Immigration, Faith and the Fight for the Soul of Prince William County

| By Jen Cooper |

The whole congregation stands at St. Francis of Assisi church to watch as Father John Heffernan baptizes a young girl, probably no older than 2. She is clad in an all-white dress with ruffles down the front. Her dad holds her in his arms as Father Heffernan dips a shallow bowl into a basin of water and gently pours it over the girl’s head.

“En el nombre del Padre,” he says as he pours. Again, he fills the bowl.
“En el nombre del Hijo.” Once more, water cascades over her thick black hair.
“En el nombre del Espiritu Santo.”

In the name of Father. In the name of the Son. In the name of the Holy Spirit.

This baptism marked a joyous occasion for the more than 200 Spanish-speaking parishioners at St. Francis in Woodbridge, Va. But for others in Prince William County, this scene represents a stark change in the community’s identity.

According to census data, in 1990, 4.5 percent of Prince William County’s population was Hispanic. The most recent data from 2006 shows that in nearly 20 years that number has more than quadrupled, to 19.1 percent.

That’s not the only change that has affected the once-rural landlocked county. In fact, the county’s entire population has grown sharply in those years. The latest estimates from March 2009 put the total number of county residents at 391,621 – a 55 percent increase since 1990. That growth has fueled rapid residential and commercial development. Until the recent recession, the building boom created a deep need for labor, making Prince William County a popular destination for undocumented workers and their families.

Responses to the growing presence of illegal immigrants, mostly Latinos, have been debated in living rooms, municipal buildings and  courts. The public rancor surrounding local authorities’ handling of federal immigration enforcement thrust the county into the national spotlight. But for many in a community where many residents across the political and demographic spectrum are Christians, the debate is happening in churches. The non-Latino Christian community – protestant and Catholic – here is divided. Even members of the same congregation often have different views.

On one side of the pews are those who see immigrants as human beings just looking for better opportunities to provide for their families; on the other side are those who view the undocumented workers as fraudulent lawbreakers and thieves. In Prince William County, immigration is more than a political and legal matter.

It is a theological debate with all sides making their cases – in the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, in the name of the Holy Spirit. Mark Weaver, Illana Naylor and Father Bob Menard are all longtime residents of the area and people of faith. For them, Christianity offers starkly different answers to the questions raised by the arrival of undocumented immigrants in their midst.

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER – FOLLOWING THE LAW

In 1978, Mark Weaver and his wife moved from Annandale to Manassas in order to raise their three daughters in a more affordable community. At that time, Manassas was still a semi-rural town.  Anecdotally, people used to say that the Mason-Dixon line ran through Manassas , so that Manassas and everything south was part of the South, everything north of Manassas was the North. Now, Manassas has been absorbed into Northern Virginia.

“We’re not the community we were 25 years ago,” Weaver said. “I’m not saying it’s better or worse. It’s just different.”

Weaver has worked as a salesman in the construction industry for 20 years and attends Clear River Community Church, a nondenominational fellowship. He is also a writer and has co-authored several Christian fiction books that address racial injustices and the need for reconciliation. His books focused on the wrongs done to Native Americans and to African-American slaves. In the 1990s, Weaver attended community meetings for people of faith who were trying to heal wounds caused by racial divisions.

“They say the most segregated hour of the week is 11 on Sunday mornings,” he said.

But Weaver makes a stark distinction between the plight of Native Americans and blacks  and that of illegal immigrants.  The difference is, he said, that while Native Americans and blacks were innocent, illegal immigrants are guilty of breaking a law.

“I’m all for reconciliation, but not at the cost of truth, not at the cost of honoring the law,” he said.

As Weaver has witnessed the growth of Manassas and neighboring towns in Prince William County, he has also noticed other changes brought by the increasing immigrant presence.

Signs in big-box stores now display information in both English and Spanish. Single-family homes have been rented out to large groups of immigrants, their parked cars clogging up the streets in front. Others live in motor homes. One family, he said, grew corn in the front yard of their subdivision home and raised chickens in the backyard. These neighborhood issues bothered Weaver, but they weren’t his biggest concern.

“The core reason is that I didn’t like the idea that there was a whole bunch of people in my community that had broken the law to get here,” he said. “It was just being overrun from people who didn’t legally have a right to be here, according to the law.”

Even worse, those immigrant lawbreakers then use government services being funded by taxpayers.

“That’s wrong. It’s thievery,” he said. “There’s a lot more to stealing than just going into a bank with a gun and holding it up. There’s lots of ways you can steal.”

Weaver said he worried about the quality of the life for future generations living in Manassas, including his own children and grandchildren.

“I want them to have the same privileges, blessings and opportunities that I had. I saw what was happening with the illegal aliens as a threat to those blessings.”

That perceived threat drove Weaver to get involved with the organization Help Save Manassas. The community group was formed in April 2007. Their Web site describes their mission: “Legislative action to reduce the number of illegal aliens in our community.” Weaver served as the group’s editor, helping to produce a monthly newsletter.

Help Save Manassas was successful in lobbying the Prince William County Board of Supervisors to unanimously adopt a “Rule of Law” resolution in July 2007. The resolution initially brought before the board authorized local law enforcement to “inquire into the citizenship or legal status of individuals who they had detained in the course of their duties if there was probable cause to do so.” In order to avoid claims of racial profiling, the county later amended the resolution so that the citizenship and immigration status of arrested persons would be checked before they were released from custody.
Weaver said this resolution, coupled with the downturn in the economy, has helped to curb illegal immigration and its effects. According to a July 2008 Washington Post article, in year following the resolution’s adoption, 757 illegal-immigrant inmates were turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

For Weaver, this law was an appropriate Christian response because it confronted what he calls the “bad behavior” of illegal immigrants. To ignore the fact that they had broken laws and were committing fraud was simply enabling that behavior, he said.

“Jesus taught us to love,” he said. “Are we to give to people who are in need? Yes. But are we to enable a homeless man who’s an alcoholic on the street who says he’s hungry but we know that if we give him the money, he’s going to go buy another bottle of whiskey? It’s the same thing to me.”

The best way to love the illegal immigrants, Weaver said, is to be just and honest.

“If we are to genuinely love somebody, that love should demonstrate itself in wanting that person to be as right with God and with all men as they possibly can.”

IN THE NAME OF THE SON – WELCOMING THE STRANGER

For Christians, there is no greater image of love than in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus’s teaching and examples were taught to Illana Naylor as she was raised in a Christian home, the daughter of a Church of the Brethren reverend.  As part of her journey to faith, she read the Bible cover to cover, and she noticed an underlying message.

“All the way through Genesis, through the Old Testament, to the New Testament, through all 66 books, there is God’s calling upon our hearts to welcome the stranger,” she said. “It’s the whole story of God’s love for his people, which includes all of us.”

Like Weaver, Naylor has lived in Manassas for more than 30 years and has witnessed the community’s growing diversity.

“To my thinking, that’s exciting,” she said.

And, like Weaver, she’s aggrieved by the racial divisions in churches and the community at large. In 1995, Naylor organized a series of community meetings where people could gather and share their stories and concerns about discrimination. Weaver attended some of those meetings.

But when it comes to illegal immigration, Naylor said her faith has guided to her a completely different conclusion.

“The reason for that is that we ourselves are strangers, aliens and sojourners upon God’s earth,” she said. “There isn’t any piece of this earth that belongs to us. It’s all God’s world.”

She said the argument of law doesn’t resonate with her as a Christian because immigration laws are man-made.

“We made these laws to make us feel better,” she said. “We could change them tomorrow if we wanted to.”

When people enter the United States illegally, they are guilty of violating a civil law. It only becomes a criminal offense if they return illegally a second – or third, or fourth – time.

Naylor said she finds the conflation of law and religion troubling.

“People call themselves Christians, but they put the nation above God,” she said. “The church is not acting like the church. It’s acting like the nation.”

And when that happens, the focus moves from brotherhood to boundaries, she said.

“For what reason would I choose to make a geographical boundary the boundary of my love, when God is eternal and God’s love is unconditional?” she said.

Naylor said her faith teaches that the only acceptable response to God’s unconditional love is to extend that love to others.

“Love is stronger than hate, but it also has to be actualized in every generation and in every time,” she said. “Faith without works is dead. Love without action is dead.”

Naylor has put her faith to work in many ways. Her early efforts toward events focused on diversity birthed the organization Unity in the Community. Today, the organization, whose members are mostly people of faith, is still active in trying to promote diversity.

In 2006, she began compiling supportive statements about immigration from religious organizations. The 152-page document, called Words of Compassion, contains statements from a wide range of denominations including Quakers, Catholics and Evangelicals.

Despite the support she’s received from religious organizations on the national level, Naylor said she has been disappointed by the lack of involvement from local churches. She said she is hoping churches will be more active in things like advocating for immigrant rights, offering English-language classes and welcoming immigrants into their sanctuaries regardless of status.

“The church is visiting the sick, the church is feeding the hungry. My own particular critique of church is that we do that very well for our own,” Naylor said. “The question is when people outside the church are hurting, do we help them? Probably not as much as we should.”

IN THE NAME OF THE HOLY SPIRIT – DOING GOD’S WORK

During the height of the local immigration debate, Father Bob Menard, an associate pastor at St. Francis of Assisi, remembers lying awake at night worrying about what to preach. The liturgical readings for that time came from the Book of Jeremiah, based on the writings of a prophet who urged Israel to not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow.

Father Menard knew his congregation was diverse and that members held varying views on immigration. If he publicly voiced his support of the immigrants, would he offend and alienate some of his congregants?

He was even more concerned that his own personal feelings could be coloring his understanding of Scripture.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I preaching myself?’ or ‘Am I preaching something I feel called to preach?’” he said.

In his more than 14 years at St. Francis, Father Menard said he has taken care to build trust with his congregation. He hoped that that trust would hold up if his congregants disagreed and disapproved of his teaching.

For a while, he said nothing. But the more he read the Scriptures, the clearer he saw God’s call to welcome the stranger. And it was getting harder and harder for him to ignore his own feelings on the matter.

“At some point it became clear that I had to say something here because this was the Word of God,” he said.

As expected, the reaction was mixed. Some affirmed his decision to speak out. Others were silent in their disapproval. A few wrote letters of complaints to Menard’s religious superiors. His superiors stood by him, writing response letters defending Menard’s preaching.

“I was fortunate,” he said. “Some other traditions are much more vulnerable because the hiring and firing is all local and they are much more dependent on the esteem and attitude of their congregations toward them.”

This was a lesson Menard learned when he drafted a letter to the Board of Supervisors and tried to get signatures form a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam. He wanted his letter to be signed by representatives from the three major faiths, but he couldn’t get all three signatures because one leader’s community objected. The topic was too controversial. Menard’s letter was never published.

Unlike some other clergy members in other denominations, Menard said he didn’t have to worry about being fired. Also, because he lives a celibate life, he didn’t have to consider the effects that his activism would have on family members.

“What really got me angry and riled up was the conversation that was taking place in the community,” he said. “They were describing people in very negative terms, almost less than human.”

Menard said the community became engulfed in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. Immigrants were told they were going to lose their jobs. Talk of “illegal immigration watch lists” circulated. Letters were sent to employers warning them of the consequences of hiring undocumented workers. At church, people came up to Menard and whispered their support of immigrants.

“That just troubled me to no end,” he said. “It felt too much like the racism of times gone past.”

Menard is quick to acknowledge that not everyone who supported the county’s Rule of Law resolution did so because of racist beliefs. Still, it unsettled him that some people were afraid to speak their minds. Even more troubling to him was the initial lack of public support from religious leaders and churches.

“It was an awful big silence,” he said.

In January of 2008, as the county prepared to implement the Rule of Law resolution and the community conversation became increasingly rancorous, religious leaders collaborated on a letter that was sent to the Board. While it stopped short of opposing the resolution, it did ask policy makers to seek creative solutions that would fit the “moral fabric” of the community. Menard joined 56 other religious leaders in signing his name to the letter.
The letter was not well received by county supervisors, and was never published in order to preserve a working relationship with the board, Menard said.

He said he was disappointed because the community lost out on a teachable moment, a chance to consider the religious values promoted by the major faith traditions.

“If there are political decisions and policies that violate those values and no one is speaking out, you have an obligation to stand up and say something,” he said.

Still, he said, the letter was a step in the right direction – one that he hopes will encourage more people of faith to voice their support of undocumented workers in the future.

For now, the issue of illegal immigration has settled into the backdrop as the nation has become preoccupied with the recession and health care. But when immigration reform once again becomes a legislative issue, Menard is confident that the fear, intimidation and tension below the surface will once again boil over. When it does, Menard hopes the Christian community will be an example of love, charity and humility.

“We have to hold to our values and hold to our convictions,” he said. “But we have to do it in a way that models the values we say we’re about and do it in a way that recognizes we may be wrong.”

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