Bishops Launch Rethink Church With Worker Outreach

May 06, 2009

By Linda Green*

May 5, 2009 | GAITHERSBURG, Md. (UMNS)


Mario Ramirez of El Salvador comes daily to a trailer on a parking lot in this Washington, D.C., suburb looking for work as a gardener or general day laborer.


On May 5, some 15 United Methodist bishops visited the ministry site, called Casa de Maryland, bearing support, fellowship and Holy Communion as part of the launch of a "Rethink Church" campaign taking United Methodist faith out into the world.


Ramirez and the bishops shared the same goal: to build a future where every person is treated with equality and dignity.


"This was a day of taking the good news out into the world. United Methodists, look around you: There are so many opportunities to be the church, day in and day out," said Phoenix Bishop Minerva Carcano (at right), chairperson of the denomination's immigration task force. "It is a joy to be Christ's presence in the world."


Three groups of bishops on May 5 took time out from their annual spring meeting to meet with day laborers and migrant workers in Washington, Gaithersburg, and Culmore, Virginia, to provide pastoral care and help kick off the denomination's Rethink Church campaign, the next evolution of The United Methodist Church's "Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors" welcoming and advertising campaign.


Taking a hands-on approach, bishops visited the worker sites to demonstrate that there are thousands of ways, traditional and nontraditional, for a person to engage with the church.


At the Maryland site, bishops wearing red jackets, white shirts, and red hats with the Rethink Church logo provided prayer, Holy Communion, and words of comfort for some 25 day laborers.


The launching of the Rethink Church campaign at a day laborer camp "is a way of saying to those who are immigrants that we walk with you, we journey with you, Christ journeys with you. Scripture calls us to love you, and therefore we are here with you," Carcano said.


'Leave the four walls'

During their nearly 40-minute visit, the bishops told the workers that The United Methodist Church is an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform in order to heal their families and the country. The visit showed the church as more than a building with four walls.


"Leave the four walls. Go out. The church is very alive. If we keep our pews full, the people in the streets will not find Jesus," said the Rev. David Rocha, leader of Casa de Maryland (clasping hands with Council of Bishops President Gregory Palmer, in photo at right).


Rocha, a native of Colombia and a former day laborer, had the idea for the ministry when he was denied a cup of coffee from a church more than five years ago.


"I escaped from Colombia with my family because I was threatened," he said. "I left everything, came to this country and then started finding odd jobs in the area." Ministry soon began in the parking lot when he served coffee and provided Scripture and prayer to those seeking work.


"This was my first congregation," said Rocha, now the chairperson of Hispanic and Latino ministries for the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.


Rocha called the bishops' visit a gift from God. "It represents a voice, to people without voice, to places were our voice needs to be recognized," he said. "Groups or people who live on the border need voices in the places where decisions are made to create better conditions."


Laborers find comfort

Laborers said the bishops' visit was a sign of God's love.


"This is a blessing for us," Ramirez said. "The bishops told me that they would take our voice to different places to advocate immigrant reform and better living and dignity for us." For his future, he hopes "that every person will be treated equal and with dignity."


Jose Luis, a native of Peru, comes to the day laborer site daily seeking employment in painting. "In these difficult days, I have been coming very often," he said through an interpreter. Seeing the bishops of The United Methodist Church come to the day camp "was a nice visit. It has been a visit of comfort," he said.


Carcano told Luis that the United Methodist bishops wanted him and other day laborers to know they are not alone.


"I don't think that it is enough to simply declare that we stand with the immigrant," she said.


Church makes a difference

Through the immigration task force, the church is advocating for comprehensive immigration reform - reform that Carcano said recognizes that people are living under a broken immigration policy that separates families, violates the human and civil rights of immigrants, and fails to recognize the need for the labor force.


Searching the Internet for work brought Donald Ominde of Kenya to Casa de Maryland three months ago. He told the bishops his desire is to live well, get a job, and raise a family. "The church can help me by praying for life. The church can pray for us to find work and to live a good life," Ominde said.


Minnesota Bishop Sally Dyck said the message she hopes the bishops sent through their presence at Casa de Maryland was "that the church cares, not only about the effects of the economy on the persons who are here for day jobs, but also about where these folk are coming from and situations they left at home."


Through the bishops' presence and through Rethink Church, Dyck said, "the day laborers will see the church as a place and people that can help them. This is a place on a parking lot, reaching out to people. You can have a ministry anywhere. It is not only rethink - but finding ways of imagining how we can be the church."

(In photo above, Bishop Susan Hassinger visits with Wilfredo Calderon.)

Also on May 5, The Council of Bishops visited with Congressional leaders on Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to support legislation consistent with the priorities of The United Methodist Church concerning children, health care, and poverty. Ministry with the poor and fighting diseases of poverty are both areas of long-term focus for the denomination.

The 163-member Council of Bishops - which includes active and retired bishops worldwide - provides leadership and helps set the direction of the 11.5-million member church and its mission throughout the world. The United Methodist Church is the second largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.


*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.