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Migrants invited to church pulpits for Labor Day

on September 7, 2009

Romana was seven months pregnant, she told the congregation at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church on Sunday, when she walked for six hours from Mexico to the United States -– mostly without water, sometimes without shoes.

She crossed through brush where sticks ripped at her skin, she said. Her brother and grandmother dragged her when she felt too tired to walk.  When Romana and her family arrived at a tunnel where they thought they could rest, she said, US immigration workers arrested them.

“They threw us in the van like we were animals.  They didn’t care that I was pregnant,” Romana said in Spanish while standing Sunday beside her interpreter in the Lakeshore pulpit.  “I asked for water and they told me to be quiet, that there was no water for me.”

The congregation members, a crowd of varied ages and ethnicities scattered throughout the pews, fixed their eyes on Romana while she spoke.  When the interpreter, now a 30 year old woman, revealed that she was the child Romana had said she felt kick inside her during her journey, many of the parishioners were visibly moved .

“I am here to ask President Obama for the immigration reform he promised,” Romana’s daughter translated for her mother, “so no one has to suffer like I did.”

Linda Crockett, an organizer for the East Bay Interfaith Committee for Workers Justice, the organization that arranged for Romana to speak during the special  Labor Day weekend service, entered the pulpit afterward in tears.

“Immigrant workers are people of faith just like you,” Crockett said.  “I hope Romana’s story inspired you to continue or join in the fight for justice.”

Pastor H. James Hopkins invoked Leviticus 25, an Old Testament chapter that addresses work and the erasure of debt.   He repeated the words “humanity” and “desperation,” urging his congregation to help others rise out of debt rather than sink deeper.

“This has been a hard year for all people in the United States: citizens and those who are not–those who are here quote legally and those who are here quote not,” he said.  “Find a way to provide a rope, a ladder, a road for others to find their way out of desperation.”

Romana spoke as part of Labor in the Pulpits, an event that brought Labor Day-related sermons and guest speakers this weekend to 16 churches throughout the East Bay.  The organizers, the East Bay Interfaith Committee for Workers Justice, a project of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, produced the event to provide local religious communities with information about the issues facing low-wage workers.

With the help of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and East Bay Housing Organizations, the committee focused this year on bringing the stories of immigrants into East Bay churches in the effort to ease the tension the committee sensed was escalating between local unemployed US citizens and immigrants – many undocumented – as a result of the recession, according to Diana Rashid, an organizer for East Bay Interfaith.

Other Oakland Labor in the Pulpits participants included Faith Presbyterian Church and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.

At Our Lady of Lourdes on Saturday, a woman who identified herself as Maria spoke of the challenges she has faced since moving to the United States 20 years ago from Mexico, where she said she often witnessed violence and felt unsafe.  Without legal US residency, Maria said, she first worked as a housekeeper. When her employer learned she was undocumented, he gave her three days to fix her status – an inadequate amount of time, she said. When the three days passed, Maria was fired.

Maria applied for her visa ten years ago. She has been told she has to wait six more years, she said, but has not been told why.

Before passing the floor back to the pastor, Maria said, “I am a person of faith. I pray President Obama give us immigration reform. That is my dream.”

Interfaith members said they hope the speakers, who were mostly from Spanish-speaking countries but also included immigrants from Africa and Asia, inspired the clergy as well as the congregants to support the committee’s efforts, Rashid said.

The Rev. Hopkins said he participated in the event to encourage parishioners to see beyond the statistics and politics of immigration policy to the human beings seeking security and a way to keep their families together, he said. He hoped, he said, that his parish’s congregants – mostly middle class workers, some in management positions – would take away a sense of empathy for Romana and other immigrants.

“Justice is a simple biblical mandate,” Hopkins said during an interview, “and [churchgoers] are people who act on their beliefs.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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