For the past 35 years, the issue of immigration on the Arizona-Mexican border has galvanized religious leaders and institutions, both local churches and judicatories, to work collaboratively on an interfaith basis to address the multiple issues of the border: drugs, political oppression, and, above all, people coming to the United States for work. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Tucson Ecumenical Council oversaw the Sanctuary Movement, which brought thousands of political refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador to safe haven in the United States. Contiguously, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) built five interfaith organizations in Arizona, two of them on the Mexican Border, which included the cities of San Luis, Yuma, Benson, Nogales, Douglas, and Bisbee, to address working class and immigrant issues of employment and education.
Continuing this engagement, in 2011, four Bishops in Arizona, who were meeting regularly with the Arizona Ecumenical Council, gathered together to write short “spiritual autobiographies” about their experiences along the US-Mexico border as they related to one of the most volatile political and human issues in this country — the immigration of foreign nationals, and in this case, Mexican people coming to the US for a better economic life. The Bishops were United Methodist Minerva Carcaño, Roman Catholic Gerald Kicanas, Episcopal Kirk Smith, and Lutheran Stephen Talmage.
The diversity of the four Bishops’ roots is revealed early in their book. Carcaño, raised on the Texas-Mexican border, is a daughter of a man who came to America under the bracero program, a labor agreement between the US and Mexico, where he labored in South Texas cotton and vegetable fields. Kicanas is from the north side of Chicago with third-generation Lebanese roots. Smith and Talmage are both Arizona “home boys” growing up in Tucson and Phoenix.
As background to their the testimonies, the four bishops wisely asked Mark Adams, a Presbyterian missioner living in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico to provide a short historical review of Mexican and United States relationships from the mid 19th century to the present. Adams provides the grounding for these quite heartening essay memoirs by the four bishops, who not only speak out on social justice on behalf of the larger Church, but who also got “on the ground” and went to both sides of the border to not only meet and greet people, but to listen to their stories of migration.
The immigrant stories are powerful and heart-rending. Most of the Bishops traveled 30 miles across the border to Altar, Sonora, Mexico, “the springboard” for migrants trying to cross the into the US. For Bishop Smith it was a life-changing experience, listening to these migrants and why they are driven to run through the dangers of crossing the US border to find work. For Kicanas, he compared the Altar experience to a recent experience he had at Auschwitz. Bishop Kicanas writes: “Some in America fear migrants as terrorists, criminals, or ‘those illegals.’ But when you meet people and talk with them, you see that they are human beings living desperate lives, seeking the same freedom our ancestors did when they came through Ellis Island” (p. 39). Bishop Smith also “walked the talk” on the border organizing the House of Episcopal Bishops at their annual meeting in Phoenix in 2010, to have an overnight border orientation “plunge” experience on both sides of the US-Mexican border. Thirty Bishops including the Presiding Bishop participated.
Arizona Bishop Carcaño led a walk through the desert with 100 people in a border area where many “crossovers” had died. She also led a prayer vigil at the State Legislature steps with a group of 1500 in protest of the Arizona Senate passage of SB 1070. SB 1070 was a piece of punitive legislation directed towards people of color and illegal immigrants that allowed racial profiling and permission for legal authorities to stop and search without due cause. A surprise learning from these memoirs is the depth and volume of anger and hate reaction through social media towards the Bishops for speaking out and acting on the immigration debate. The four clergy also take time to provide Biblical reflections on their various journeys. Finally, they address the national political ramifications of the failure of the federal government to take action on a broken immigrant system.
A glaring gap in this book is the failure to make a connection to the international traumas of immigrants all over the world; rural Chinese to cities; the African and Middle Eastern migrations to Western Europe. The US-Mexican migration issues are just a small part of the masses of people worldwide “on the move,” all driven to find a better economic way of life. However, these small “spiritual autobiographies” with the poignant, personal, and hands-on stories of migrants are an important read for political leaders and religious people who are committed to political and economic justice in this country.
Philip Connor, Research Associate of Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, has focused this study on the faith experiences of immigrants that migrate to Western Europe and North America. The primary audience for the book is university and seminary academics and NGOs (non-government organizations) who are conducting social service, legal, and advocacy services for immigrants either “in country” or on international borders. The author describes “the acts of migration, changes in immigrant faith, religious roles in shaping immigrant adjustment, and finally the role of faith for children of immigrants” (p. 116). Connor’s methodology includes extensive use of quantitative data (census and surveys) and qualitative informative interviews focusing on four migrant families: an Indian (Sikh) who left India for Canada, a mainland Chinese family to Canada, a Moroccan (Muslim) to France, and a Mexican family to the United States. For these families Connor comments: “These stories of immigrant faith occurring in real time and in the real world illustrate the importance of religion within the lives of immigrants.”
What becomes clear in Connor’s analysis of both data and immigrant stories is that the primary motivation for emigration is economic, and secondly to connect with families already migrated and settle in the host countries. That is the purpose. But the meaning of the moves have many religious connotations. “It is common for many to use religious images, symbols, and narrative to understand the trials and challenges of their migration.” “Religion provides guiding, coping and a mediating force and can shape how these migrants form their decisions” (pp. 32–33).
Of particular importance in immigrant faith is Connor’s analysis of the reception of immigrants in their host countries, and the differences between Western Europe and North America. These societies receive really half of the world “migrants.” Twelve million Muslims have emigrated to Europe in recent years, and an equal number of Mexicans to the United States. The author focuses on how the millions have been received. In Western Europe, “rejection” of African and Middle Eastern migrants is because of their Muslim religion. One of the results of this rejection is that Muslims cluster in an extraordinary way to their ethnic neighborhoods, their faith, and their Mosques. In the United States, rejection is rooted in the migrants being Mexican who come to the US “to take our jobs.” As most Mexicans migrating are Roman Catholic, their faith is not an issue, unlike the Irish Catholics who in the mid 19th century were rejected for both their “papal faith” and economic threat. The reception/rejection assimilation issue was given a reminder for this writer who witnessed recently in his neighborhood a Muslim 4th of July Celebration at their Mosque. At the party held on the Mosque outdoor grounds large American flags were flown, and a huge sign on the wall of the Mosque read, “Love for All, Hatred for None.” It might have been helpful if Connor had more “case studies” of family migrations in this study, for example a Muslim family who migrated to the United States, in order to explore the nuances, complications, and mixed reception of Muslims in this country.
Connor is strong on these assimilation issues in the case studies he gives us for both first-generation immigrants and their children. That being said, Immigrant Faith is a dry read. The saving grace, which provides heart and soul to this study, is the four immigrants’ stories. One would hope that in the future, Pew Research Center would reverse the methodology; the heart being the qualitative stories and interviews, and the surveys and census data serving as an anchor and backdrop to the dynamic stories.
—The Rev. Paul W. Buckwalter
The Rev. Paul Buckwalter writes reviews of books you can find in the Renouf/Nelson Library