A noteworthy moment during last Monday’s show of Minnesota faith community resistance to President Trump’s refugee admission ban came when a reporter told the event’s moderator and prime mover, the Rev. Canon Peg Chemberlin, what pro-Trump tweeters were saying on social media.
“Isn’t this only the liberal Christian and other faith leaders of the state?” the reporter asked.
Chemberlin kept her customary cool. If she cracked a smile, it was just a tiny one as she replied, “The constituency that we’re related to is probably close to 90 percent of this state’s faith community.”
The CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches then gestured at the lineup that had responded to her summons to appear at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. Mainline, evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians, Jews, Muslims — all were represented.
Take it from a long-ago religion beat reporter: That much unity among Minnesota faith leaders on a hot topic is rare. And politically potent — if it lasts.
A certain seasoning is required to recall the political impact that a singular message from united faith communities can have in this country. In recent years, the policy topics that interested the conservative/evangelical/Catholic tribes — abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage — were either of lesser concern or were seen in a wholly different light by the liberal faithful. Americans have grown accustomed to hearing religion invoked on both sides of national debates.
But when President Trump slammed America’s golden door on refugees for at least 120 days and banned all travel from seven predominantly Muslim counties for at least 90 days, he touched a cord that runs straight and strong through Christian, Jewish and Muslim doctrines. As Chemberlin put it, “There’s nothing clearer in our texts than the imperative to welcome the stranger.”(Her formal statement can be read here).
That imperative has been particularly motivating in Minnesota. Refugee resettlement has been nearly synonymous with religion here since it began in a big way among Lutherans and Catholics in the wake of World War II. As a result, no state’s population includes a larger share of refugees.
The work today is orchestrated by professionals at the Minnesota Council of Churches, Lutheran Social Service, Catholic Charities, and Arrive Ministries (an affiliate of the evangelical Christian network Transform Minnesota).
But a lot of hands-on service is still provided by lay volunteers — people like retired music teacher and Hennepin Methodist Joan Jemison of Minneapolis. She said yes when a church committee sought help for the Araya-Hanns family, a mother and five children, ages 10 to 21, relocating from Eritrea to St. Paul and eager for reunion with their husband and father. He had been separated from them when they were forced to flee their native land 10 years ago.
After prolonged State Department vetting, he has finally made it to Canada and was due to rejoin his family shortly. Then came Trump’s order, Jemison related, her anger evident as she consoled Adhanet Araya at Monday’s event. “These people have become my family,” Jemison said.
Minnesotans like Jemison are a ready-made corps of resistance to Trump’s ban on refugee arrivals. They have an able general in Chemberlin, for whom a fight with the Trump White House over refugee policy might be deemed a fitting career capstone.
Now in her final months at the helm of the mainline-dominated Minnesota Council of Churches, Chemberlin, 67, knows her way around politicians and public issues. Ordained in the Moravian Church and the United Church of Christ and an honorary canon in the Episcopal Church, she served as president of the National Council of Churches in 2010-11 and has headed its Minnesota affiliate for 22 years.
Reacting to news has been part of her job. But a bigger part — “both the means and the ends,” she says — has been the cultivation of a network of friendship among the local bishops, priests, rabbis, imams and executives who head various religious endeavors. She’s sought to generate enough kinship and trust to enable them to occasionally speak with one voice.
Monday’s news conference showed how well she succeeded: The list of responders to her short-notice invitation to participate ran to three full pages.
Chemberlin dismisses any suggestion that she and other church leaders are behaving in a partisan fashion by objecting to the Republican president’s travel and refugee ban. Partisan politics is beside the point, she says.
“This is direct soul work. The soul of America has been caught by fear of the other,” she said. When clergy call on the nation to welcome people fleeing danger, they are “reclaiming the core of the gospel.”
Such churchy talk won’t resonate with people who insist on a wide separation between church and state. Some prefer to debate immigration and refugee policy strictly on security and/or economic grounds. For them, I can recommend a new University of Minnesota study that says that this state will need an immigration surge in the next 25 years to avoid the economic ill effects of a looming labor shortage.
But if the treatment of immigrants and refugees is this nation’s next great social-justice issue — and Trump seems hellbent on making it so — it’s well to recall that the most effective leaders of the civil-rights movement a half-century ago wore clergy collars.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.