Conferences unite on welcoming immigrants

August 13, 2018
United Methodists in the Desert Southwest Annual Conference approve a resolution calling for end to separating immigrant families. At least 18 of the 54 U.S. conferences approved resolutions in support of welcoming immigrants. Photo by Barry Doyle.

Submitted by Heather Hahn
Reporter, United Methodist News Service

While United Methodists differ on how the denomination should regard homosexuality, they speak with much broader agreement on immigration.

Both division and consensus were apparent in recent months as annual conferences, the denomination’s regional bodies, met to worship and conduct church business.

As happened last year, a number of conference voters approved resolutions on the treatment of immigrants as well as the denomination’s longtime debate around the status of LGBTQ individuals. Such resolutions are aspirational, but they give a sense of how church members apply their faith to current challenges.

On the question of how the United States should treat newcomers, annual conferences proclaimed a common message: Keep families together.

“Immigrants are living in fear because they are increasingly victimized by family separation, detention, deportation, raids and acts of hate and violence,” said the Great Plains Conference in a resolution urging change to “Our Sinful Immigration System.”

“Christians are called to respond to situations of great suffering such as this,” the resolution continued.

That was one of the three resolutions Great Plains voters passed calling the U.S. to be more humane toward people seeking asylum or simply a better life within its borders. And the conference, which encompasses the states of Kansas and Nebraska, wasn’t alone.

At least 18 of 54 U.S. annual conferences — a third — passed resolutions insisting on the reunification of immigrant families or more generally urging churches to care for immigrants.

Among those urging support for immigrant families were three conferences along the southern U.S. border: Rio TexasDesert Southwest and California-Pacific.

But United Methodist support for immigrants stretched well beyond the southernmost ports of entry, extending from Oklahoma to Indiana to New England and multiple conferences in between.

More on annual conferences

Annual conferences are yearly, regional gatherings around the globe that combine United Methodist worship and business.

They celebrate the licensing, commissioning and ordination of new clergy as well as clergy retirements.

There are 54 conferences in the United States and 80 in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. United Methodist News Service is posting annual conference reports as we receive them.

See reports.

Such resolutions frequently invoked Scripture, which, in both the Old and New Testaments, urges hospitality for migrants. As a Great Plains resolution pointed out, Jesus likened himself to a stranger needing welcome.

The resolutions also often cited The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles, which have long opposed “immigration policies that separate family members from each other or that include detention of families with children.”

Conference voters passed these resolutions amid public outcry about the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration, which directly led to the separation of thousands of children from their families. The policy affected even those seeking asylum in the United States.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order June 20 declaring an end to family separations, but the order did not address how families already separated could be restored. Since then, federal courts have ordered the administration to reunify families. Nevertheless, hundreds of children remain split from their parents or guardians. 

The United Methodist ministry Justice for Our Neighbors, which provides legal aid to immigrants, has been working to reunite families. United Methodists also have prayed for and organized worship with those detained.

On the last day of their annual conference, 75 Pacific Northwest members held a prayer vigil outside the federal detention center in Washington State, where hundreds of undocumented immigrant adults were detained.

Earlier this month, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference members held a prayer vigil outside a detention center for young boys in Texas.

The strong response against separating families contrasts with the varied responses conferences have given to a debate that potentially can separate the denomination.

During their sessions this year, most conferences took time to discuss the work of the Commission on a Way Forward, which has proposed different possibilities for how the denomination handles ministry with LGBTQ individuals.

Ultimately, decisions about the denomination’s direction will be in the hands of the 864 lay and clergy delegates elected by annual conferences to attend the special General Conference in 2019.

Since 1972, the denomination’s Social Principles have described the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Today, the denomination’s Book of Discipline — of which the Social Principles are a part — also makes officiating at same-gender weddings or being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member a chargeable offense under church law.

A majority of bishops in early May recommended the commission’s One Church Planthat would leave questions of the ordination of LGBTQ clergy up to annual conferences and same-gender marriage up to local churches.

At least two conferences have endorsed that plan. Other conferences more generally have called for unity in diversity. Still others have called for stronger enforcement of the denomination’s current prohibitions.

Voters in the Oriental and Equator , East Congo and the Kivu conferences, all in the Democratic Republic of Congo, took stands against same-gender marriages.

The Estonia Conference in eastern Europe endorsed the commission’s Traditional Plan, which calls for stricter enforcement of church restrictions related to LGBTQ individuals.

The Mississippi Conference referred a resolution urging that the church maintain current standards to its General Conference delegation. The conference referred to its board of ordained ministry a resolution that encourages the board and district committees on ministry to remain faithful to the language of the Book of Discipline with regards to clergy behavior and human sexuality.

The conference adopted a resolution encouraging all Mississippi United Methodists to remain committed to the process of the Commission on a Way Forward and to remain true to their vows and connection.

The Virginia Conference members passed a resolution saying they “urge and pray that the 2019 General Conference will resist schism and express openness to diverse perspectives in matters of sexual identity and practice.”

Both the Oregon-Idaho and New York conferences took steps to ensure LGBTQ individuals would be part of their General Conference delegations. The New York delegation has named two LGBTQ individuals as its co-chairs.

These conferences all met before full details of the commission’s plans were publicly available.

Many across the denomination are urging prayer as the denomination heads to the special General Conference.

Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, who leads the North Georgia Conference, was among them. Bishops do not have a vote at General Conference.

“Our decisions over the next year are incredibly important,” she told the conference. “My request is, please start a conversation and discuss this and gain understanding. To really see the image of God in every human being requires us to see the image of God in every human being. That is the role of the church.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.