LENOIR CITY, Tenn. (July 10, 2018) -- Rosa Casales* is working away from home this summer, yet she seems entirely at home on the steamy city sidewalk of this small town.
She’s one of the traveling staff members for Camp in the Community, Holston Conference’s gift to its poorest neighborhoods, where children experience a free week of outdoorsy, faith-building activities hosted by a local church. Some of those children are immigrants.
“Camp is a place where someone completely understands them and doesn’t discriminate against them -- where there are going to be materials in both English and Spanish,” she says.
Casales, age 20, is “assistant site director” for a mobile camp that will visit eight neighborhoods this summer. Casales likes learning about new communities and helping children, especially those whose backgrounds are similar to the migrant families currently in the news, detained at the Texas border. The crisis is obviously on her mind.
“God chose for kids to be happy in camp instead of being separated from their families,” she says.
On this particular day in Lenoir City, Casales is sharing Camp in Community with 35 children at Trinity United Methodist Church. During previous weeks, Casales and the site director, Leslie Weller, took the camp experience to Pleasant View UMC in Abingdon, Virginia; McKendree UMC in Jasper, Tennessee; and St. John UMC in Maryville, Tennessee.
At St. John, 80 children attended the camp.
“I was shocked by the turnout at St. John. It was 90 percent Hispanic kids,” Casales said. “There’s a lot of fear for people in this country right now, but I think they felt so open and safe because Camp in the Community has been going back there over the years. Relationships have been built.”
Camp in the Community began as an outreach of Camp Wesley Woods in 2011. Today, Camp in the Community is one of five Holston Conference camp ministries. This summer, Camp in the Community is projected to serve 1,440 total children in 24 church neighborhoods. Whitney Winston is the founding director.
Winston said she met Casales as a teenage volunteer in 2013 when Camp in the Community went to Liberty Hill United Methodist in Morristown, Tennessee. Although Casales has roots in the Roman Catholic Church, she began attending Liberty Hill in high school and has been there since.
“I asked her every summer to come work for us, and she finally did the first time while we were still at Wesley Woods,” Winston said.
Casales served on the summer staff at Camp Wesley Woods in 2015 and was quickly hooked on church camp.
“I had never been camping in the woods in my life. Definitely, it was a culture shock,” Casales says, laughing. “I definitely got to appreciate nature and met an amazing community.”
Casales cites additional United Methodist experiences that helped shape her – including Resurrection for youth and Divine Rhythm for young adults – but something happened this spring to heighten her appreciation for the church she chose as a teenager.
On April 5, she was in class at Walters State Community College when she learned that federal officials had raided a meat-processing plant in nearby Bean Station, arresting nearly 100 employees suspected of being in the country illegally.
“I panicked,” Casales says. “I never expected it to happen. I started to worry about my friends and family.” Her phone buzzed with messages, including one from a friend whose mother was arrested.
“Her dad was out of town. Her brother was in middle school. So here’s a college girl who went from being a sister and daughter to the head of the household in one day,” she says.
For Casales, the pain she felt for families involved in the raid was more than sympathy. When she was in 5th grade, her own father was deported to Mexico. “He just never came home,” she said, declining to say more.
Rosa Casales hasn’t seen her father in 10 years. He can’t come here, and she can’t go there. If she leaves the U.S. to visit him, she might not be allowed to return.
That’s because Casalas was brought to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of six. She has the temporary right to work and protection from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, but she does not have legal immigration status.
“It’s cool how the United Methodist Church was one of the first to make a statement,” says Casales about the days following the Bean Station raid.
After the raid, Casales was immediately recruited to provide Spanish-English interpretation for families affected by the arrests and closing of the meatpacking plant. (Most of the employees were from Mexico.) Casales was already a part-time activist and speaker for the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, so she jumped in to help.
In Morristown, St. Patrick Catholic Church quickly opened its doors for the agencies and workers that came to help after what civil-rights groups said was the largest single workplace raid in a decade.
Yet Casales was impressed when she saw the United Methodists quoting their "Social Principles," which say, "We oppose immigration policies that separate family members from each other or that include detention of families with children.” She saw United Methodist congregations collecting money and supplies and participating in vigils with immigrants and other denominations.
“It’s not easy,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t be outspoken about something without losing something … But the United Methodist churches didn’t regard that they might lose members or donations. They just determined that it was wrong. They decided to act like Christians.”
For six weeks after the raid, Casales balanced her college classes with long hours helping people affected by the raid.
“We interviewed the families, got lawyers, provided resources, tried to comfort them and give them a safe place,” she said. “I saw a lot of suffering from the children. I definitely saw myself in their hurt and missing their loved ones. I saw a little girl celebrate her 10th birthday with a phone call from her mother in the detention center.”
PASSION FOR PEOPLE
On July 27, Casales and the 19 other Camp in the Community staff will complete their eight weeks of sharing Bible study, teaching archery, playing water games, and other camp-like activities. By then, they will have engaged at least 250 volunteers and served low-income neighborhoods from the Giles County Cluster in Narrows, Virginia, to Jones Memorial UMC in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Kacye Castenir, a member at St. John UMC in Maryville, said she was impressed by Casales’ faith as well as her “passion for the folks who are in her community.”
“She, like the other workers, loved the kids in our community and showed them Christ throughout the week,” Castenir said. “She was so excited to be at our church since we have Hispanics. She brought us information to help people in the community know their rights.”
Winston said that Casales “took a leap” by working with Camp in the Community this summer. “She really felt like this was where God was calling her to, and even though this will put her behind as she is saving money to be a full-time college student, she believed so strongly in her calling that she did it anyway.”
Casales is a sophomore studying medical laboratory science. Her education progress is slow because she doesn’t qualify for in-state tuition fees. She pays about $2,000 per class.
Through her work for the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, Casales has helped advocate for a law allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at public schools. She’s raising money for a scholarship fund to help other undocumented students in her same situation.
“It's been absolutely heartbreaking to see her work 10 times harder than most people and still not be given the opportunity to follow her dreams,” Winston said.
Casales is aware of the consequences for standing up for her peers. She was recently frightened by hate mail after she appeared in the media for her work following the Bean Station raid. Yet she believes a “beautiful” result will eventually come out of the love and concern for immigrant families shown by the United Methodists and others.
“Sometimes I feel like they have taken everything from me: my father, my tuition, my freedom. Sometimes I am discriminated against,” she said. “But they will never be able take away my experience at camp or my faith.”
*Rosa Casales is not her real name.
Contact Annette Spence at email@example.com.
How to help immigrant and refugee families (UM Communications, 6.20.18)
Trinity UMC brings camp to Lenoir City (News-Herald, 7.4.18)
Community outcry: United Methodists respond after ICE raid (The Call, 4.10.18)
Pastor assures immigrants: 'You don't have to live in fear' (The Call, 2.19.16)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.