The annual national conference of Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) is set for November 15-17, in Los Angeles, California. Approximately 120 affiliate staff and friends of EMM from across the country will gather under the theme "Keeping Faith in an Age of Fear" for "some business and some visioning."
The challenges of welcoming refugees and immigrants in a political and social climate that is increasingly inhospitable to them and recommitting to the church’s ministry with the uprooted will be addressed during the two-and-a-half-day gathering.
"The main purpose for the gathering is to provide training," said Deborah Stein, EMM program manager. "But we are also coming together for the fellowship and interaction among colleagues."
According to Stein, case workers, new staff and directors will receive training in a "broad spectrum" of areas.
"We will provide training in everything from meeting the basic requirements of our federal contracts, to case management, to developing boards of directors and assessing the strengths of organizations," said Stein.
The conference will also provide an opportunity for attendees to hear from and speak with representatives of the U.S. Department of State, the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Feedback from the resettlement staff, said Stein, drives the theme of the conference.
"We hear from the field that refugees who have authorization to work, get a driver's license and a Social Security card are being held back because of fear," she said. "And these people are being kept from resettling and integrating and, most importantly, from becoming self-sufficient, contributing members of their communities. That is how fear manifests itself."
That fear has resulted in a decrease in the number of refugees being served since September 11, 2001. New security measures resulted in only 25,000 refugees reaching the U.S. out of a proposed Presidential admissions ceiling of 70,000 for the two years after the terrorist attacks. The numbers have since risen to nearer 50,000 per year.
"Security concerns put many lives on hold," said the Rev. John E. Denaro, EMM staff officer for church relations and outreach. "Post-9/11 laws have put up many obstacles for bona fide refugees and we are doing a lot of advocacy with our faith-based and community-based partners to uphold the tradition of extending hospitality to the uprooted in this country and to make sure that those who are genuinely worthy of our help don’t get waylaid and bogged down in an increasingly complex system."
Stein said the conference aims to provide insight into the current security situations but reinforce it with "faith that we will work through some of these barriers that have been put up."
"It will be disastrous if the preoccupation with our security causes us to neglect our national soul," said Richard Parkins, EMM director. "When hospitality becomes an endangered trait of our collective character, we will have handed our adversaries and unexpected victory. Those of us who are firm in faith and committed to welcoming the stranger, will not allow this to happen."
The Episcopal Church called for comprehensive immigration reform when it passed a resolution at its 75th General Convention in June that reflects a commitment to dealing with fundamental issues of justice for migrants.
The EMM network includes people who are believers from many faith traditions and also non-believers, all of whom support the work of our church, Parkins said.
"The notion of keeping the faith broadly addresses the concern that we not give in to the pessimism and negativity," said Denaro. "We are not going to let any obstacles keep us from persisting in reaching out and serving our clients."
He said the conference should "empower" and "celebrate the strength of our common mission."
Helping to empower and inspire participants will be the Rev. Dr. James Lemler, director of mission for the Episcopal Church. Lemler, who 25 years ago encouraged his congregation to assist refugees through sponsorship and became the chairman of a diocesan refugee resettlement commission, will offer reflections titled "Love and Fear: Which Will Be Our Foundation?" that will recall and reinforce the biblical mandate to embrace the stranger.
"The mission of the Church is 'to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,'" said Lemler, "and that is precisely what the refugee ministry embodies."
"Our new Presiding Bishop [Katharine Jefferts Schori] also made it clear that she understands that we cannot leave out those who are vulnerable and neglected and are fighting for their lives and for whom the church offers one of few prospects for stability and hope," said Denaro. "And Jim [Lemler] will describe a hopeful vision for us of moving beyond the discord in our church and embracing mission that transcends our disagreements."
"On a practical level, we want our affiliates to return from the conference with tools to increase the capacity of their organizations to serve refugees and to feel that they have felt their concerns were heard," said Stein.
"We also want them to feel they can trust us to be partners in mission," said Denaro. "We want them to help us to live out the gospel imperative to welcome and serve those who have been uprooted and who we have the privilege to embrace on these shores and support in their new lives in communities across this great country of ours."