Set in a small building on Westwood Boulevard, just south of UCLA, Westwood Hills Congregational Church is a community of people both old and young, committed to social justice and putting faith into action in their neighborhood, in greater Los Angeles, and worldwide. The sanctuary is a brightly lit room, with a symmetrical feeling that makes everything seem in place. It has high ceilings, small, stained-glass windows, and an organ that sounds as if celestial beings have come for a song. The opening song before the service sets the tone for the morning, ‘Filling the world with love’. The message is then enforced by everyone getting up and introducing themselves, hugging the person sitting next to them, and passing on good vibes and excitement over the Sabbath.
As an intern with CLUE-LA, especially one who comes from a mostly secular background, a large part of the educational experience this summer has revolved around learning what different religions believe about social and economic justice, and aiding those in need. CLUE’s motto, written on the now familiar burgundy picket signs reads: “All religions believe in justice,” and Westwood Hills Congregational is no different. Hosting what we refer to as Justice in the Pulpits, it is a powerful experience to see those most marginalized stand tall and share their story.
Reverend Samuel Pullen, guest preaching today while the Pastor is on sabbatical, focuses us with a centering song about being out of place, and opens with the words, “We are all so very far away from home.” This message is illustrated by CLUE organizer Guillermo Torres translating for Sandra, a mother who is dealing with immigration courts that want to deport her son back to El Salvador.
UCARE stands for Unaccompanied Central American Refugee Empowerment. Guillermo has been heavily involved in immigration reform for most of his life, and has formed a coalition of faith and community leaders in the Los Angeles area to help these children gain asylum here in the U.S., and ease their transition once they accomplish that.
In 2014, there was a surge of unaccompanied children fleeing to the United States from Central America due to gang violence and threats of harm. These children go through an agonizing journey over a thousand miles to get here, only to face more difficulties once they present themselves at the border. Many children, some with their mothers have been placed in detention centers in Texas, Arizona, and California, sometimes for months on end. Most of these children have lost family, friends, their homes, and all sense of belonging on the journey here to the States. However, simply crossing the border and applying for asylum is only one of many steps to gaining refuge here.
At Westwood Hills Congregational, Reverend Pullen asks people if they know of stories in the Bible that relate to unaccompanied children, or children fleeing from violence. A flurry of names comes from the congregation. Moses, who was placed in a basket by his mother and sent down a river, in hopes that he would be found by someone who could take care of him. Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, a victim of human trafficking that is reflected today in many parts of the world, our great nation included. Jesus, who had to flee to Egypt, the threat of violence nipping at his heels. It was transformative for the congregation to realize that these biblical stories were not merely parables, but connected to what these children are facing today.
Sandra is a mother of a twelve year old boy who is still going through immigration court in order to gain asylum here. Her son was living in an area in El Salvador in which his school was in one gang’s territtory, but his home was controlled by another gang. One day, on his way to school with his caretaker he was assaulted and his caretaker was stabbed. The attackers told him to never come back. He immediately left his hometown, his country, to begin an arduous journey to meet his mother. He took trains, walked, evaded corrupt officials, and finally made it to the border, where he was promptly detained for a week, and then sent to a foster home for another three weeks before the government reached out to Sandra.
Once reunited, mother and son still needed to go to immigration court for a judge to rule on whether or not her son could stay in the U.S. In 2014, the United States deported over 7,000 children to Central America, ignoring pleas for asylum. These courts require children and families seeking asylum to get an attorney. The problem? Most of these children are unaccompanied, don’t speak English well, and if they have their parents here, most can’t afford an attorney. Sandra faced this issue with fear and trepidation.
“I was very scared about what I was going to do. I was shaking and crying because I couldn’t afford a lawyer,” Sandra shares with Westwood Hills congregation. With tears in her eyes, reliving the experience, Sandra tells us about her experience at the court. The second time she was present, this time with her son, the judge threw her out of the court for not having an attorney. Torres, advocate with an organization called Guardian Angels, approached Sandra to let her know Guardian Angels has lawyers working with them who represent cases such as hers pro-bono. Filled with relief at having a name to give the judge, Sandra is given another date to reappear before the court, this time with the backing of a lawyer who won’t let her son get taken away.
After the service ends, the congregation meets on their patio to share in some refreshments and talk in more depth with Sandra, Guillermo, and myself about this massive issue facing our country. I sidle up to one of the Deacons, Dr. Brad Stone, professor and chair of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount. When prompted about what he thinks about immigration in this country, he replies: “Compounded by California’s own racial history…where you have people who are after all, Mexican, and have always been here in Los Angeles, right? Here we are standing on Mexican ground, annexed in an American war against Mexico. Yet we then want to talk about who was here [first]. And I just think that’s a contradictory view.”
Guillermo Torres, point person at CLUE for immigration issues, has this to say about what needs to happen in these turbulent times. “Well, I would say one of the most pressing issues is advocacy, and also welcoming these children and these families. Making them feel welcome, and showing them that there are people who are kind and compassionate, and love.” This is particularly important against a backdrop of anti-immigrant sentiment that has taken the nation by storm, especially as espoused by one particular Presidential candidate who needs no introduction.
Reverend Pullen, as we start packing up, has an important message about the children, and call to action for his fellow clergy.
“We are called to be a prophetic voice. We are called to remind people of faith that the story of the Jewish people and the story of Jesus and the Christian movement is about supporting those who are most vulnerable, and remembering the times in our lives, and in our histories when we have been immigrants, when we have fled from injustice and violence.”
What is important to remember is that at one point, nearly all of us were immigrants to the land of opportunity. UCARE may represent those from Central America, but immigrants come from all over the world seeking a better life for themselves here in the United States. Our history is filled with accounts of people fleeing racial, religious, and ideological oppression. Many are vulnerable, but none more so than children. While immigration reform might take many years to be implemented, there are children here in Los Angeles who need help now. They are vulnerable, and they have already been through some of the worst experiences that a human being can ever go through. All they ask is that those traumatic experiences not be in vain. Many organizations are working together to support these children. Organizations are made up of people, people who care and want to make a difference. Do you?
To get involved with UCARE, contact Guillermo Torres at [email protected]