MARYVILLE, Tenn. (Feb. 19, 2016) -- The chapel at St. John United Methodist Church was packed last Wednesday night. The faces of people from at least five Spanish-speaking nations showed stress, strain, concern -- and perhaps weariness from a long day’s work.
However, on this night, the church was a place of safety and reassurance. After the free community dinner that happens every Wednesday evening at St. John, the Rev. Daniel Castillo led a 75-minute session on immigrant rights.
“Do not sign anything,” Castillo said in Spanish. “Do not say anything … Ask for a lawyer.”
At a time when U.S. immigration laws dominate the national news, immigrants find themselves in a rising tide of fear that they could be arrested and separated from their families. At St. John, Castillo spoke calmly to the crowd of 80 adults, some holding tired children in their laps.
At least 60 additional children and teenagers were invited to classrooms for recreational activities. Less than half were regular church members; the others were neighbors originally from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Colombia.
“Many people think they don’t have rights when they don’t have papers,” Castillo said later, referring to green cards, visas, work permits and other legal documents. “When people think they don’t have rights, authorities can abuse their power.”
The 37-year-old Castillo said he was asked to host the information session by four teachers in nearby schools.
“They know the children and parents,” he said. “They know there is fear and anxiety, uncertainty of the future … They see those things reflected in the children. Their intention was to show the families that they love their children, and they want the families to know the schools are safe.”
The teachers, like other participants on Wednesday night, declined to share their identities for an interview. One teacher said she was afraid she would lose her job. Castillo later heard of community members who were afraid to attend the St. John meeting.
“They’re all worried of the situation. They’re scared they can be deported because of everything that’s on the news,” said Susana Ponce, age 42, speaking in Spanish as her 16-year-son interpreted.
“I’m afraid that I will be at the store, and they will get me while the kids are in school,” said Roberta Vargas, age 35, speaking in Spanish through her oldest daughter. Vargas has six children, ages 2 to 20.
‘LOVE OUR NEIGHBORS’
The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, states that the denomination opposes “immigration policies that separate family members from each other or that include detention of families with children, and we call on local churches to be in ministry with immigrant families.”
“Our congregations seek to engage the communities where they are located and to address the concerns of their neighbors,” said the Rev. Carol Wilson, director of communications for Holston Conference, based in Alcoa. “Especially in times of stress and uncertainty, the church offers welcome and guidance and prays for wisdom and just resolutions to these very complex circumstances in our country.”
Holston Conference includes 881 United Methodist congregations in east Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and north Georgia – including 22 in Blount County.
Castillo believes that more than half of his Hispanic congregation at St. John, known as “San Juan,” are legal residents or U.S. citizens. Some are not, and some are in the process of obtaining legal papers.
“It can take many years,” he said. “We don’t know if they have broken the law. We don’t ask them that question … We are just called to love our neighbors and serve them.”
The pastor has spoken about immigration rights to his congregations many times before, so he was prepared to reach out to the community on Wednesday night. He doesn’t think it’s a good idea for the media or individuals – including the Spanish-speakers -- to alarm the community with warnings of raids or authorities on the prowl.
“They may have good intentions, but they’re not helping,” he said. He told his listeners on Wednesday night, “Go on with your life. Be careful. Don’t do anything illegal or stupid – but you don’t have to live in fear.”
'A PLACE OF SAFETY'
By the end of the information session, the crowd at St. John seemed to relax, laughing at some of the comments during a follow-up question-and-answer session.
Ponce said she was proud that her church was the place where people could come for guidance and a hot dinner. Ponce was one of the church members who welcomed guests at St. John’s doors.
“It gives immigrants or anybody a place to seek help or feel safe,” Ponce said. “I wish other churches would do that.”
Vargas said she’s still worried about being separated from her family, but getting reeducated on her rights helped “a little bit” on Wednesday night. Others could also benefit from a voice of calm, Vargas said. “A lot of people don’t know these things. I think it would be better if we could keep doing it at other churches.”
Pastor Castillo was glad when he overheard a Wednesday-night participant say she could “live at ease” and “not worry all the time.”
“I feel we have accomplished something,” he said. “I know the situation can change, and things can be hard, but there’s no need to have that anxiety. Everyone needs love and needs God.”
This article originally appeared in The Daily Times on Feb. 18, 2017.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.