Immigration rally inspires and equips Presbyterians to faithful action at St. Louis General Assembly

ST. LOUIS –  On Tuesday, June 19, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Office of Immigration in the Office of the General Assembly co-sponsored a rally at Baer Park in downtown St. Louis. This was an organized event of the 223rd General Assembly. More than 100 Presbyterians attended the rally and heard impassioned speeches given by Presbyterian leaders. The rally was also covered by local St. Louis television and print media.

Sara John, program coordinator for the St. Louis Interfaith Committee on Latin America

The rally was started with a welcome and opening prayer from J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Nelson’s prayer reminded those gathered that God is ever present with all people, particularly children and immigrants. He invoked the words on the Statue of Liberty, and stated that the rally is not in vain. He encouraged those gathered to not just do this type of action in St. Louis, but to carry this spirit back home to churches and communities and continue to fight for justice. He closed by saying, “Justice now, justice for all people, let justice rule as the guiding light of love in our lives.”

Jose Luis Casal, director of World Mission

Following Nelson, Amanda Craft of the Office of Immigration Issues led a call and response, inviting those gathered to make some noise on behalf of justice for immigrants. The crowd cheered loudly. Craft framed the gathering and acknowledged that when they started planning six months ago, they had no idea what realities they would face today, particularly with the separation of children from their parents at the border.

Amanda Craft

Craft introduced one of the newly elected co-moderators of the 223rd General Assembly, Cynthia Kohlmann. Kohlmann encouraged the crowd to “Stand up, speak up, be heard, and be present.” She announced that a commissioners’ resolution regarding the separation of families at the borders was just passed through committee and would be voted on by the assembly. “This will give us an opportunity to make a statement loud and clear, for our neighbors to hear and the world to follow.” She ended with a chant, “We choose welcome, we choose love, we choose grace, we choose mercy, we choose justice, we demand welcome, we demand love, we demand grace, we demand mercy, we demand justice.”

Following Kohlmann, a variety of speakers came to the microphone to share stories of immigrants in their congregations and communities who were harmed by unjust immigration policies. T.J. De Marco, the stated clerk of the Presbytery of Northern New England, told a story of members of an Indonesian congregation in Rochester, New Hampshire. A member immigrated legally, and this year he was told he was going to be deported. Then his local church and the Office of Immigration Issues came alongside him and helped him obtain a court order to stay in the country temporarily, though his future is uncertain.

Craft returned to the microphone and quoted a prayer written by Allison Harrington, the pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. “Blessed are you who journey with child on your back or in your arms, leaving behind war for the hope for peace. …  Blessed are you whose children are stolen away, snatched from your breast, for they shall run back to you, leaping into your arms.”

Tia Byrd, executive director at Missourians Organizing
Trey Hegar

Trey Hagar, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, spoke about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in his town and the impact they had on the community. ICE raided a workplace and rounded up 70 men out of the workplace and put them in vans simply because they were Hispanic or had dark skin. Thirty-two were detained in jails, and only 12 were finally found guilty. Many of the remaining 20 lost their jobs because of the detention and all of them were separated from their families. He talked about how his church has responded, including an 82-year-old woman who is providing childcare for some of the children.

Linda Culbertson, general presbyter of Pacific Presbytery
Susan Krehbiel, catalyst for refugees & asylum for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, led a group of speakers as they read off the names of immigrants who were killed or died in the custody of ICE. Linda Culbertson, the general presbyter of Pacific Presbytery, took the microphone to describe the action that her presbytery has taken to partner with other local community organizations to address immigration issues in her region. They joined the “Matthew 25” movement in Southern California by setting up house meetings where they pray, study theBible and seek answers to questions about immigration questions. This has led to a weekly newsletter related to immigration issues and has united the presbytery across the theological divide. They also partnered with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, an interfaith justice organization, and other organization, stating, “Collaboration begets greater effectiveness in addressing these issues.”
Leslie Vogel, PC(USA) mission co-worker in Guatemala
Joyce Lieberman, synod executive and stated clerk of the Synod of South Atlanta

Teresa Waggener, the immigration attorney for the Office of Immigration Issues, shared the role of her office as well what is happening at the assembly, including a postcard writing campaign at their booth in the exhibit hall.

Two local partners were introduced: Sara John, the program coordinator for the St. Louis Interfaith Committee on Latin America and Tia Byrd, executive director at Missourians Organizing. They both spoke of the immigration issues specific to the St. Louis context and talked about the intersectionality between immigration issues and issues of racism.

Laurie Kraus, direction of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

The vigil was closed by a prayer from Jelty Ochton, the pastor of Marturia Presbyterian Church. Jelty is an Indonesian immigrant herself. She prayed, “Almighty God … We thank you that you have given us a place for refugees. …  God, our unifier, we are different in skin color, in language, in culture. We ask for peace in our differences. Help us to see the harmony and the richness of our diversity. … Put us together in your love. … Bless all the children, orphaned, lost, afraid, calling out in the night. Blessed are you for you shall once again know the embrace of your father’s sacred arms and the kiss of your mother’s sacred lips. Amen.”