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Does the Black Church Support Immigration Reform? A conversation with Bishop Vashti McKenzie, African Methodist Episcopal Church

05/21/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For several months I've been in conversations with organizations working to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. All of these organizations are engaging the religious community to support their efforts. In fact many religious issue advocacy organizations have taken the lead to champion the cause of immigration reform. At the invitation of friend, I attended a panel discussion sponsored by the Center for American Progress that brought together leaders in the religious community to talk about what congregations are doing to support immigration reform. Throughout these conversations, I noticed there was always something missing. While not totally absent but certainly not well represented during these conversations -- there seemed to be a lack of voices from the Black religious community.

Although there are Black Churches across the country engaged in the work of immigration reform, based on my conversations with organizations trying to increase support it appears they are limited in number. As a result I started asking some of the Black clergy and members of Black Churches a few questions. What does the Black religious community think about immigration reform, is it important, do they care, and do they think comprehensive reform will harm Black communities?

The responses I received were interesting. Most of the people I talked to expressed racial stereotypes, fears about jobs, and said it was wrong for people to enter the country illegally. As people of faith, my assumption was that they would be far more compassionate and welcoming but what I learned is that their opinions were not based of their faith or on facts but on their fears and misinformation about immigration reform.

One would think with the similarities between the Black and Brown communities as it relates to challenges in public education, health care, violent crime, poverty, and incarceration rates, that these communities would be more understanding of each other and work together to solve these common problems. But it seems as though fear and negative stereotypes that are not founded on faith or facts have been keeping many of us separated.

But there are signs of hope. Some Black leaders are publicly talking about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. As I said earlier, there are Black pastors participating in rallies and working with religious issue advocacy groups to fight for immigrant rights. My Pastor, Dr. Derrick Harkins, has been on CNN several times addressing this issue and works closely with several organizations working on immigration reform. An even better sign of hope on the local level came from my conversation with Bishop Vasthi McKenzie as she shed some light on the subject related to how many churches view the issue of immigration. Here's what the Bishop had to say.

"Let me dwell on immigration.....Think of these things: it seems that Homeland Security is offering a "three legged stool" proposal to immigration reform. It seems however the conversation rests more on two legs - enforcement and hard but fair stance on those already here. The conversation on the street often boils down to: What does immigration reform mean to job availability or how will it affect my job or salary if someone is willing to work for less? What does immigration reform mean to the availability of services in my community? Will there be higher taxes because services such as health care, assistance to children and families, senior services and safety net services are provided for non- citizens? Will it diminish services for me and my family if and when I need them? However, what we rarely hear about or see are the numerous Black churches that are sharing space with their new neighbors who are Hispanic/Latino. Some are having non - English services for their new neighbors. Others have inclusive services and other have two separate services. All of which are signs that Black churches are not only adjusting to their new neighbors but they are embracing them because they share the same faith and hope for the future, and are looking for the same solutions to the challenges they face."

So it seems that when Black and Brown come together in communities of faith, not only to worship together but getting to know each other, the barriers begin to fall; the fears, racism and misinformation are replaced by facts and they find common ground. Immigration reform is about more than boarder protection, government programs, or protecting our personal stuff out of fear. It's about people. For those of us who call ourselves Christian, we do violence to the Gospel whenever we choose to reject people that don't look like us or act like us. In fact multicultural worshiping communities give us a sign of what heaven must look like. Someone once told me that our differences are unique expressions and reflection of an infinite God who knows no limitations. When faith in a God that loves all of us, because we are different, transforms our hearts we can take the next step and let our politics reform our immigration policy.

There is still a lot of work to do in order to overcome stereotypes around immigration which divide us. But Bishop McKenzie points us in the right direction. We need to lift up and share those examples of communities where diversity is embraced rather than simply talking about immigration reform as if it doesn't have a pulse.

As Bishop McKenzie points out, successful relationships happen when the work of healing takes place between the stake holders not someone claiming to represent their best interests. Perhaps we would see more support for immigration reform if we highlighted examples of what life looks like when people come together regardless of race and focus on what they have in common.

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