What happened and why during our arrest? A Reflection

immigration protest arrest

By C. Sol Cotto
Director of Immigrant Welcoming Communities
General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church

On Presidents Day, Feb. 17, 31 United Methodist bishops, pastors and lay members were arrested in front of the White House, along with immigrants from the National Day Laborers Network and brothers and sisters from different faith groups, as we engaged in an act of civil disobedience.

Our purpose was to ask President Obama to stop deportations that have reached an unprecedented number during his administration: more than a thousand a day and approaching 2 million at the current rate.

Thousands of calls, letters with thousands of signatures, hunger strikes and acts of civil disobedience around the nation have not succeeded in stopping these deportations.

Meanwhile, families continue to be separated, as thousands of immigrants try to get proper documentation. Many have endured decades of delays in an immigration system that simply doesn’t work. We felt it was time to go to the steps of the White House, and Presidents Day seemed a good day to do it.

As our protest at the White House progressed, barricades went up, and our brothers and sisters were separated from us. But they continued to support us in prayer. The police cars approached us with sirens and warnings to disperse and leave the premises.

We were handcuffed in uncomfortable, painful restraints that we had to wear for almost two hours. We were placed in cold detention cells until nightfall.

Confused law enforcement officers kept threatening that we would spend all night in jail for not bringing our IDs. We had intentionally come without our IDs to be in solidarity with our immigrant brothers and sisters. The police didn’t know what to do with all these religious people who decided to go to jail if we could not all be released together.

Through all of this, what I feel compelled and responsible to share is that serendipitous thing that happens when people of God get together to do something in HIS name.

Yes, we were there with a clear purpose. We decided to deliberately engage in civil disobedience for well-defined reasons. And we accomplished our mission. But, as it is often the case, God intended something greater. You may have noticed that when the Body of Christ engages in acts of faithfulness, God somehow transcends our actions and creates an effect that goes far beyond our intentions.

We grew in solidarity and reached a spiritual depth that is hard to describe. Our immigrant brothers and sisters standing with us around the nation felt encouraged and hopeful. Their spirits were lifted and they felt they were not alone.

Our families, friends and neighbors felt grateful and inspired by us.
Before the action, immigrant brothers and sisters at my local church embraced me with grateful hearts. A pastor from L.A. who was also arrested was visibly moved when I told him about this. He knows exactly what these incarnational relationships mean. I know he was thinking about the immigrant families in his church.

My sons, who were educated in Quaker schools in Philadelphia and have a strong sense of social justice, were proud of their mother. My oldest received over 71 comments via social media from friends and strangers expressing their concern and solidarity with the movement.

I decided I had to share my story with others when a British immigrant barista at the Starbucks I often go to looked at me with eyes I will never forget and said: “You got arrested…” I also remembered the convicted eyes of the police officers at the White House when they saw us singing and holding hands in solidarity. People’s eyes tell so much.

So much of the work we do as leaders is about just leading the way by inspiring others with actions rather than words.

When my boss, Bill Mefford, the General Board of Church and Society Director of Civil and Human Rights, (who was also arrested), asked me if I was getting arrested, I responded: “I have to. First because I believe it is the right thing to do; and second, because I am in leadership.”

At the moment I had no idea about the growth and depth that exposing myself to that experience would bring. I didn’t know what such an act of solidarity with brothers and sisters does to your heart and spirit. All I know is that today all of us are stronger because we took a bold step together for social justice.

Jesus is our ultimate role model. He was arrested in His time, and he asked us to learn from Him “for the transformation of our world”.

What a privilege to serve Him this way!
What a great moment to be called a United Methodist!
What a great time to be counted as one in the Body of Christ!

What happens when we get arrested? God decides to take that faithful action and multiply its effect for His people to grow in hope and love, and to strengthen His Body!

May I take this opportunity to invite you and your various faith communities to join us in the Immigrant Welcoming Communities journey?

We have a simple curriculum that includes four steps:
•    the articulation of our Christian faith and what it means to move from mercy to action;
•    the need for incarnational, Christ-like relationships with our immigrant brothers and sisters;
•    the value of engaging in education for transformation; and
•    the importance of prayerful action and commitment.

Many congregations in our EPA Conference have participated in this journey with the gracious support of our Bishop Peggy Johnson. Please let us know if your congregation or any of your groups want to be part of this powerful movement!

You can find out more about Immigrant Welcoming Communities at umc-gbcs.org/immigrant-welcoming-communities. Contact Sol at scotto@umc-gbcs.org.