Where to stand on holy grounds: Religious centers discuss their stance on immigration

St. Louis Catholic Church stands tall. Photo credit: Penelope Shirey

By: Kristina Valdez | Copy Editor

Several religious communities around Waco have had to figure out where they stand on recent controversial topics such as immigration and sanctuary church status.

The Lariat reached out to the Islamic Center of Waco, First United Methodist Church of Waco, University Baptist Church, First Baptist Church Waco and St. Louis Catholic Church about these topics. Some revealed their approach on immigration, their views on recent travel bans and how their faith aligns with their views while others declined to comment.

Jay Netherton, director of communication of First Baptist Church Waco, located at 500 Webster Ave., sent on email statement on behalf of the community at First Baptist. Netherton first thanked the Lariat for reaching out for an interview, then he expressed the church’s support of the Hispanic community in Waco.

“We love and deeply care about our Hispanic brothers and sisters,” Netherton wrote.

Netherton described the church’s role in hosting “an information/educational event” for the Hispanic community about rights and current immigration status. In the short email, Netherton also expressed that First Baptist has no current stance or comment on the “sanctuary issue.”

Bill Al, Baylor alumnus and head of the personal training division of the Baylor Wellness Department, spoke on behalf of the Islamic Center of Waco, located at 2725 Benton Drive. Al spoke about the Muslim community in Waco as well as its stance on immigration and sanctuary church status.

The Islamic Church of Waco was founded in 1987 by Al Siddiq, father of Bill Al, for the approximately 300 Muslims living in Waco. Bill Al said the center’s relationship with the community is great.

“We are involved in the Greater Waco Interfaith Conference,” Al said. “It’s a conference of a lot of Christian churches, Jewish synagogues here and various other religions. We all get together; we do multiple events. We do Meals on Wheels, we sponsor Habitat for Humanity — we are involved quite a bit.”

Al said much of the general population does not know about the Islamic Center despite its involvement in the community.

“My father has spoken to over 62 churches since 9/11,” Al said. “We’ve engaged in multiple discussions with the Baylor clergy. Baylor religion classes — the world religion courses, actually, bring their students out here to the mosque several times throughout the semester to get a feel for what a mosque is.”

Al said he has seen how the immigration and travel bans have affected personal friends who aren’t Muslim. Al said that, at first, they were worried about backlash after President Trump took office. However, the Islamic Center of Waco received an outpouring of support in the form of flowers and cards after the first travel ban. Cards are still hanging on the wall of the main wall of the Islamic Center of Waco.

“It was beautiful,” Al said. “A lot of the local communities coming together to say they support us. A lot of the churches, synagogues, the Hispanic community — we got a lot of outpouring from them.”

Al said the Islamic Center of Waco would not be a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants facing deportation. Al described it as a “political thing” that the center is staying out of.

Al said he hopes that in the future, more Muslims get involved in their communities to change perceptions and attitudes.

Father John Guzaldo, pastor at St. Louis Catholic Church of Waco, located on 2001 N. 25th Street, spoke about the “general fear” and tension among his congregation of many undocumented immigrants.

“There are members of our youth group who are always living in fear that their parents will be deported,” Guzaldo said.

Guzaldo said St. Louis Catholic Church tells members who are undocumented to follow the process of documentation and to not get in trouble with the law. However, Guzaldo said some people practicing the Catholic faith who came from South America and Central America are not interested in becoming legalized citizens.

“They like living in Mexico,” Guzaldo said. “They come up here to make money and go back — or they send money.”

For those living in a fear of deportation, Guzaldo said they try to alleviate fear through prayer and closeness for God. St. Louis Catholic Church also offers English classes for anyone wanting to learn how to live in the United States.

Guzaldo said although the entire Bible is welcoming of the foreigner, there is no easy answer for immigration.

“If I was poor and lived in Guatemala, I would try to get over here,” Guzaldo said.

St. Louis Catholic Church is not a sanctuary church, but Guzaldo said decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis. Guzaldo went on to say that the most difficult task churches face is how to handle not only immigration, but also illegal immigration.

“I visited a man in prison who was being deported because [he] committed felonies,” Guzaldo said. “I asked him, ‘What are you going to do when you get home?’ and he said, ‘I’ll be back.’ The question is, how do we minster to them? If you come back here, make sure you behave yourself.”

St. Louis Catholic Church has mass in both English and Spanish. Father Guzaldo said that ultimately it is celebrations that bring people together.

Toph Whisnant, the community pastor of University Baptist Church, located on 1701 Dutton Ave., spoke on behalf of University Baptist Church and declined to comment on these issues.

Molly Simpson and Brandon Frenzel, associate pastors at First United Methodist Church of Waco, located on 1409 Cobbs Drive, spoke on behalf of First United Methodist about their congregation and their roles as pastors over recent months.

“As pastors — this is an age-old dilemma of a pastors — we find ourselves, sometimes, disappointed in our parishioners, in our congregation,” Frenzel said. “Sometimes, culture and comfort and politics almost inform theology, and we really hope that it is the other way around.”

First United Methodist Church’s response to President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration follow the response of the United Methodist Bishops of the State of Texas in an open letter to other Methodist churches in Texas.

“Accordingly, we call upon President Trump, Governor Abbott and the leaders of our nation and state to seek a more compassionate response to immigrants and refugees,” the letter stated.

Within the last couple of months, both Simpson and Frenzel said they have found themselves becoming better facilitators during controversial conversations about topics such as immigration and how they offer scripture rather than handing out their perspectives.

“I find scripture much more compelling than some person’s argument for or against something,” Simpson said.

Simpson and Frenzel spoke about the Bible’s many narratives of hospitality and how the simplicity of these stories does not equip us with all the answers to complicated social issues. Simpson said how these hospitality narratives are “foundational” to recognizing that we all children of God. Brandon went on to explain that when Jesus said love your neighbor, he meant everyone.

“For us, in a sense, the Gospel is radical,” Frenzel said. “There is nothing commonplace about it. It’s radical love; it’s radical grace. We believe that we offer grace and hope to all people.”

Frenzel explained how complicated their role as pastors is because they are trying to speak to everyone. Both pastors have seen how their congregation has become more aware of how diverse the political views are among each other.

“Several months ago, I think they would have all thought, ‘We all think the same thing, we all feel the same and we would all vote the same way,’” Simpson said.

First United Methodist Church is not currently a sanctuary church, but Frenzel and Simpson said the situation has not risen for a decision to be made about sanctuary church status. Simpson said it would be on a case-by-case basis, and it is a decision that would have to include the entire church. Simpson and Frenzel went on to agree on their hopes for the future.

“Our city, our nation and our world will look more like the kingdom of God,” Simpson said. “It is a big ask and it takes a lot of work.”

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