The Rev. Devon Anderson (Chair, MN Deputation to the 79th General Convention; Chair, Legislative Committee on Justice and US Policy)
Not Your Grandad’s River
Hercalitus of Ephesus, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, famously wrote: “No man [sic] ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” As with rivers, so too with General Convention. Every three years the Episcopal Church gathers — bishops, deputies, exhibitors, educators, special guests, communicators — for the great Episcopal family reunion that reconnects us to one another and sets our collective course as the “Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement” for the next three years.
You never step into the same General Convention twice. Those of us who return, time and again, are different people – three years older and, God willing, wiser. Those of us who are new to the party bring curiosity and vitality, distinctive perspectives and hard-earned insight from ministry back home. There’s always new leadership emerging, new dynamics and subtleties to understand. In this way, General Convention never disappoints. It keeps every self-respecting participant on his/her toes and is never for the faint-of-heart.
Each General Convention, too, is influenced by the political and cultural realities of the day. This time around the issues of intensity and focus were clear:
1) racial reconciliation and healing,
2) a resurgence of commitment to equality, well-being, safety, and justice for women (a response to #MeToo),
3) a renewed appetite to take on issues in public life – gun control, justice for Palestine-Israel, basic human dignity and fairness for immigrants and refugees, and
4) a sense of hope and energy around evangelism, culminating in initiatives surrounding church planting, liturgical revision, and the welcoming of Cuba back into the fold.
With marriage equality largely decided and behind us as a church, this General Convention felt more chilled-out than its predecessors. Gone were the long lines at House of Deputy microphones – lengthy pro and con debates that can turn nasty and personal. Gone, for the most part, were conflicts between the House of Deputies and House of Bishops. The 79th General Convention felt more like listening than legislating – a bit more harmonious, maybe, or with an eagerness to hear God’s voice emerge from the din with a clear call to the next mountains we need to climb together as a church.
They’re Signaling to Us
Personally, the experiences of most meaning at this General Convention – and most impact on my daily life, spiritual life, and ministry – surrounded immigration. Through the initiative of a few deputies and the financial support of Trinity Wall Street, about 900 Episcopalians traveled 36-miles northeast from Austin to Taylor, Texas for a prayer service outside the T. Don Hutto Detention Center, a residential holding facility for women who have arrived in the United States seeking asylum, many of whom have been separated from their children.
I had arranged for the Rev. LeeAnne Watkins to ship eight “The Episcopal Church is Here” signs to Austin, so that we might bring a bit of Minnesota along with us to the prayer service, waving the signs that so many in our diocese wave at local prayer services and demonstrations in our collective work toward justice for immigrants. Our deputation carried their signs with pride.
I can describe it no better than to say that the feel of the detention center is horrific. As our buses pulled up, we were directed not to approach the detention center itself but to proceed to the baseball fields where the prayer service would take place. It’s a commentary on the way things are these days that our communities maintain pristine community parks and baseball diamonds within spitting distance of for-profit prisons that resemble Guantanamo Bay, with their barbed wire, patrolling German Shepherds, and armed guards. It was a stark contrast. For a while we hung around where we were supposed to, as the gathering crowds began to sing, and we waited for the musicians and our presiding officers to begin the service.
Later, a few of us decided to follow Bishop Mark Andrus and others around to the front of the detention center to get a better look, and, hopefully, to be seen by the women inside. There was media everywhere and increasingly agitated local police personnel and prison guards. We sang, and some people prayed, and we just stood there and hoped our presence would be some kind of encouragement that, as our signs proclaimed, “the Episcopal Church Cares About This.” In that moment I wished our signs had read, “the Episcopal Church Cares About YOU.”
After a while most people began to walk back to the park and board buses for the ride home. But a few of us stayed, just a bit longer, and watched. Then a few people pointed, “Look,” they said, “they’re signaling to us.” And there in one of the elongated windows we saw it: not a face because it was too far away, but someone signaling to us by moving something white (a piece of paper? a towel?) up and down the inside of the window, methodically, persistently. “Mimic the signal,” someone said, “so she knows we see her.” And we immediately fell in line, moving our hands up and down in tempo with the signaling woman. We saw each other. We connected. We didn’t to leave.
Later, the House of Deputies President, Gay Jennings, relayed to the House this tweet from the Grassroots Leadership, a local group that helped organize the prayer service:
“A woman called from Hutto after today’s prayer,” said the Tweet, “and told us they were glued to the windows until the last bus left the detention center. Women inside were crying, saying they knew they weren’t alone after seeing so many people there. Thank you.”
From Information to Transformation
Before that day I had never seen, in person, a detention center. I religiously keep up with the news, with reporting on children separated from their parents, the plight of Dreamers, ICE raids, the dwindling number of refugees allowed to enter the US. I read the articles. I know the facts. I form my opinions. But, on that day, something inside moved from abstract to real, from reports to people, from information to transformation.
I was anxious to get back to Austin and begin work on the 9 resolutions related to immigration being considered by the legislative committee on Social Justice and US Policy, that I was honored to chair.
The Episcopal Church has been acting on, and voicing opinions about, immigration since 1934, when the Episcopal Church resettled its first refugees, and the Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) was born. Our church has always legislated from a stature of welcome and hospitality to people seeking asylum in our country. Because there are over 50 resolutions on the books regarding immigration, the work of this General Convention was to fine-tune, summarize, re-emphasize, and in a few cases, advance the church’s position.
General Convention passes resolution on US and international policy for several reasons. Principally, these resolutions allow the Episcopal Church’s Office of Governmental Relations (OGR) to advocate at all levels of government on the church’s behalf. OGR cannot advocate on any policy matter about which GC has not acted. Similarly, public policy-related resolutions allow faith communities to engage in the public arena about issues about which the church cares deeply.
My Social Justice and US Policy legislative committee worked very hard with the 9 resolutions regarding immigration. Through research, discussion, and debate the committee combined and edited 9 resolutions into 3, all of which passed both Houses at General Convention. They are:
1) A178 Halt the Intensification and Implementation of Immigration Policies and Practices that are Harmful to Migrant Women, Parents and Children
2) C009 Becoming A Sanctuary Church
3) C033 Respecting the Dignity of Immigrants
Each resolution is instructive and compelling. You may read them in their entirety here:
Now Go, Minnesota!
My big take-away from General Convention is this: people who are incarcerated, who have been separated from their children, whose futures are tenuous – they are signaling to us. It’s time to get to work and redouble our efforts.
ECMN enjoys many congregations and leaders (clergy and lay both) who are already mobilized and committed to social justice for immigrants and refugees. Seek them out. Pick their brains. Join their efforts. Also:
1) Know where the Episcopal Church stands on comprehensive immigration reform and the rights of refugees and be able to communicate the church’s position to the people you serve. Check out the Episcopal Archives website: https://www.episcopalarchives.org/. Scroll down to “Search the Digital Archives,” type in a key word such as “immigration” or “refugee” and the Archives will list EVERY resolution ever passed about that topic.
2) Connect with OGR and the Episcopal Public Policy Network: (scroll down for an excellent 3-minute video that explains OGR’s mission):
OGR has a full-time staff person dedicated entirely to immigration and refugee
3) Know the Episcopal Church’s history with refugees. For an excellent overview of Episcopal Migration Ministries, check out this brand-new video which premiered in my legislative committee at General Convention:
4) Mobilize your people. Seriously. You can do it! Trinity Excelsior, for example, is a “purple” parish (representing the broadest spectrum of political ideology and affiliation) and this fall, in partnership with the local Chamber of Commerce and League of Women Voters, Trinity will hold a series of candidate forums for local and state offices, and we will be asking candidates about their positions and actions around immigration.
5) Finally, if you were moved by stories and images from the prayer service at the Hutto Detention Center, you can contribute to the Grassroots Leadership’s Hutto Community Deportation Defense and Bond Fund. Grassroots Leadership tells us that gifts “will be used to release people detained and ensure they remain free. Bonds on average are $1,500-$10,000. Funds will be used for bonds, basic needs, and commissary so women can call their children and community, and other emergency needs.”