ELCA leaders call for dignity, compassion toward unaccompanied children

7/31/2014 3:00:00 PM

            CHICAGO (ELCA) – Prior to the U.S. House of Representatives' cancellation July 31 of its vote to provide an emergency response to the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children entering the United States, some members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) had worked to contact their representatives to encourage them to "address the issue with dignity and compassion." 

            "We are at a critical time where Lutherans have an opportunity to make sure our voices of faith and compassion for all of God's children are heard," according to a July 31 ELCA advocacy alert. The Senate also plans to take up legislation on the issue this week prior to Congress' August recess.
            In addition to advocacy efforts, ELCA leaders and members continue to deepen their commitment to learning more about the arrival of unaccompanied children into the United States. A group of ELCA leaders traveled July 16-18 to Texas, where they received on-the-ground experiences from children, as well as the stories of ELCA congregations who are responding.
            According to ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, ELCA congregations and Lutheran social service agencies have been responding to the "50,000 undocumented, unaccompanied minors fleeing terrible poverty and gang violence in their countries. Some of these children in detention are 3 years old. They come with their names either written or sewn onto their clothes.
            "Not a single one of us could take care of that crisis ourselves, but together we can. And we are hoping to work in those communities who feel so overwhelmed by this wave of people coming … we need to pray for them as well. That's how we are as church together, and we are church for the sake of the world." 
            The Rev. Stephen Bouman, who traveled to Texas, said the issue is both global and local "demanding a broad conversation and understanding about the contexts of Central America, Mexico and the United States, and the conditions which 'push' and 'pull' this migration." Bouman serves as executive director of ELCA Congregational and Synodical Mission.
            In visits to children shelters and facilities managed by Lutheran Social Services of the South, based in Austin, Texas, and meetings with ELCA pastors and members to hear about their experiences and response efforts, the issue "became incarnate for me," said Bouman.
            "Here were the children who had been on our hearts. A 5-year-old boy smiled at me. He is from El Salvador and crossed the border with his grandmother. The two became separated during intake by border control," he said.
            At a Lutheran Social Services of the South's children shelter in Corpus Christi, Texas, Bouman said ELCA leaders met with more than 100 immigrant children ages 13 to 17. One ELCA member delivered a greeting in Spanish, and another ELCA leader offered a prayer and blessing. Among the many questions about "Where are you from?" and "How long did it take you to get here," Bouman said that responses from the children who entered the United States were very clear – to escape violence, reunite with family, and seek safety and security. "For some the transit was relatively uneventful. Others were robbed, assaulted or witnessed bad things to others," he said.
            "We often heard, 'despite what you hear in the media;' we were told about what is really happening," said Bouman. "Several of us started making myth-busting lists," he said, such as, "'border crossings are dramatically up' when border crossings are actually down, and that 'unaccompanied minors are carrying drugs' when drugs are not being found on unaccompanied minors from Central America."
            For the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director of ELCA Global Mission, July 16 was a day particularly "filled with intense emotions," he said. "I listened to stories of the unaccompanied minors. They shared the details of their journey full of dangers and yet of hope. It was better to take the risk of dying in journey than to be killed or becoming a slave."
            "Two days before the break of World War II more than 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Poland, Austria and Czechoslovakia were sent by train to Great Britain. The 'Kinderstransport' saved their lives as their parents and relatives provided an escape from the horrors of Nazism and the ruthless and dehumanizing living conditions they were about to face," said Malpica Padilla.
            "Today parents from Central American countries, particularly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, face the same dilemma, and they too have chosen to send their kids to a 'safe place,' where they could seek refuge from the horrors of daily life under the ruthless actions of drug cartels and street gangs," said Malpica Padilla in a post-trip reflection. "They also take a train known as 'La Bestia,' 'the Beast,' which aptly describes their journey into the U.S. border crossing at the Rio Grande. Rather than being welcomed, as the Kinderstransport kids experienced, they are received with the hate and rancor of communities that see them as intruders, opportunist and law-breakers."
            ELCA leaders also met with some foster families, particular a set of parents who offered to become foster parents when Lutheran Social Services opened this past April its transitional foster care program in Corpus Christi.
            "Don Jose Ramirez (name changed for protection) and his wife have sponsored more than 80 children as transitional foster parents for these unaccompanied minors after they are legally released by the Border Patrol with a Notice to Appear (NTA) before an immigration judge. The NTA provides for their legal status while waiting for the hearing. When (children) arrive at Don Jose's home, the first thing they see is a sign on the front lawn: "El ultimo paso de una larga jornada" (The last step of a long journey). There they are welcomed. There they experience love, care and compassion, just as the Kinderstransport kids did in Great Britain," said Malpica Padilla.
            "'Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!' I wonder if these words from from Emma Lazarus, inscribed at the foot of Lady Liberty, apply to all or just to some. The Central American children are sent in the hope that they too will find the light in the tier path to freedom," said Malpica Padilla.
            For more information, visit http://www.elca.org/Our-Work/Relief-and-Development/Lutheran-Disaster-Response/Our-Impact/Unaccompanied-and-Migrant-Children; the text of the advocacy alert is available at http://www.capwiz.com/elca/issues/alert/?alertid=63286196.
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with about 4 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.

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