Hyper-partisanship was in full bloom in the nation’s capital when I attended the Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD), an annual conference on global peace sponsored by more than 45 Christian denominations, service organizations and justice advocacy networks. This year’s theme was “A Place to Call Home: Immigrants, Refugees and Displaced Peoples.”
While there may have been unity of spirit and purpose among the EAD attendees about the need for immigration reform, not all who were in the capital that weekend in mid-March were of one mind on this issue. Out in force on the capitol grounds were advocates loudly making their case against any type of reform – be it immigration or health care.
It was clearly apparent that partisanship is still a force to be reckoned with in our nation. And sadly, not the type of healthy partisanship that is based on learned ideals and respectful debate. This was the type of hyper-partisanship that calls for further marginalization of undocumented immigrants, building more border fences, increased mass arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and stepped-up deportations, even if they rip apart families.
In this hyper-partisan atmosphere, some demonstrators spit on elected officials. Others subjected Congressmen John Lewis and Barney Frank to racial and homophobic slurs as they made their way to the House of Representatives for the health care debate.
I joined other religious leaders who met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to discuss the steps needed to get immigration reform legislation introduced in the Senate. Others in attendance included Cardinal Mahony from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners; Rev. John McCollough, executive director of Church World Service; Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, president and general minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); and representatives from the National Association of Evangelicals and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
During our meeting with Reid, we also discussed the divisions in our nation and how best to address them. It became clear to me during our conversation that we need to strengthen our commitment to the renewal of moral inquiry centered on our interconnectedness rather than our divisions. As such, I found myself thinking that we need multiple places throughout our nation, where people of faith can gather with others – not to shout one another down and carry on in disconnected monologues, but to support just and equitable solutions to some of our country’s most difficult issues.
This led me to think: What would happen if we approached these issues in a more prayerful manner? What if we created, say, a “prayer party” movement in contrast to the “tea party” movement?
What would happen if we joined together in prayer seeking God’s guidance – instead of seeking solutions to the issues of the day in popular slogans and one-liners? What would happen if we listened more attentively to one another’s stories – instead of judging each other without any facts or real information about “the other?” And what might happen if we really opened our hearts to God for guidance, seeking with truly open spirits the best way to respond to the needs of one another?
There have already been hundreds of prayer vigils throughout the country focused on immigration reform and other issues of importance. This more prayerful route is helping to build a movement within the religious community to support immigration reform in a way consistent with the principles of the National Council of Churches (NCC), National Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Association of Evangelicals, Church World Service (CWS) and National Hispanic Leadership Conference.
And in this spirit, the NCC and CWS leadership sent a pastoral letter on immigration urging support for comprehensive immigration reform to their respective member communions, President Obama and members of Congress.
With a greater emphasis on the power of prayer, it is just possible that our nation’s leaders from both parties can be moved to support stalled immigration reform legislation that will improve not only the lives of more than 12 million undocumented people currently in this country, but the life of our entire nation.
And as death penalty reformer Sr. Helen Prejean noted at the end of the EAD, our prayers need to be not just the “nice” prayers that focus solely on the well being of one another, but the prayers that actually motivate and strengthen actions of compassion and ministry that improve the world in which we live, thus truly making real our concern about each other’s well being.
We live in a time of great need. In response, let us join together in both prayer and action to improve the communities and the world in which we live. And let us do so guided by the Spirit of unity that promises to be the healing and transformative power that our world so desperately needs.
David Leslie is executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.