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Transformational Advocacy

In 2012 the Office of Social Justice (OSJ) coordinated hundreds of letters to encourage Christian Indonesian immigrants who were living in Highland Park Reformed Church to avoid deportation. We also coordinated hundreds of letters to Congress, urging legislation that would allow these Christians, who came to the U.S. fleeing persecution, to gain legal permanent residence in the United States.

Highland Park Reformed Church started sharing their building with an Indonesian congregation in the late 1990s—not for immigration sanctuary but as a shared space where both congregations could worship. Members of the Indonesian congregation had recently left their predominantly Muslim country at that time and arrived in the U.S. on tourist visas which were offered as means of quick escape from the danger they were in as members of a minority religion in their home country. Once in the U.S. they had a year to apply for permanent asylum but many say they were unaware the necessity of that crucial step. Because they never adjusted their status, when their first year ended they were living here illegally and the window for a chance at permanent legal status was officially closed.

Later in 2002, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, male foreign visitors, mostly from predominantly Muslim countries, were asked to register with a program called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS.  Since Indonesia was on the list, the men from this church consulted with their own pastor and the pastor of the Highland Park church and made the decision to come forward and be registered. They believed this could be an opportunity to repair their legal status but that didn’t happen. Instead they found themselves on the radar of immigration enforcement. ICE raids were carried out and dozens of members of the church were deported. Leaders from both Congregations met together to make a plan to try to find a way to stop the deportations.

They managed to work out an agreement with ICE to allow undocumented Indonesians with no criminal record to live and work in the community if they checked in regularly but that was a temporary solution and within months the deportation raids started again. The only permanent solution would be an amendment to U.S. immigration law that would allow them to apply for asylum even though they were outside of the one year window. Without that change to the law there could be temporary waivers and discretion by ICE to not prosecute certain cases but they would still be a precarious situation without true legal status.

Attorneys from the church drafted sample legislation that their Congressperson could introduce to the House of Representatives. The Highland Park pastor shared the story throughout the U.S. and brought more churches on board to join in doing advocacy and raising awareness about the situation. Church members, including followers of the OSJ, sent letters and set up meetings with their own members of Congress and dozens of Representatives joined to cosponsor the legislation. Unfortunately, the legislation was never adopted and a permanent solution still hasn’t been enacted so the New Jersey church continues to show hospitality and to advocate for justice. The Highland Park congregation made a decision to stand with the Indonesian congregation and to this day they are continuing to share God’s love by sharing both their building and their voices of influence.

Biblical justice flows out of ministries of word and deed                                      

A similar story of advocacy flowing out of ministry starts in Sierra Leone where Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (now known as World Renew) and Christian Reformed Church World Missions (now known as Resonate Global Mission) began doing integrated community development work in the early-1980s. They were using the latest in community development theories and practice and they were seeing real results in terms of increased ag yields, increased savings for families to survive through lean years and decreasing rates of poverty and hunger. Fifteen years into the project, after seeing gains and opportunities to continue scaling the project up in neighboring regions, all of the progress was destroyed.

Peter Vander Meulen, the West Africa coordinator for CRWRC at the time wrote, “in the short time of a week or two, huge damage had been done to the 15 years of work and millions of dollars in investment. Buildings were burned. Villagers killed, abused, fleeing for their lives. CRWRC and CRWM Sierra Leonian pastors and staff were scattered to the four winds – fled over the Ginuea border or gone to Freetown – away from rebel held areas.”

In the months that followed, Vander Meulen and Sierra Leone staff analyzed what might have been missed in the careful planning, millions of dollars spent and years of investment. This wasn’t the first time that CRWRC’s work was stopped by rebels. It was a problem that was encountered in neighboring countries in the past but this was the first time that a project with such scale and planning faced this kind of devastation. The question on everyone’s minds was, “with all that we had to offer these communities is there nothing that could have been done to prevent this?” Pushed out of the country and away from the people they loved they turned their energy towards investigating the systemic factors behind the violence more closely. They were experiencing the reality of a third movement in the theory of giving a person a fish—give a fish and eat for a day, teach to fish and eat for a lifetime unless there is no access to the pond.   

Vander Meulen writes, “We were still engaged in our mission to Sierra Leone; still trying to get our arms around that country in church planting and integrated rural development; still serving the Kuranko people. It was mission by advocacy. We were using our influence as citizens of the most powerful country in the world in concerted action with others of like intention to change a corrupt global diamond marketing system, a system that was fueling West African warlords’ greed for money and power. It was clear that without stopping the illicit trade in diamonds there would be no peace, no development, and no CRC church planting in Sierra Leone.”

 

Missionaries who were once on the ground in Sierra Leone now placed themselves on the ground in Washington DC. They lobbied members of Congress and testified before committees. At the same time CRC members throughout the U.S. raised local awareness. This was one of the OSJ’s first major advocacy projects. Vander Meulen writes, “Over the two-and-a-half year campaign to bring our governments to agreement on what was called ‘The Kimberly Accords’, the CRC repeatedly used its small but strategic influence to help. Several small groups of church members visited their local diamond stores to simply ask: ‘Can you assure us that the diamonds you sell do not come from illicit sources? Are not ‘blood diamonds’? How can you be sure? Visits like this soon turned the diamond industry into allies. And our lone CRC congressman from West Michigan, Vern Ehlers, became a champion of the Kimberly Accords in the US House of Representatives.”

 

Following implementation of the Kimberly Accords the entire country of Sierra Leone experienced progress beyond what the CRC was originally able to accomplish in those individual communities where they had started working. For these communities ‘knowing how to fish’ wasn’t the end of poverty—it was about access to the pond and transparent conditions of the pond.

Currently, the Kimberley Process is losing effectiveness due to lack of enforcement but the progress that was made cannot be undone. Sierra Leone and other countries like it had the time to institute their own internal controls on diamond mining. There is still work to do on other abused commodities, such as precious metals in the Congo, but if we are willing to learn from the lessons of our own short history we could use our influence to push back on the unchecked abuse of power by those who control these resources.

In a representative government where elected officials determine laws after listening to the input of all impacted sectors it makes sense for non-profit agencies, including churches, to give voice to the concerns that touch the lives of the people with whom they work. For the CRC, work like lobbying for the Kimberly Accords rests on an even deeper ethic than this. We believe in a Biblical call to work towards peace and justice. We see through redeemed eyes the possibility of flourishing for all people and we believe in sharing that vision with publicly—which includes shining a light on systems of oppression.

The CRC has adapted several statements that beautifully express our call to be agents of change in the political realm:

 

Our World Belongs to God Article 52

“We obey God first; we respect the authorities that rule, for they are established by God: we pray for our rulers, and we work to influence governments—resisting them only when Christ and conscience demand.”

 

Our World Belongs to God Article 53

“We call on all governments to do public justice and to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals, groups and institutions so that each may do their tasks. We urge governments and pledge ourselves to safeguard children and the elderly from abuse and exploitation, to bring justice for the poor and oppressed, and to promote the freedom to speak, work, worship and associate. We call on our governments to work for peace and to restore just relationships.”

 

Charge to Deacons, CRC Ordination Liturgy

“Be prophetic critics of waste, injustice and selfishness in our society, and be sensitive counselors to the victims of such evils.”

 

Belhar Confession

“That the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of justice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

 

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 107

Q. Is it enough then that we do not murder our neighbor in any such way?

A. No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly towards them, to protect them from harm as much as we can and to do good even to our enemies.

Immigration and Creation Care Advocacy

The CRC has also made statements on specific biblical justice issues that intersect with the realm of politics. These include the sanctity of human life, religious persecution, immigration and climate change.

On the topic of Immigration synod directed the OSJ to create educational resources for churches and to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. Even though immigration is a topic that makes headlines there tends to be a lack of awareness about how the immigration system works and what it takes to immigrate legally to the U.S. To overcome this lack of awareness the OSJ does immigration simulation workshops with interested congregations. The simulation gives participants the bio of an individual who hopes to live and work permanently in the U.S. With their bio in hand the participants walk around the room to try to find a visa for which they could successfully apply. For everyone who hasn’t had a lot of experience with our immigration system there are usually lightbulb moments. They discover the connections between the broken spots of our immigration system—like the fact that 70% of all U.S. farm workers do not have legal status—and how the system actually works, in this case how it is nearly impossible for a potential immigrant farm worker with a job offer in the U.S. to meet the requirements needed to earn a visa. This first step doesn’t always result in a consensus on solutions but it does lead to more civil conversation and more respect for immigrants because people are speaking from the same set of facts.

Like any workshop that exposes a previously unknown crisis, participants then ask, “what can I do about this?” The OSJ’s response to that question goes back to the statement on immigration from Synod and back to that deeper call to be a people who expose injustice. Along with faith-based coalitions like the Evangelical Immigration Table and Interfaith Immigration Alliance we share resources to empower members of the CRC to advocate in the public square for immigration reform that keeps families together. There are strong opponents to calls for more humane immigration laws so progress is a challenge but every time we see significant reforms come close to clearing the final hurdle we also see our numbers grow. When we started working on immigration in late 2010 we did about 15 workshops in one year and advocacy alerts would get about 50-100 people sending a message to their Congressperson. This year we’ve convened over 50 workshops, advocacy alerts have had over 1,000 participants and we’ve had several in person meetings between CRC members and their elected officials.      

Our climate change work takes a similar approach but engages more directly with individuals in congregations who are then empowered to set their own course for their church’s activity. Individuals sign up to be part of a campaign called the Climate Witness Project (CWP). Then, when a congregation has three or more people signed up regional organizers from CWP connect with those individuals to share resources and ideas based around four main pillars of the project: (1) worship, (2) education, (3) advocacy and (4) energy stewardship. We also send out a monthly newsletter with updates and we organize national level advocacy opportunities that all CWP members can get involved with on their own or as a church.                                                          

Transformational Advocacy

I wouldn’t describe the OSJ’s work as ‘redeeming the political system’ because politics isn’t our focus but I would say we are seeking, along with CRC congregations and ministries, to be faithful actors within the system; especially when it comes to standing in solidarity with groups whose voices are being marginalized. Neighbors and members of the Church have experienced oppression throughout her history in various forms and that marginalization continues to this day—so we advocate for change. Micah Challenge, of whom the CRC is a member organization defines transformational advocacy as, “Challenging ourselves and leaders to change attitudes, behaviors, and policies that perpetuate injustice and deny God’s will for all creation to flourish.” Because the Church is a body of people with so many backgrounds who have such of range of experiences of privilege and oppression, we are in a unique position to be examples of how to engage in the public square. Hopefully, our transformational advocacy work leads to systems of human flourishing and brings a value added of faithfully demonstrating the value of political engagement that amplifies voices from the margins.

 

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