Help for immigrants divides US faithful

He doesn’t speak Spanish and has no idea what the United States should do about illegal immigration, but Reverend Larry Kreps knows he’s now on a list somewhere of people willing to help illegal immigrants in a time of crisis.

It started out small enough. Months ago, a member of Kreps’s suburban Ohio congregation was looking for a place where local Hispanics could meet, and Kreps offered some space at John Wesley United Methodist Church. A Sunday-school lesson on immigration followed in August.

Days later, with just a phone call for warning, dozens of desperate immigrants fleeing a massive raid on a nearby poultry plant turned up on the church’s doorstep, seeking sanctuary.

Kreps let them in, and members of his overwhelmingly white congregation sprang into action.
Some brought food; some set up space in the gym and a choir room in which the immigrants could sleep.

“Someone slipped me $100 to buy stuff,” Kreps recalls as he stands in the now-quiet church kitchen where the meals were prepared. It was a tense night as scared families and Kreps himself worried police or federal agents might come knocking.

“I wasn’t real clear legally whether authorities could come into a place of worship,” he says. “But we saw it as ‘What would Jesus do?’ in the simplest way—that you help first and you ask questions later.”

But helping illegal immigrants has become an unpopular business in the US. On the presidential campaign trail, Republican and Democratic candidates alike have backed down from any previous support for illegal immigrants, and ordinary Americans are treading just as carefully in the face of a growing backlash against the 12-million people here illegally.

One-third of Americans want to deprive illegal immigrants of social services, including schooling and emergency healthcare, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll showed this month.

Divided

The political stalemate over immigration in the US and stepped-up raids to deport undocumented workers has pushed the everyday crisis of illegal immigration into the hands of people like Kreps.

Susan Woodward (54) helped feed the scared families who stayed at John Wesley church for two days. But she knows not everyone in the congregation thought the church should be helping people they view as illegals. As a result, outreach then and in the days since has been done quietly.

“It’s tricky. Things are being done unobtrusively, gently. The people who feel strong about giving support are doing it, but not drawing attention because they don’t want to create more conflict for the people they are trying to help,” she says.

Sylvia Castellanos, who works for the Coalition for the Rights and Dignity of Immigrants, is slowly working her way through churches in Ohio, offering information sessions for congregations about the plight of illegal immigrants.

She says church leaders so far have all welcomed the dialogue, but churchgoers who attend the sessions are not always as inviting.

“We live in this area, which is very conservative, and people who come to these events sometimes follow stereotypes,” Castellanos says. “But it is good for them to come with their concerns, to have that dialogue.”

Dialogue can be difficult at First United Methodist Church in Hamilton, Ohio. Just 11km from John Wesley, First United is within the border of Butler county, home to the poultry plant that was raided.

Debate over immigration has raged in Butler county, where an influx of immigrants has brought Mexican grocery stores and bakeries. Opponents say Hispanics bring crime, put strains on schools or hospitals and take American jobs.

The First United congregation is conflicted.

“I would say we’re fairly evenly split,” says Reverend Kenn Barton. “We have some people who see it in terms of legality ... ‘They’re illegal so we can’t have them in our church. They don’t have to come to worship because they should be in jail, or back in their country.’”

Barton is trying to broker change through education and a focus on God’s love, but treads carefully. Even discussing the issue is sensitive, and he apologises when members of his congregation opposed to illegal immigration refuse to discuss it with an outsider.

“It’s tough,” he says. “I tend to try to go slow.”

John Wesley pastor Kreps says he, too, is still struggling to reconcile all the issues around illegal immigration as he waits for more scared families to show up on his doorstep. In December, he was thinking about another long-ago family struggling to find shelter.

Coming into Christmas “and the question: ‘Is there room at the inn?’,” Kreps says, “I’d rather be someone who makes room somewhere.”—Reuters

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