Our Spanish Speaking Churches in the Aftermath of HB56

The fastest growing ethnic group in United Methodism are Spanish-speaking Methodists. North Alabama Methodists have invested huge resources in establishing nearly a dozen new congregations in the past few years. These new churches have become spiritual dynamos of our conference, leading our conference in baptisms and professions of faith – until HB56, our state’s notorious immigration law.

Though almost all of our fledgling United Methodist Christians were documented, in just two months we saw our congregations decimated and all of our prayerful work destroyed. Not only did nearly all Spanish-speaking Methodists have an undocumented person in their home or nearby but also the law — designed (in the words of one of its authors) to tell undocumented people to get out of Alabama — created a climate of fear.

In a discussion between me and Sen. Scott Beason on the ultra-conservative “Laura Ingraham Show,” even Ms. Ingraham called this law a heinous attack upon the free exercise of religion, and an “embarrassment,” and chided Beason. (Fortunately, District Judge Blackburn struck down the part of the law that caused so many in the church immediate concern.)

The Reverend Dr. Thomas Muhomba (himself a thoroughly documented immigrant to our country, along with six other leading North Alabama pastors), who heads our ethnic ministries, has given us a frightening report of the effects of HB56. Rev. Bart Tau tells us that on the first of September, there was a mass exodus of children out of schools in his area. While many of the children were citizens, their parents were not. One family, whose daughter is an honor student at a Methodist college in Florida, cannot come home because she is undocumented and fears traveling in Alabama. Bart says that many parents have left Alabama fearing deportation that would require them to abandon their children, making them wards of the state.

Rev. Tau says, “Our churches need to remind our Hispanic brothers and sisters of our Lord’s love and care for them as His children in this very scary time. For those that decide they must leave, we can help them to deal with the details of a move and transition. We can pick them up and bring them to church, so they don’t have to drive and risk arrest. We can help them afford legal counsel when they need it, and we can help them by taking care of their kids if they are detained. A simple Power of Attorney can give a legal resident or citizen the ability to manage the affairs of a person who is separated from their family and their possessions. We need to show our love and support by standing beside our Latino families in a very tangible way.”

At Riverchase, an established congregation that has led the way in birthing and partnering with an Hispanic congregation, Rev. Fernando Del Castillo (who despite our expensive legal efforts was deported a few years ago, my first experience with difficult immigration laws) states that HB56 fostered anxiety, fear, and panic among his people . “Four of our families have already moved to different states, leaving behind businesses, jobs, houses, and dreams.”

In Huntsville at Iglesia de la Communidad, Rev. Roblero Macedonio’s church reports that his congregation lost ten families who had to move to other states. Macedonio says that though his congregation has all but disappeared, he vows to “continue preaching the word and growing more disciples for the transformation of the world.”

By the way, nearly everyone I spoke to asked us to pray for the law enforcement officials who have been forced by our government to attempt to enforce the law. They are hopeful that the lawmakers will listen to the pleas of the business groups, school leaders, and police and sheriffs who have pled for revisions in the law.

And that’s just what we pray for too. Our Governor and legislators have admitted that the law needs change and they have promised that they would make changes in the law this legislative season that begins this week. We fully understand that when the law was devised, not all of them could know the nefarious implications of the law upon our businesses and schools.

I hope that by pointing to the effect of this law upon our churches, the lawmakers will consider the well-being of all of our people, particularly those who are attempting to practice the Christian faith in Alabama.

Will Willimon

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