A crowd estimated at 2,500 took to the streets of Birmingham on Saturday, June 25, to protest Alabama's recently-passed immigration legislation, signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley and scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 1. The march, organized by Greater Birmingham Ministries and other interfaith groups, proceeded south from Linn Park up 20th Street North, headed east along Seventh Avenue North, then circled back to the park via 21st Street and Eighth Avenue North.
Among the thousands of marchers were many United Methodist clergy and laity from the North Alabama Conference who strongly believe that the law as written will criminalize current ministries of the United Methodist Church. "Many people connected to United Methodists are living in fear right now," the Rev. RG Lyons commented on a recent blog post on the conference web site. "There are many Hispanics, some of them undocumented, who are members of our churches and connected to our ministries. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ and part of the United Methodist Church. We believe our connection through Christ transcends our connection as Americans. Scripture speaks consistently about welcoming the alien and stranger. This law does everything it possibly can to make them unwelcome - even criminalizing those who choose to welcome them."
Before the march officially started, protesters gathered for a time of prayer. Faith leaders from the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Islamic and Jewish traditions participated in this holy time with pleas for unity. Scripture calling for care of neighbors and hospitality to strangers was shared and the law criticized as running counter to these tenets of faith. "Prayers from different traditions seemed to help me understand how we are all people of God, dealing with life and God's will for us the best way we know how," said Ellen Harris, a member of Crumly Chapel UMC in Birmingham. "All around me, people seemed hopeful and joyful, not sad or distressed. I'm very proud to be United Methodist today."
Bob Bentley of Lester Memorial UMC in Oneonta agrees. "I was struck by the palpable spirit of unity among the beatifully diverse crowd. The unity did not center around a course of action that gained a consensus. The speakers offered no such proposals. The unity of spirit instead seemed to come from the opposite place, believers in a loving God gathering as a family, seeking guidance from a loving parent when we simply don't know what to do but know we must do something."
Reggie Holder, staff member of Highlands UMC in Birmingham, called the march "an incredible gathering of peaceful, loving people giving voice to the call for inclusion and diversity in our state." Holder has written a letter to Gov. Robert Bentley opposing the bill, which he has invited other laity in the North Alabama Conference to sign.
To continue the dialogue about the immigration issue, the North Alabama Conference will hold a series of discussions at churches in North Alabama. The first Immigration Bill Discussion will be held at Highlands UMC in Birmingham on June 28 at 6:30 p.m. It will be a time of worship, discussion and prayer, and all sides will be heard in civility and respect.