By: Jennie Wilburn
Bishop Will Willimon, former dean of Duke Chapel, is one of the most influential pastors in America, as his books have sold over a million copies and he is editor-at-large of The Christian Century. Bishop Will Willimon is currently serving the United Methodist Church in the North Alabama conference, where he recently gained attention for speaking out against Alabama’s immigration laws. Willimon, along with other Methodist clergy, wrote an open letter to Gov. Robert Bentley calling the immigration legislation “the meanest legislation bill in this country” and “an embarrassment to our state.” On October 4th Bishop Willimon brought his insights and experience to Duke Divinity School to talk about “Fighting Immigration Law Like Christians.” The suggestions that he gave for a Christian response to immigration law can, I believe, also be used in advocating for farmworker legislation, since the immigrant community and farmworker community obviously overlap to a very large extent. Rallying churches to support immigrants and to call attention to the need for social justice as related to immigration law also means calling attention to the social justice issues relevant to farmworkers.
Bishop Willimon believes that the first goal of the church should be to re-frame the issue of immigration as a theological or ecclesial issue rather than a legal issue. Then, immigration law becomes an “invitation to rediscover the joy of the church,” as the church works together to defend the rights of all people. Farm work, like immigration, is a question of inclusion. It is a human rights issue in that people who do hard work should be paid fairly and treated with respect and dignity. Bishop Willimon also noted that churches are well suited for this kind of advocacy because they provide a space for thinking about people’s stories, not about the laws. In other words, the church is grounded in narrative. By hearing people tell about how the law impacts their lives, people become personally invested in an issue, instead of being concerned about legalities.
For Bishop Willimon this issue becomes a measure of fidelity for churches. If immigration law does not detrimentally affect one’s church, he says, then your church is not fulfilling God’s call to serve all people. This radical inclusion is an appeal to harvest the church’s collective power to fight against immigration law. If this same question of faithfulness were posed in rural churches concerning the workers who pick the foods that the people bring to potlucks or fellowship meals, who live in the same communities but are made to feel unwelcome in a country that they cannot call home and whose laws force them to live in fear, it is likely that parishioners would become mobilized to use their resources in order to welcome the stranger.
The goods news is that Bishop Willimon sees the challenges proposed by immigration law as a “miraculous hope” because of the changes that he has seen in his churches in Alabama. Willimon defines change as a miracle that is divinely initiated. For many who work in the Farmworker Movement, change is indeed a miracle as it is something that is a continuous struggle and requires great patience to achieve. Though change may be slow for farmworker justice, there is hope in the churches that are confronting this issue and responding to it in loving and hospitable ways. This gives those working in the agricultural justice movement the miraculous hope to continue fighting to open the eyes, ears and hearts of people everywhere.
If you are interested in hosting a film screening of our documentary at your church or any other location, Harvest of Dignity, please contact Jennie Wilburn at email@example.com. For faith based resources about farmworkers. please see the NC Council of Churches website for factsheets or Bible Study. For resources to use in church worship, please see the National Farm Worker Ministry website for prayers and scriptures in Spanish and English.