WASHINGTON, D.C. — United Methodists in 32 states and the District of Columbia have conducted more than 250 prayer vigils this year to bring attention to the brokenness of the U.S. immigration system. The vigils have been gatherings to share stories, acknowledge the system’s brokenness and pray for legislative change. Primary focus of the vigils is to keep immigrant families together.
Most vigils have occurred in February and March, but some were held in January and more are scheduled for April and May.
The “Family Unity Prayer Vigils” are done in coordination with the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, a partnership of faith-based organizations committed to enacting fair, humane reform that reflects the biblical mandate to welcome the sojourner and treat all immigrants with dignity and respect.
U.S. immigration laws have led to thousands of families being separated or facing separating. A purpose of the Family Unity Prayer Vigils is to pray for change and advocate for clearing the enormous backlog of visas that has kept family members separated for decades and also to increase the number of visas available for families to be reunited.
An important part of most Family Unity Prayer Vigils has been showing a 12-minute video “Jasmine's Story,” which tells how the U.S.’s broken immigration system tore a family apart, and how a United Methodist church was transformed in responding. GBCS offered to provide the video free among other resources for the prayer vigils.
Primary United Methodist ministry
“Caring for immigrants in our communities is a primary ministry of The United Methodist Church,” said Bishop Minerva Carcaño, co-chair of the United Methodist Interagency Task Force on Immigration. “We celebrate the tremendous work of so many United Methodists who have given witness to their support for just and humane immigration reform by hosting one of the more than 250 Family Unity Prayer Vigils. Through these public witness events, our immigrant communities, who have long suffered from harsh immigration enforcement policies, racial profiling and the violation of their human rights, have heard a word of support and hope.”
Caring for immigrants in our communities is a primary ministry of The United Methodist Church.
Carcaño said there is still much work to do, but declared that she has complete faith in the passion and dedication of the people of The United Methodist Church. “I know that we United Methodists will not cease our work until we achieve just and humane immigration reform,” she said.
Bill Mefford, director of Civil & Human Rights at the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society (GBCS), said the more than 250 Family Unity Prayer Vigils represent the passion that so many United Methodists have for defending and supporting the rights of immigrants and their families. “United Methodists see firsthand the impact of the brokenness of our immigration system on immigrant families,” he said. “Thus, we are determined to see reform passed that protects the family immigration system and reunites all families that are separated.
Mobilized like never before
United Methodists are mobilized like never before, according to Mefford, who said these prayer vigils are just the first step. “We are gearing up for Neighbor-to-Neighbor visits where United Methodist leaders will be meeting with the elected members of Congress in their states and districts, and sharing with them the need for reform,” he said. “We have seen the brokenness, but we have hope that finally Congress can do what is right and pass legislation that provides a pathway to full citizenship clear of any enforcement contingencies and reunites all families who have experienced the pain of separation."
At a Feb. 23 “prayerful action” gathering in Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, a moment in the worship was dedicated for attendees to use cell phones to call elected officials. “We distributed a sheet with the list of senators and representatives on one side and, on the other side, a script with the words to say,” explained Carmen Sol Cotto, justice discipler for the conference’s Rapid Response Team that focuses on immigration reform, said. “That was a powerful exercise to demonstrate our commitment to move from mercy to action.”
Immigrant Welcoming Congregations
The Feb. 23 prayer vigils at El Redentor and St. Paul’s United Methodist churches in Lancaster were follow-ups to a previous gathering that had more than 100 people. “At each gathering we display our Immigrant Welcoming Congregations banner and sing our theme song,” Cotto said. “Each gathering builds upon the one before to develop momentum and create a sense of growth as we share in this journey.”
Cotto said he believes United Methodists in Eastern Pennsylvania will continue to work until just, humane immigration reform is achieved. “Our people have true conviction about the importance to move from mercy to action,” he said and pointed out that Eastern Pennsylvania Bishop Peggy Johnson has attended two of the four gatherings held so far.
More than 35 United Methodist congregations in South Carolina have committed to praying and discussing “Jasmine's Story,” reported the Rev. Emily Scales Sutton, pastor of Philadelphia United Methodist Church, York, and Bethel United Methodist Church, Rock Hill.
Sutton said “Jasmine’s Story” was shown to over 200 United Methodist Women. “After seeing the documentary several women stated they now understood how relationships with our neighbors can open doors for God to use us, as people of faith, to bring justice for our neighbors,” she said.
In addition to “Jasmine's Story” and prayer vigils, Sutton said South Carolina United Methodists are planning “Breaking Bread and Barrier” events in March and April, and will be hosting advocacy training in five locations around the state in May.
Burden of Arizona laws
“Since Arizona leads the way with anti-immigration bills, The United Methodist Church in Arizona feels the burden of our state’s decision,” said Deaconess Marjie Hrabe, who chairs the Desert Southwest Conference Immigration Task Force. “During our vigils we prayed, we heard the story of those migrating, we sang, and we lit candles. We opened our hearts to the plight of the migrant, our minds to our responsibility toward the migrant and our doors to people of all faiths who would work with us towards comprehensive immigration reform.”
Many persons of other denominations thanked the United Methodists for taking the lead in bringing people together through this prayer vigil, according to Hrabe. “We are moving forward in faith,” she said.
Between Feb. 8 and March 6, there were 16 events and one mass in North Central Texas. The Rev. Dean Reed, executive director of Justice for Our Neighbors North-Central Region in Texas, said most of the events were Family United Prayer Vigils, and he expects more this month.
Reed said JFON, a faith-based ministry that provides immigrants education, advocacy and legal services, has reached out to leaders across the North and Central Texas conferences. “The nearly 20 vigils so far demonstrate the strength of support for immigration reform across the Metroplex and Texas,” he said.
Growing awareness of injustices
"Texans have been stirred to action by a growing awareness of the injustices that confront our migrant neighbors, and the opportunity we have to set things right,” Reed said. “At the vigils, citizens brim with compassion and immigrants express gratitude that their story of struggle is being told. Hope is rising in their hearts.”
Reed said he has emphasized to migrants attending the events, “United Methodists were with you on this journey yesterday, are with you on this journey today, and will be with you on this journey for all the tomorrows of this life until we live in peace with justice."
For more information about how you can help achieve comprehensive immigration reform through faithful practices such as Family Unity Prayer Vigils, Bread-and-Barrier events or Neighbor-to-Neighbor meetings, contact Bill Mefford, director of Civil & Human Rights, General Board of Church & Society via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The General Board of Church & Society is one of four international general program boards of The United Methodist Church. Prime responsibility of the board is to seek implementation of the Social Principles and other policy statements on Christian social concerns of the General Conference, the denomination’s highest policy-making body. The board’s primary areas of ministry are Advocacy, Education & Leadership Formation, United Nations & International Affairs, and resourcing these areas for the denomination. It has offices on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York City.