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Migrant Narrative is at the Core of Religious Traditions
Lutheran pastor David Vasquez is stepping into the shoes of immigrant workers for a year after last year's raid on an Iowa meat-packing plant.
By Melissa Sanchez
A year after a massive raid on an Iowa meat-packing plant, not far from his congregation, a Lutheran pastor decided to take some time off to draw connections between biblical narratives and illegal immigration.
His first stop? The Yakima Valley [in the state of Washington], where for the past week he's talked with farm workers, growers, immigration activists, leaders of faith-based organizations and anyone else with a tale to tell about illegal immigration.
"I've learned so much, especially the way that individual relationships shape the way people see these larger issues," said the Rev. David Vasquez.
"There's a distinction being made ... Growers might express an issue with illegal immigration, yet they're appreciative of their individual workers. And at times workers might be critical of the challenges of being undocumented and working extremely hard, but they're appreciative of the people they work for."
Vasquez was a pastor at Luther College, about 20 miles from Postville, Iowa, where on May 12, 2008, federal immigration authorities arrested 389 people at Agriprocessors, a kosher meat-packing plant. It gained national attention as the largest workplace raid ever conducted.
"The churches in Postville were left picking up the pieces," he said, describing how the community was "devastated" after losing close to a fifth of its residents in the raid. "This was like a natural disaster to the community, except unlike a natural disaster, it had no federal or state aid."
In the 14 months since, as many as 40 percent of the town's inhabitants have left, Vasquez said. City government lost tax revenue and businesses shut down, while regional farmers lost a market for cattle and chicken.
Vasquez has since become a part of a national faith-based movement actively lobbying Congress to overhaul the immigration system — a divisive political issue the group believes needs to be addressed for the well-being of the 12 million-plus people living illegally here, and the well-being of the country.
"Some people might ask, 'Why is the church involved in politics?' " said Kevin Appleby, director of the U.S. Conference of Bishops' Office of Migration and Refugee Policy, recently at an immigration conference in Washington, D.C. "You have human beings' lives and dignity being affected. The (Catholic) Church has a role for speaking out for these people."
Some churches see new anti-immigration laws as intruding on their obligation to care for strangers.
But how the immigration debate is approached varies depending on the religious organization — although national studies show it's an important issue to the legal and illegal Latino immigrants who are largely responsible for gains in church attendance.
For example, a national Latino Evangelical organization recently began urging illegal immigrants to boycott the 2010 U.S. Census as a way to pressure lawmakers to reform the immigration system before the count begins. And at the national level, many religious leaders have made official public statements in support of immigration reform as a way to achieve social justice.
For now, Vasquez is stepping away from the national debate — he's gone to Washington to share his opinion with lawmakers — and instead trying to step into the shoes of the everyday illegal immigrants about whom it's centered.
That means picking cherries with workers in the Yakima Valley, leading Bible study discussions at a Lutheran retreat next month in Chelan and talking with Guatemalan immigrants on a Florida Native American reservation.
And because immigration is not only a U.S. issue — it affects nearly every country in Europe and much of the Middle East — Vasquez will also explore Ethiopian immigrant communities in Israel and villages in his native Guatemala.
On a recent evening, Vasquez was studying the Book of Ruth with a tiny group of women at La Casa Hogar, a Yakima center that provides educational services mostly for immigrant women and their children.
"Basically, this is just a book of stories — and many of these stories have something in common with our own," Vasquez said, using his hands to draw imaginary maps on the table and explaining how poverty and her husband's death forced Ruth to leave for unknown lands. "The reason why we migrate is to seek a better life, or because there is pressure, or we're fleeing from something."
Vasquez asked the women to read parts of the Old Testament story out loud, theater style.
One of the women, a Mexican immigrant from a rural mountain village, had never read from the Bible before. The nearest church was a 21/2-hour walk from her home in the heavily indigenous state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.
"I had no idea there were stories in here that were so much like ours," said Ines Enriquez, 22, after the study session ended. "Ruth had to go to a different country to look for a different life. That's like us."
Vasquez said he's not certain how the end result of his yearlong sabbatical will look. But he says he learns something from each conversation with immigrants, each of whom bring a personal story to their interpretation of the Bible.
In the end, he says, the immigrant experience of dispossession and movement can bring faith-based communities together.
"When you look at all religious traditions, the migrant narrative is at their core," Vasquez said. "It doesn't matter how conservative you are as a Christian. That's a basic sense."
This article appeared in the Yakima Herald.
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