Bishop Will Willimon is back to his old stomping grounds at Duke Divinity School after eight years of serving in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. Formerly, he worked as a Duke Divinity professor and then Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. During his time in North Alabama, the state government implemented Alabama’s version of an anti-immigration law, House Bill 56 (HB 56).
Recently, the student-led Latino ministry group at Duke Divinity, Manos Unidas, invited Bishop Willimon to speak to students about how he addressed the harsh Arizona-like law, as a Christian. Co-coordinators Lindsay Eierman and Elizabeth Murray organized a lunchtime discussion between students, professors, and Bishop Willimon to discuss the effects that the law had on Alabama churches and why this law goes against Christian teaching.
Bishop Willimon talked about how we can use Christian tradition to think about immigration. Not only do the Old and New Testaments repeatedly make commands to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, but also there are waves of immigration throughout the Bible. For example, in Genesis 46, God commands Jacob to migrate to Egypt with his kin where God promised to make a great nation there. Willimon noted, “Good thing Egypt didn’t ask for papers.”
The anti-immigration law caused the state of Alabama to suffer economically, especially in the areas of farming and construction. At the same time Church ministries also suffered. Due to HB56, five United Methodist ministries were in jeopardy. People were leaving the state, or stopped coming to church, out of fear that they would be suspected of being undocumented and would be detained. However, a court ruling did not find that there was damage from HB56.
Bishop Willimon sent a letter to the state governor, senator, and representative speaking out, on behalf of the United Methodist Church, against the anti-immigration law. In the letter, Willimon writes, “As Christian ministers, however, we not only believe that this law is not in the state’s best interest, but we also believe it contradicts the essential tenets of the Christian faith.” This letter was signed by over half of the ordained elders in the North Alabama Conference. This was an opportunity for clergy to step up for justice.
In light of the Church’s response, Bishop Willimon left us with this question: Is the issue of immigration a legal or theological issue?
Elizabeth Murray, a native of Johns Creek, GA, is a second year Master of Divinity student at Duke Divinity School. She graduated in May of 2011 from the University of South Carolina with a business degree. Elizabeth is a certified candidate for ordained deacons orders in the United Methodist Church. She plans to go into social justice ministry.
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