David Vásquez believes there is no such thing as “the stranger.” And in an era of globalization, he may be right.
But fear of the other, particularly of people who live in the United States undocumented, is very real.
According to David, who is campus pastor at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, it’s this church’s job not to let that fear define God’s people.
“Immigrants have a stake in how we define who we are,” says David, not only as a nation but as a church. So extending hospitality to a newcomer is important for people of faith, and the ELCA is no exception, he says.
That became especially clear to David, after one of the largest immigration raids at a single location in U.S. history took place May 12, 2008. Federal agents arrested 389 workers at a meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa.
ELCA members and congregations took immediate action.
Providing hope and healing
ELCA Disaster Response, a ministry of the ELCA that provides hope and healing for survivors of a disaster, declared the raid a disaster.
“The declaration was significant. We needed to name it for what it was. And the conditions after the raid were very much like a natural disaster, as we’ve become so familiar with,” says David.
The population of Postville was reduced to almost half overnight. One fifth of the population was detained, he says.
There was tremendous human need.
Businesses were dramatically impacted. Landlords had lost renters, bankers and grocery story owners lost their customers, and teachers wondered how many jobs would be lost in the succeeding school year. People who had been active and responsible members of their community were now gone.
St. Paul Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Postville, became part of the local response, along with the Luther College community. Members of the congregation, students, faculty and staff and others from across this church came together to give of their time, talents and energy.
And when ELCA Disaster Response declared the raid a disaster, it meant that ELCA members could contribute financially to support relief efforts.
Students from Luther College were among the first volunteers. About 100 students spent time caring for children whose parents were arrested and detained, and they helped to track individuals who were arrested.
Many of those detained where moved multiple times during the legal proceedings and again as they served sentences imposed on them, David says. Since the rules of every detention center or prison varied, helping those detained stay in touch with loved ones was nearly impossible, he says.
Lutherans initiated a broad spectrum of response. “It was amazing,” says David. “It illustrates that this church is capable and courageous in acting on behalf of others.”
It’s in our DNA
The ELCA has a long history of helping resettle refugees in the United States.
“It’s in our DNA,” David says.
A year after the raid, the ELCA Church Council adopted “Toward Compassionate, Just and Wise Immigration Reform,” a social policy resolution that articulates this church’s long-standing commitment to immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers and advocacy for just immigration laws.
Immigration, says David, is also central in the Bible.
“If you make a list of all your favorite Bible stories, how many of them deal with migration and movement? Most Bible stories take place when people are on the move,” he says, from Adam and Eve being pushed out of the Garden of Eden to Abraham following a promise, from Moses crossing the river to Mary and Joseph fleeing with the baby Jesus when his life was threatened.
“Virtually every biblical character experiences migration. There’s something about the migration experience that opens us up to God,” says David. “It provides an opportunity to add depth to our conversation about immigration,” as well as the mission and ministry of the ELCA.
In 2011, the vast majority of this church’s new starts are in immigrant communities, says David. “It’s our future. So if we don’t bring our history, experience, faith and biblical stories about migration to bear, we threaten our relevance as a church now and for the future.”
“We are not called to tolerate one another, we are called to love one another,” says David. And it’s love for the other and God that inspires David, as he “lives Lutheran.”