Response to Family Crisis at US Border

Dear NYAPC Congregation and Friends,

We find the politics and practices separating immigrant families crossing into the US to be a gross violation of our human rights and our faith. Thanks to the encouragement of some of you, we as pastors feel called to respond. We respond in different ways, Roger addressing the atrocious use of Scripture to defend these policies and what scripture enjoins us to do, and Alice writing as a parent and as the pastor to children and youth.
Roger: When Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted the Apostle Paul last Thursday, June 14— “obey the laws of government for God has ordained them for the purposes of order” (Romans 13)—to justify the horrendous practice of separating parents from their children at the US border, he took his place in a long line of abusers of this passage of scripture. In the 1930s and 40s, many German Christians invoked this same passage as a scriptural mandate for obedience to Hitler’s Third Reich. South African Christians invoked it in support of apartheid. And during the Viet Nam War and the civil rights movement, some Christians deployed this passage against those who advocated civil disobedience.
In response to Sessions’ use of Romans 13, many have pointed out what he overlooks: that in the same passage, Paul points to the law of love (Romans 13:10) as the higher scriptural demand. They are surely right about that. But deeper engagement with Paul’s thought provides an even more robust response to the Attorney General’s appalling use of scripture to justify a monstrous practice.
In Gal 2:19-20, Paul insists: “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” To be co-crucified and co-risen in Christ entails living in union with the excluded, the vanquished, the profane, and the godforsaken—and also to exclude oneself from the realm of privilege. It entails radical identification with all who are crucified by power and violence, and a radical confession of our own participation in all such crucifixions. Just as important, to be crucified with Christ and co-risen in Christ is to live as if death and its surrogates have no power over us. In my mind, this entails not only radical love of God and neighbor, but also a willingness to put ourselves at risk for the vulnerable—who would certainly include migrant children and their parents. Indeed, Christians are called to radical identification with children and parents who have been forcibly separated by governing authorities.
In his Letter to the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King observed that “an just law is a code that squares with the moral law. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law . . . an unjust law is not rooted in the eternal and natural law . . . any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” I believe Romans 13 can and should be read in conversation with King’s words. In Romans 13, Paul contends that good government serves God’s eternal purpose when it pursues justice and restrains evil for all of its citizens, and in so doing checks injustice and tyranny. Interestingly, though Caesar is not mentioned in this text, we can surmise that he is a target of this discourse—it was Caesar, after all, who crucified Jesus. We can be equally sure that, in Paul’s view, the church provides in this world a counter witness to tyranny and violence.
In the coming days and months, New York Avenue and all our Presbyterian and ecumenical kin will be asked to discern what it might mean to counter tyranny, violence and unjust laws. In particular, we will be asked to risk standing with children and parents at our borders and against atrocious policies that are being enacted against them.
Alice: I write to you as I sit beside our sleeping baby-girl. Our son is safely at his preschool. I know where they both are, and know that they are safe and growing up in an environment that supports their growth and development. As I see children being separated from their parents and caregivers, as a Christian, a mother, and a human, I believe we must speak out. I keep thinking what if this happened to families within our church? What if this happened to my children?
There is no greater terror that a parent can feel than being separated from one’s children: to not know about their whereabouts, to not be able to hold and comfort them when they are in distress. In the brief moments that I have lost track of my son at the park, I know that feeling of panic. I know many of you know that feeling too. I can’t even imagine the physical and psychological effect on both the parent and the child if this panic was extended for days, even months!
When I think of the children kept in these detention facilities apart from their families, I feel so angry and ashamed. In that egregious situation, I can’t imagine a child at any age understanding what is happening to them. They must be feeling such powerful fear — a fear that results in the physical loss of sleep and appetite, and fear that will inevitably create anger and distrust. This is a fear that will have a lasting affect for their entire lives.
As I read about the baby being ripped away from the breast-feeding mother, my entire body ached. How could we allow such a violation, to rip a child literally away from her love and life-source? Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be able to breastfeed a child, know well that a baby who has only been with her mother, cannot simply switch between a mother’s milk and formula. No child can simply go from being fully with a mother who she knows and trusts to being with a complete stranger. In such a situation, a child simply cannot thrive.
There are conflicting reports about how the children are housed, some including cages. Others say that the children’s detention facilities are well-maintained full of toys; even yet, except to help with personal needs, the caregivers in these facilities are not allowed to pick up or hold a child. This kind of environment where children, including toddlers, are left to cry without support is a violation of who we are as human beings. We cannot stand by.
We at NYAPC have been blessed with many children and families fully engaged in the life of the church. We are blessed to see the children come forward each Sunday for the Time with Children, and the teachers and I are fortunate to spend time with them in Worship Play and Sunday School. Our children are seeking to be activists in their own right. In worship play, they often ask us to read “The Youngest Marcher” by Cynthia Levinson, a telling of the youngest children in the Civil Rights Movement. By asking to hear this story again and again, they are seeking to engage in the work of the church, in how to stare in the face of injustice and say that evil will not have the last word. Our kids really do want in their own ways live out our calling from Micah 6:8 “to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God.”
Almost two years ago, NYAPC became a Sanctuary Congregation, covenanting to support those most vulnerable, especially immigrants and refugees. The Biblical tradition is extensive on this point; we think most poignantly of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus Christ away from Egypt from the violence of Herod. Two weeks ago I preached on Deuteronomy 24:10-21 and its refrain to care after the “alien, the orphan and the widow.” These were the groups most oppressed then. Today, these immigrant families are desperate for our prayers put into action.
As a Sanctuary church, our sign board outside of the church has read “Immigrants and Refugees Welcome.” Looking to the passion of our kids, youth, and the many adults in the church, I wonder how we can further engage this mission and calling together? How might we continue to stand up for those whose human dignity is being violated? How can we work together to put a halt to separating families? How might we halt the practice of keeping immigrants in detention facilities at all? Detention facilities are the wrong place to house people, beloved children of God, who are seeking to come to this country to escape violent situations and economic tragedy. Detention facilities are not the place for people trying to reunite with their family already in this country. We as a country must be better than this. We must be better for the sake of our children and for the sake of our common humanity.
Roger and Alice: In the coming days and weeks, we seek to hear from you about how we can respond as a congregation. We do encourage you to write and call your representatives and tell them what you think of these policies. We are also looking for concrete ideas on how we can stand together as Christians against this gross violation of justice.
Here are a few resources we have found helpful both from our denomination and from the wider community of faith:
Standing together,
Roger and Alice