our call to be different than those around us in our care for the least and most vulnerable including the alien or stranger among us. The words of the prophet Micah that God wants God’s people to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God called us to wade into the complexities of the immigration system and process to see what was broken and how we might respond in ways that promote the good of all. Jesus’ command to love God and our neighbor as ourselves was freshly real as we thought about the immigrants not only in our church family but the larger community as well.
These new understandings coupled with our growing relationship with our immigrant family made us keenly aware of the challenges that undocumented immigrants face. The one that came into great focus for us was how to ensure that the oldest child could attend college. He excelled in high school and earned great scores on the SAT, but without a social security number, his chances were bleak. And then there was the matter of cost. Even if he could get into a state school, he would have to pay out-of-state tuition and he wasn’t eligible for grants or student aid, including work study. Members at the church refused to accept that reality and were able to work with others and get him enrolled in college.
When DACA became available, our congregation felt great hope. DACA not only eliminated the threat of deportation and separation of families, but opened doors for education and work that previously had been closed. Our immigrant family – along with the larger church family – could now feel that the children were safe. DACA meant that these young people could go to college and be eligible for some financial aid. They could earn degrees and work in the fields in which they were called. Beyond school and work, DACA allowed these young adults to fully participate in the ministry of the church as they went on the international mission trip the church took two years ago.
For the last seven years, DACA has allowed these young adults to fully engage in their studies and their work. It has allowed them to volunteer in the community and enjoy life without the fear of deportation looming in the background. DACA has given these young adults the opportunity to reach their full potential in this country and it has given the country the opportunity to benefit from their incredible gifts of leadership, compassion, intelligence, hard work and integrity.
With Tuesday’s announcement, that has changed. The DACA recipients of course want to continue to go to school, work and contribute to the greater good in this country, but the lives of 800,000 young adults, including our three, leaders at their colleges and workplaces, have been thrown into disarray. After years of doing well in school, contributing to their communities and sharing their gifts, their futures are suddenly uncertain. The questions abound: Will he be able to keep his job? Will she be able to stay in college? Will the government use the information about where he is to find him and deport him?
These young adults are now at risk or at least in a state of uncertainty about their future. That uncertainty impacts college campuses, local communities, workplaces, and faith communities. We know from our relationships of the energy, imagination and love these young people contribute to our local and national communities. We have been enriched by their gifts, strengthened by their faith and encouraged by their friendship. We know that our faith community and this country are better because they are part of us.
We are saddened by the impending threat to end the DACA program and seek your prayers for the young people, their families and their communities that will be impacted by an end to the program. Yet we have hope because we are children of the God who calls us to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. We have hope because we are followers of Jesus Christ who welcomed the outcast and showed us how to care for the vulnerable. We have hope because we are emboldened by the Holy Spirit to raise our voices for justice and seek the good of all. Even as we grieve this current uncertainty, we pray for Congress to act and pass legislation that will return a future with hope to the members of our community of faith and to 800,00 others who have already contributed so much to our country and have so much more to offer.
We at Bethel Presbyterian Church will continue to be a welcoming community offering hospitality to everyone who comes, including the most vulnerable among us for that is who we are as the people of God, as followers of Jesus Christ. And we will advocate for justice for these young adults and their families because that is what we are called to do as the people of God.
WENDY NEFF is pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Kingston, Tennesse. She is a wife, mother to two elementary school children, passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ and seeker of justice and peace.