“Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, . . .”
United Methodist Bishops of the Northeastern Jurisdiction quoted poet Emma Lazarus’s words found on the Statue of Liberty (also known as “Mother of Exiles”) this week in calling upon the church to “welcome the foreigner” and reject a controversial new U.S. immigration policy. They denounced President Donald Trump’s recent Executive Order, a dubious anti-terrorism measure that bars entry by immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries for 90 days and bars all refugees for at least 120 days and Syrian refugees until further notice.
The NEJ College of Bishops met in downtown Lancaster, Pa., which they discovered is America’s refugee capital, with 20 times more refugees per capita than the rest of the United States. Over 1,300 refugees have come there since 2003, many of them welcomed and served by local UM church outreach ministries, as well as helping agencies like Church World Service.
“The words ‘give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,’ sound very similar to a message that the church has proclaimed for generations,” wrote the bishops in a statement released as a letter to their nine episcopal areas on Feb. 1:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest.”
“The posture of our country in welcoming the foreigner has been compatible with the position of the church. But today there is a disconnect between the position of the country and the mission of the church,” reads the letter. “Our President’s recent Executive Order suspending the country’s refugee assistance program and banning visas from seven countries seems a far cry from the words ‘give me your tired and your poor.’”
Fourteen College members—both active and retired—said it was time “for the church to do what it does best – love our neighbors as we ourselves have been loved. We urge all United Methodists to be intentional in providing a ministry of prayer and presence in our churches and throughout our communities that bear witness to our grace and love.
“We implore you to preach and proclaim an alternative rhetoric to the message of fear and anger that is being generated by those with power,” the letter continues before endorsing a controversial welcome that many houses of faith in our region and across the nation are offering to undocumented immigrants who fear arrest and deportation: “We invite you to step forward and provide safe places of sanctuary for those who long for a place of care and advocacy.”
The bishops end their letter with a solemn prayer and their e-mailed cover memo with the words, “Let us continue to be faithful and earnest in our prayers for the immigrant, our leadership, our churches, and even ourselves.”
An additional prayer, titled Prayer to the Immigrant and Refugee and composed by the Rev. Michael Johnson, is appended to the bishops’ letter. Johnson is the husband of Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson.
During the College’s meeting, Bishop Johnson visited the Lancaster office of Church World Service, joined by her Pennsylvania episcopal colleagues: Bishops Jeremiah Park of the Harrisburg Area and Cynthia Moore-Koikoi of the Pittsburgh Area, along with retired Bishop Violet Fisher. The Lancaster CWS office serves about a 100-mile radius and is the largest CWS office in the country.
“The trip to CWS was riveting,” said Johnson. “We talked to case workers who are working with immigrants who have been painfully impacted by this presidential executive order. Some have been waiting for as many as 17 years in a refugee camp. They are all ready to come here, but now some can never come. Families are forever separated. Some workers at the CWS office will likely experience layoffs. The stories are so very sad.”
Johnson and other bishops also visited a peaceful protest against the new immigration Executive Order in Lancaster’s Penn Square, near the bishops’ Marriott Hotel meeting site.
Johnson shared her own sentiments about the new administration’s action in “An Appeal to Conscience,” e-mailed to Philadelphia Area members and churches earlier this week. UM News Service’s Kathy Gilbert included the bishop’s letter in a national overview of faith leaders’ reactions to the President’s order. Read the story, Faith leaders urge all to welcome strangers, refugees.
“This action by our President does not make our country safer,” Johnson wrote. “Violence against Americans is not a teaching of the Muslim faith. This order from the President will likely increase the incidences of hate crimes being perpetrated against innocent, law-abiding Muslim people in our nation.”
She urged members to “have conversations in your churches about this situation, mobilize to write letters, speak to your senators and legislators, and most importantly pray. Pray that our country does not close its borders to innocent people who are living in dire and life-threatening conditions in their home country.”