Christian Citizenship Seminar 2015 Takes on the Topic of Immigration

Two of the senior high youth who participated in this year’s Christian Citizenship Seminar report on the event and its impact:

Youth discuss connections between immigration and faith

By Jenna Walmer

Photo by Kristen Hoffman
Some notes taken during the 2015 Christian Citizenship Seminar on the topic of immigration

On April 18, Church of the Brethren youth gathered in New York City at the start of Christian Citizenship Seminar (CCS), a conference that allows youth to explore the connections between a specific topic and our faith. This year the topic was immigration.

The seminar culminates with congressional visits in Washington, D.C. Throughout the seminar, we discussed the importance of our faith’s connection with citizenship and how immigration impacts our lives. It is a busy week filled with learning, fun, and spiritual growth. Following is an abridged version of what goes down at CCS.

Walking through New York’s Times Square with luggage in tow is definitely an adventure. We admired the sites of the city, but we walked many blocks to find our hotel. After we recuperated from the long walk and went to dinner, we had our first session led by Nate Hosler and Bryan Hanger of the Office of Public Witness. Nate discussed the connections of immigration to the Bible. Then, Bryan introduced talking points for our congressional visits.

The next day, we split up and went to churches around the city. I went to Judson Memorial, a church that is affiliated with the Baptists and United Church of Christ. This church was very different and not what I expected, but I could definitely see myself attending. The preacher was pretty socialist, and the whole congregation was accepting of everyone: people with AIDS, homosexuals, immigrants. They also promoted being politically and socially active.

What interested me was that the preacher was arrested with Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez. Later in the evening, the speaker was actually the preacher we listened to that morning at Judson. She told story after story about immigrants she has helped. This developed an emotional connection to the facts we already started to learn. Putting a story to the facts is important to connect with congressional visits.

Photo by Kristen Hoffman
Rev. Michael Livingston of Riverside Church in New York speaks with the CCS group

On Monday, we started off the day with the pastor from Riverside Church, who discussed the systematic problems of immigration and the general process. After this session, many headed to the United Nations for a tour and another educational experience. At the UN, the group learned about human rights. I would recommend that everyone visits the United Nations at least once because it opens your eyes to what the world as a whole is working towards.

Finally, the day of travel! The bus trip is one of the first times you get to interact with a larger group of people. Then, we arrived in Washington, D.C. We had a meeting with Julie Chavez Rodriguez, deputy director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement. We had the opportunity to be on the White House campus! We were sniffed by a drug dog. I even saw the fountain that you always see on TV, and I have pictures of the outside of the West Wing and all the Secret Service Cars. Julie Chavez Rodriguez gave us insight on President Obama’s agenda on immigration. She also told us about the internship program at the White House.

After dinner, Jerry O’Donnell gave us our first full lesson on how to talk to our representatives. He told us to use personal experiences, and acknowledge the conditions of the government currently. Also, he reminded us that we are speaking for those who do not have a voice, the immigrants.

Wednesday we had another legislative training session in the morning. This session gave us examples in the form of a pretend meeting of what to do and what not to do while in an office. We also discussed our main points once again, so they were fresh in our memory. The speaker told us to lead with a story of how immigration has impacted our lives. She also told us that congressmen don’t demilitarize the border because they are afraid. They don’t act on immigration reform and give immigrants rights because they are afraid. These points stuck with me as we moved into our own groups and preparation for our Hill visits.

My group went to Senator Bob Casey’s office. We asked him about demilitarization of the border. Casey is a Democrat. He votes to keep military at the border because it is one thing that the Republicans want to keep in immigration reform. The aide explained that this is “give and take,” what Casey “gives” to the Republicans so he can receive something else in return. In the evening, we reflected with the larger group on our visits.

Our final session reflected on the week, and how we’ve grown mentally and spiritually. After the session, we took many pictures, exchanged hugs, and said our goodbyes. Our pastor arrived with our van and we were off, ready to be disciples of Christ, now able to spread the word about immigration to our communities to make a difference in the world.

As we become active in politics and discern what issues are near and dear to our hearts, remember to keep a connection to faith in mind. Remember to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. Finally, remember to act without fear.

— Jenna Walmer is a high school senior from Palmyra (Pa.) Church of the Brethren who also blogs for the Dunker Punks blogsite.

Christian Citizenship Seminar reflections

By Corrie Osborne

Photo by Kristen Hoffman
A small group discussion during the 2015 CCS

Youth group trips are a special thing in themselves, but Christian Citizenship Seminar (CCS) is even more unique in the fact that its attendees get to learn and take political action about a certain topic. At this year’s Christian Citizenship Seminar, a few main points have continued to be ingrained in our minds. We learned that as Christians it is important to care for people whether they are documented or not, that immigrants are helping our economy rather than hurting it, and that there is no justified reason to keep immigrants out.

A sermon was about caring for the flock without being particular about who you are  helping–this includes immigrants. One of our speakers, a pastor from Judson Memorial Church and long time political activist, told us the story of around 30 female police officers throughout New York City who have volunteered to answer calls of help from undocumented immigrants who are being abused. In order to keep them from being deported, the officers have to keep the visits off the books. In other words, the officers choose what they believe is morally right to take precedence over the steps that the broken immigration system calls them to take.

Photo by Kristen Hoffman
Staff take a break during the 2015 CCS: (from left) Office of Public Witness director Nate Hosler and advocacy associate Bryan Hanger, and Youth and Young Adult Ministry director Becky Ullom Naugle.

We learned that it is important to be educated about a subject, but also to take action in ways that apply to you. Sometimes it is better to lean toward mercy and hospitality as opposed to the letter of the law.

While it may seem inconsequential to deport undocumented immigrants, an estimated 11 million are already living in the United States. Their jobs mainly involve manual labor, agriculture, the restaurant business, and domestic help. One frequent argument used against immigrants living in the US is that they are taking available jobs away from “born and bred” Americans. To the contrary, approximately $6 billion to $7 billion worth of Social Security tax is paid by undocumented workers each year. This statistic does not include the millions of dollars of wages that are paid under the table.

The truth is that documented and undocumented workers alike do the jobs that not many American citizens would care to do themselves. In addition, Social Security taxes from undocumented workers will never come to fruition for themselves; the money goes into a large pool doled out among legal citizens. In essence, those undocumented immigrants are paying for the rest of us to retire.

To better understand the issue, we met with someone who has first-hand experience working with the personal and political aspects of the immigration issue–Julia Chavez Rodriguez, the daughter of Cesar Chavez. We witnessed how she connects with groups across the country and gathers stories in order to put a human face on President Obama’s policies. A main point of hers was that there aren’t any quality arguments to justify keeping immigrants out.

The two issues that bring the most contention are not having a personal connection to an immigrant family and being uneducated about the matter. As in many other cases, misinformation leads to fear. Some say that the immigration system is “broken,” but several prominent figures suspect that the complicated governmental pyramid is forming immigration policies to be purposefully vague in order to create a stalemate. That fragile political environment makes it easy to score political points as a politician. A politician’s stance on immigration can affect their whole platform and change the outcome of a race.

Photo by Kristen Hoffman
The group of senior high youth and adult advisors at Christian Citizenship Seminar 2015

In summation, we learned that the key component to the immigration issue is lack of compassion and the dehumanization of immigrants. It is important for us as a church to be open and welcoming because that is what we are called to do. However, we observed that the politicians we spoke with didn’t directly answer the questions we asked–in part because they might not have been completely familiar with the topic at hand, but also because the nature of their job requires that they don’t give away too much. Sadly, it’s too dangerous to become a partisan even within one’s political group.

Most importantly, we understood that the best thing we can do for this issue is to take what we have learned with us, in order to use it later in life when the opportunity arises.

— Corrie Osborne is a senior high youth at Manchester Church of the Brethren in North Manchester, Ind.

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