More than 100 Middle Tennessee clergy attended the premier screening on Jan. 24 of a new documentary on faith and immigration and engaged in dialogue with a panel of bishops about the issue.
"The challenge before us, particularly as the church, is that we have no choice but to engage ... the plight of the immigrant in our midst," said Melvin Talbert, retired bishop of the United Methodist Church. (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)
"Gospel Without Borders," produced by EthicsDaily.com, made its Nashville debut at Loews Vanderbilt Hotel to more than 125 faith leaders. The event was organized by Clergy for Tolerance (CFT).
"The challenge before us, particularly as the church, is that we have no choice but to engage the struggle for justice, the plight of the immigrant in our midst," Melvin Talbert, retired bishop of the United Methodist Church, told the gathering. "Not to do so is to render our witness as irrelevant."
The screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring Talbert, John Bauerschmidt, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, and Julian Gordy, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-Southeastern Synod.
"In watching this film, I hope you noticed all the different religious groups that were involved in this," said Gordy during the panel presentation. "There were Presbyterians and Roman Catholics. There were United Methodists and Baptists."
Bauerschmidt made a similar point: "We're going to have to have this conversation way beyond the borders of our particular faith tradition."
Panelists said the immigration issue demanded not only pan-denominational cooperation, but perhaps, more important, attention within individual congregations.
Tennessee has not passed any restrictive immigration legislation yet, Gordy said, but such has been proposed, and it will be proposed again this year.
Alabama and Georgia (states in the ELCA's Southeastern Synod) have passed laws that Gordy called "very mean-spirited."
"In those states, almost all religious communities have come together, at least officially, to oppose what the state has done," said Gordy. "Now granted, most of the people who proposed and passed those laws were also members of the congregations of those churches that came together to oppose it."
Gordy then echoed an earlier statement by Robert Parham, executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and panel moderator.
"If this is going to change," said Gordy, "it's going to change when we begin to converse about this in congregations, not just among religious leaders who can get together at a nice safe place like this and talk about it and nobody will throw anything at us."
Talbert said he appreciated the documentary and thought it held great potential as a tool for change.
"I think it will really serve us well to get the juices flowing in our congregations, where if it's going to make a difference, that's where it's got to happen – in the congregations," Talbert said.
"Gospel Without Borders" features stories from five states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa and North Carolina.
"It separates myth from fact, examines what the Bible says about treatment of the 'stranger,' shows the experiences of documented and undocumented immigrants, and provides handles for Christians to advance the common good," according to promotional material.
Kathy Chambers, co-organizer of Clergy for Tolerance, pointed out in her opening remarks that the 180th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, held Jan. 20-21, adopted a resolution on immigration.
The resolution called "upon our congregations to stand with immigrants, to advocate for their well-being and protection, and to educate ourselves and our communities on the issues surrounding immigration."
Most of the resolution's co-authors attended the screening.
Frank Lewis, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Nashville, offered a pre-screening devotion.
"I'm a recovering Southerner," said Lewis, who recalled growing up in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s. His focal passage was Deuteronomy 10:16: "Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer."
"If you look at those words – stiff-necked – it simply means to be the kind of person that causes a burden to be on somebody else's shoulder. To hurt someone. To be harsh in your treatment of them. To be fierce. Even to be cruel."
"I've had to learn not to be stiff-necked just because previous generations in my family were," said Lewis. "I think the Gospel calls us to do the same thing."
Several Twitter users tweeted throughout the event using a Twitter "hashtag" set up for the screening, and a minister in attendance later posted a column about the screening at Examiner.com.
"My husband and I attended and found the documentary to be a helpful congregational tool in the ongoing effort to inform and educate believers and colleagues about the misconceptions surrounding immigration reform as well as challenge our people to love their neighbors, regardless of their country of origin," wrote Jennifer Fuentes, a Nashville-area Pentecostal minister.
Lisa Steele, outreach and Hispanic minister at Antioch Church of Christ, and Judy Cummings, pastor of New Covenant Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), offered the invocation and benediction, respectively, in a further show of pan-denominational cooperation.
"Almost half the attendees were new to Clergy for Tolerance, which shows this issue is gaining traction within the Middle Tennessee faith communities," Chambers, CFT's co-organizer, told EthicsDaily.com. "Many of them plan to use this DVD to encourage their congregations to move beyond the political rhetoric that divides us to examine how our Scriptures command us to work together as a community to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger – without reference to first checking their citizenship status."
CFT sponsored a Nashville breakfast in November 2011 featuring William Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, who cautioned Tennessee clergy against inactivity as anti-immigrant legislation moves through the state capitol.
Visit EthicsDaily.com's Vimeo channel to see and hear remarks from the January 2012 and November 2011 Clergy for Tolerance gatherings, and click here to learn more about "Gospel Without Borders."