As latino communities face increased pressure and risks from US immigrations and customs, how are latinos of faith organizing to protect the vulnerable while also including white Christians in migrant-led efforts for change?
Yesterday, I got to hear from professor Robert Chao Romero, a Chinese-Latinx American historian and immigration lawyer at UCLA. He’s the author of The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940 , winner of the Latin American Studies Association’s Latina/o Studies Section Book Award. I got to hear Robert speak in Kingston, Rhode Island, at a retreat for university faculty who are Christians.
Robert opens up by talking about latino students who conclude that Christianity is a system of oppression and colonialism without having the chance to learn their own history of faith-inspired activism. As a historian, Robert has led a series of initiatives in LA that foreground latino religious histories of social justice. As one example, Robert tells us about an annual 4th of July Freedom Ride hosted by his church. The Freedom Ride shows people historic sites of injustice in the LA area, asking a local community leader or pastor to tell the story connected to each location. At every spot, the group holds a prayer for healing. Through tours like this, Robert and others in his community are able to keep community history alive and powerful. He’s now working on a book that covers 500 years of Christian latino social justice organizing.
Robert also tells us about student-hosted discussions at UCLA about immigration and faith, part of a project called Jesus for Revolutionaries (J4R). Recently, students have organized events that share the voices of undocumented students with the wider community at UCLA. Meeting in one of the Christian fraternities, their first event gathered 80 people to hear from their undocumented peers. For many of the people who pass through, Jesus for Revolutionaries offers a first step of a conversation between their faith, values, and identity, one that often leads to participation in other Christian groups for latino and black students.
J4R focuses on connecting activist students with Christian ministries that offer good bridges between students and underserved communities. In addition to giving students an opportunity to serve, J4R also gives students exposure to churches that have developed genuine collaborations with undocumented communities. Over the years, non-Christians have also led J4R initiatives, accessing resources to support their educational and financial needs. Through J4R, many of these non-Christians have connected and collaborated with Christians for the first time, or the first time in many years. J4R also participates in the annual UCLA immigrant youth empowerment conference. Last year, students held a workshop exploring what the Bible says about immigration, exploring how undocumented youth might think about faith in their own lives and question unwelcoming theological assumptions they hear from others.
In the past seven months, Robert and Erica have participated in the Matthew 25 Movement, a mostly-evangelical (but not limited to evangelical) movement that has come together to support vulnerable groups in the US. The bipartisan movement was convened in November before the election by Alexia Salvatierra, author of Faith Rooted Organizing, to imagine practical ways that the church could support communities affected by the upcoming election. After the election, they held another meeting in Union Church, a Japanese Christian church with a history rooted in the internment of Japanese people during the second world war. When 200 people showed up, the group decided to organize as the Matthew 25 Movement. In the initial gathering, people from Christian organizations including Biola University, Fuller Seminary, Asuza Pacific University, and a mix of other church groups and communities are now working together to defend the vulnerable. The movement takes its name from a passage in the book of Matthew where Jesus tells his followers that those who welcome people who are different from them are ultimately welcoming Jesus.
While the message of Matthew 25 is universal, the movement’s work on migrant rights is led by latino churches. Looking at the media create by the Matthew 25 movement after Robert’s talk, I was fascinated to see how they created messages and framings that implicitly include and appeal to non-latino Christians.
To participate, Christians and churches take a pledge “to stand with and defend the vulnerable in the name of Jesus.” In Southern California, many people in the Matthew 25 Movement have focused on immigration and community policing. When one church asked their community to take the pledge via phone during a church service, immigrants in the community wept to see their neighbors reach for their phones to commit love and support.
How can people get involved in the Matthew 25 movement aside from the pledge? The group has an educational task force that does trainings and seminars in churches, in parallel with groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table who have been working on these issues for years. The advocacy task force works with legislatures. The deportation defense and protection group works with lawyers and churches to help families plan for what to do if they get deported and access the resources they need when it happens. The Matthew 25 movement also matches immigrant and non-immigrant churches to come together in support of specific families that need protection. Even among churches that aren’t open to operating as sanctuary churches, they may be willing to offer other kinds of direct support to families, with the guidance of latino-led churches.
To illustrate the need for deportation defense, Robert and his wife Erica Shepler Romero tell us about the story of pastor Noe Nolberto Carias Mayorga, a south LA pastor who came to the US from Guatemala while a teenager. He’s now being detained by ICE, while his family (who are US citizens) and his church pray that he won’t be deported. The Matthew 25 movement is working to support pastor Noe.
A Japanese-American professor whose family was part of the internment during the second world war asks is there are statistics about the racially-targeted nature of enforcement of immigration laws, much as it was racially motivated in WWII.
Robert answers that the United States has many white Canadian and European undocumented people, and that much of the enforcement of immigration laws is racially disparate. He points to the recent conviction of ex-sheriff Arpaio, who violated a court order requiring him to stop racial profiling.
Another person asks if conservatives and republican Christians are joining the Matthew 25 movement. Robert responds that Pastor Noe’s case is starting to get wide attention. High ranking conservatives have started to stand up for him. People with personal relationships to high ranking Republicans and to president Trump have sent letters.