Early in the morning of November 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election, my phone rang.It was our presbyter, Cindy Kohlmann. I knew why she was calling. We needed to figure out how we would support of our immigrant congregations and members in the two presbyteries that we serve. At the time no one knew what the policies of the new administration would be, but the campaign rhetoric had been frightening. We feared that the next four years could be difficult for immigrants. In our estimation, this was a crisis.
We had identified two core values to guide our work together as stated clerk and presbyter. First, we would work to be relational as a presbytery staff. This started with us. Every Tuesday morning, the two of us met for about three hours. We spent hours together in the car driving around New England. We made it a practice to share all information with each other. We also spent many hours trying to build relationships with members. We met them in coffee shops, over lunch or talked on the phone. As a result, we trusted each other and many members began to trust us.
Second, we would focus on supporting congregations and ministers. This value addressed two problems that we had noticed in many presbyteries. As a presbytery staff, it is always tempting to start a new program or committee. But often these take members away from local congregations or ministries. We try to avoid that. Instead, we want to support what local ministries are already doing. Also, it is tempting to think of the presbytery primarily as a regulatory body. All presbyteries have a regulatory function, but it is far too easy to overreach with policies and say “no” when God is saying “yes.” We committed to be attentive to the unexpected ways in which God moves. When someone came to us with an unusual idea for a program or ministry, we would listen with open minds. We didn’t want polity or tradition to get in the way of the movement of the Spirit.
Guided by these core values, it was easy to discern our next steps that morning. We would get on the phone and start calling the pastors of our immigrant and multicultural congregations. We would ask, “How is the congregation doing?” The answers were almost all the same: “My people are scared. They’re afraid of deportation.” We asked, “What can we do?” They said, “Can you please come?” Because we had spent so much time building relationships and trying to support local ministries, these pastors trusted us. In a moment of crisis they wanted us there. We felt honored that pastors were inviting us into their sacred space.
We asked our moderator and vice moderator to help. The four of us would visit all of these congregations during their worship services within a few weeks. We spoke to the congregations and gave them some time to ask us questions. They asked questions that you might expect such as, “Can the presbytery use its political power to help us?” We didn’t have any political power. “Can the presbytery hire lawyers to help us with our immigration cases?” We didn’t have enough money to do that. We said that we would be with them. We would go to court with them. We would pray with them. We would be there at the protests. We would do everything we could. But we couldn’t do much.
Visiting congregations meant that I would miss some family events. My wife would attend those without me. I asked her to tell our family members that I wasn’t able to attend because I was visiting frightened congregations. As a white male, I have access to white culture in ways that others do not. I wanted my white family to know that good people who go to work, raise families, go to church and contribute to their communities are scared and for good reasons.
We wanted the presbyteries we serve to know what we were doing. So, we sent a letter communicating our plan that told the presbyteries that we were visiting our immigrant and minority congregations because people are afraid and they need to know that we will be there to support them through this difficult time. We invited people to join us in these efforts — and many have.
This was a risk. We knew that our plan was a prophetic statement. But because we trusted each other, we were ready to take some risks together. We received criticism, and we expected that. In our time as a presbytery staff, we have tried to look at criticism as an opportunity to learn or as an opportunity to communicate. Usually it’s a little bit of both. We felt that some of the criticisms were valid. We tried to revise our approach when we could. Our response was imperfect and we expected that it would be.
In our efforts to stop deportations we expected defeat. What could we do? This could be a difficult four years for people of color, especially those born outside the United States. People who we loved and partnered with in ministry may be persecuted. We decided that we would fight with them and for them. We also knew that we would lose most battles. But we decided to fight alongside our brothers and sisters anyway.
Almost a year later, we have had many defeats. Some members who have never committed a crime are required by the federal government to wear ankle bracelets. Some have been detained. Others have gone into hiding. A few more have been deported. But we’ve had some unexpected victories as well. A few favorable decisions by judges have lifted our spirits.
In addition to my work as a stated clerk, I serve as a pastor of a small congregation made up mostly of African immigrants. One day I was frustrated with an immigration issue and I jokingly asked one of our Ghanaian members if he would sponsor me for citizenship in Ghana. He laughed and said, “We need to pray.” I kept hearing that same sentence from our pastors and congregations. People from Indonesia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana and other nations from around the world said the same thing in the wake of this crisis: “We need to pray.”
Clearly I needed to learn something. As a white male, I have grown accustomed to power. People listen when I talk and because of that I have never really felt powerless. As a result, I have never really understood prayer. These members understood prayer because they had spent most of their lives feeling powerless.
And when you are powerless, you need to rely on the power of God.
In the coming years we will continue to stand with our immigrant members. We will do everything in our power to help, even though we are almost powerless. We will pray for and with people. We anticipate defeats, victories and criticism along the way. And we will trust in the power of God.
T. J. DeMarco is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, and stated clerk of the Presbyteries of Boston and Northern New England.
pcusa.org/supportingimmigrants – Learn how you can support immigrants and migrants in the midst of drastic immigration enforcement changes under the current administration (Both videos on this page highlight work the Presbytery of Northern New England is engaging to support immigrants and migrants.)
pcusa.org/familycareplan – Read about how to help at-risk communities make important decisions about family and property before they are detained or deported.
pcusa.org/daca – Learn how to support DACA recipients and DREAMers. (The video on this page highlights DACA recipients from the Presbytery of Northern New England.)