PASADENA, Calif. (RNS) When United Methodist Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño talks about tussling with political bigwigs on the topic of immigration reform, she is poised, yet forceful.
As the first female Hispanic bishop elected in the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, Carcaño has had a lot of practice keeping her cool, especially when it comes to discussing divisive politics.
"Immigrants can stay as long as they don't ask for more than we want to give them, and as long they keep serving our needs at whatever pittance of a pay we want to extend to them," Carcaño said in an interview in her office here.
"When people begin to say that's not fair, that's not just, then that ruffles feathers."
Carcaño has emerged as a key religious player on the hot-button political debate over immigration reform. On Friday (March 7), Carcaño was among 14 religious leader who met with President Obama at the White House, where she was tasked with reaching out to Republican congressmen who may be reluctant to tackle the issue.
While Friday's meeting left the bishop with a sense that "immigration reform is indeed a very high priority for the president," she doesn't shy away from voicing her own critiques. For example, that there is still too much emphasis on securing the border, she says.
Carcaño believes immigration reform needs to include a way to reunite families that have been separated because of U.S. policies, and while Obama speaks of cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers, she believes the labor rights of immigrants need to be respected.
In addition to her role as immigration spokesperson for the United Methodists' Council of Bishops, Carcaño leads the church's California-Pacific Conference, an area that covers much of Southern California, Hawaii and U.S. territories in the Pacific Ocean, such as Guam.
AN IMMIGRANT SUCCESS STORY
Carcaño, 59, grew up in Edinburg, Texas, not far from the U.S.-Mexico border. Her maternal grandmother was the first Protestant in the family.
The oldest of seven children, Carcaño felt an early call to ministry. But when at age 14 she confessed to her parents she was contemplating life in the church, her mother cried. Her father's reaction wasn't much better, commanding her, in a fit of anger, to go back to doing the dishes, Carcaño recalls.
Her father, however, also deeply influenced Carcaño's views on immigration. Although he initially came to the United States from Mexico in the 1940s under the Bracero Program that allowed the importation of temporary workers, he crossed the border illegally after the program ended because of financial hardship.
He was, Carcaño explained, detained, threatened and accused of dealing drugs.
"He would say to us, 'I've never even taken an aspirin. I didn't know what a pill looked like or a drug looked liked,'" Carcaño said. "The experience on the border really left him scarred for life."
After graduating from the University of Texas-Pan American in 1975, Carcaño earned a master's in theology from Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1979.
She has served churches across much of the American West, including Oregon and New Mexico, but she says her most challenging role came after she was elected bishop in 2004, when she presided over the church's Phoenix-based Desert Southwest Conference, an area that includes parts of Arizona, Nevada and California.
Phoenix proved to be a difficult place for Carcaño to practice what she refers to as contextualized ministry, or ministering to people based on their immediate needs. Carcaño says she immediately received enormous pushback from recent transplants to Arizona who were unaccustomed to living in a state that for decades had welcomed immigrants.
Traveling with other religious leaders, Carcaño says she also angered Arizona Sen. John McCain when she confronted him about the state's get-tough 2010 immigration bill, which allows police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they stop.
"A senator can be biting your head off," she said, "but you have to stand by your principles."
'LOVE THEM AS YOURSELF'
Carcaño says she owes her work on immigration issues to her upbringing but also to Scripture and church teaching. She points, for example, to Leviticus 19, where God tells the Israelites that "the foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself."
Some, such as Harriett Jane Olson, chief executive officer of the 800,000-member United Methodist Women, praise Carcaño for "really boundary-breaking leadership that she has exercised in a region of the country where it hasn't always gone smoothly."
William B. Lawrence, dean of her alma mater at Perkins School of Theology, says Carcaño holds church members accountable for ministry for "those persons who live at the margins of society."
Others, however, say that Carcaño's views represent only a minority of the church. Mark Tooley, president of the conservative Washington-based Institute on Religion & Democracy, said Methodists are already defecting at an alarming rate, and the liberal teaching embodied by Carcaño and others is a main reason.
A 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that white mainline Protestants (which includes, but isn't limited to, United Methodists) lean conservative on immigration reform: 40 percent want tighter border security as the top priority, compared to 17 percent who want a path to legal citizenship. The wide middle of the church -- 40 percent -- wants both.
When she was appointed president of the UMC's Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, Carcaño promised to "challenge statements or actions that offend, denigrate, or exclude any person because of the color of their skin, their economic circumstance, their political persuasion, their gender or their sexual orientation."
Tooley said Carcaño's opinions on immigration align with the church's official positions, he says her opposition to the church's teaching against gay marriage and gay ministers does not.
But for Carcaño, it's all part of her belief in an egalitarian view of God's grace that should always be shared with those on the margins -- of society or church life.
"It does me no good, it does the world no good if I'm a good Christian in a corner, in my bedroom but do nothing to spread holiness out into the world," Carcaño said.