By John Feagins
From 2008 -2013, I was appointed to serve as director of San Antonio United Methodist Campus Ministry, following the venerable Rev. Dr. David Semrad, who had over the course of two and a half decades, consistently raised the consciousness of students concerning the importance of Christian witness and action for social justice. His ministry deployed both teaching and example, ranging from the “Hot Potato” lecture series, where faculty, experts, and students could interact, to the “Urban Plunge” that placed students on the city’s transit system, to ecumenical action and international mission projects. My transition into campus ministry would not have been possible without his friendship and support.
In November of 2010, I had been leading a program with the UMSM organization where we held open-air discussions about whatever topic students would bring. After we finished, I noticed another group of students organizing to demonstrate in favor of the DREAM (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act. Having served in Hispanic ministry along the Mexican border and in San Antonio, and having close relationships with many undocumented neighbors, including several students, I was curious about the DREAM Act. Hearing their explanation, I realized how important it was, and that there were clear moral implications for Christians in its adoption.
Dreamers are undocumented students who have been raised within the United States. Having been brought here by their legal guardians, they broke no laws when they entered the U.S. They are intelligent, adaptive, successful, helpful young adults who are American in every way except their place of birth. If we could not love them, who so loved us, how then, as Christians would we ever fulfill the commandment to love our enemies?
The students were using a bull-horn to call out to people to come sign their petition, yet with limited response. After sitting with them for a while, I explained that I was a campus minister with extensive public speaking experience. I said, “If you would like, I could help you on that.” They were quite tired of yelling and let me have a try.
I began by calling out with questions like “How many of you know the golden rule? How many believe we should live and let live? How many cherish your freedom? How many would want to live under the fear that a police state would come to your home, arrest you, and ship you off to a third-world country? How many of you can tell the undocumented person from the citizen? The student sitting next to you in class could disappear tonight!”
In short order, a long line formed to sign the petition. The students also secured signatures of University leaders, including the president. At the end of the afternoon, we exchanged information, and they graciously invited me to other events they were holding.
Students on several campuses had been demonstrating as well, and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev, had promised to move a vote on the legislation before the end of the year. The UTSA students were concerned with securing the vote of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who had once supported the measure, only to later conform to the bias of her party.
The demonstrators explained to me that they were launching a hunger strike (actually a careful fast monitored by doctors) to pressure Senator Hutchison to support the DREAM Act before the mid-term elections changed the political character of Congress.
I was blessed to join them on various occasions, for prayer vigils and to be invited by them to speak in public and to the media concerning the DREAM Act. On a number of occasions, I delivered public sermons, on campus and in front of the San Fernando Cathedral, laying out the inconsistencies in the ideology of those who oppose the DREAM Act, yet support family values, lower taxes, more national security, integrity in the stewardship of public funds, and such. The last sermon challenged those who claim a literal interpretation of scripture to apply the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats to the plight of the dreamers:
Matthew 25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
I explained that the word for “stranger” is xenon, from which the word xenophobia is derived. It means foreigner or alien. Therefore, according to the teaching of Jesus, those who seek the unjust deportation of dreamers, those who would cruelly and maliciously pursue, arrest, and deport them from a familiar culture they love into a culture are damned to hell.
During the month long course of the demonstration, I invited Rev. Lorenza Smith, a colleague and immigration activist serving a church in San Antonio, to join their efforts. Rev. Smith joined their fast and chose to be arrested with the students when, after failing to get a response from Senator Hutchison, they remained in her office past closing hours.
We had many conversations prior to the sit-in, including a conversation about the distinction between civil disobedience, the intentional disobedience of an unjust law, and radical disobedience, breaking the law in the process of political demonstration. The sit-in was an instance of the latter, done to express solidarity with those who are unwelcome within the United States and considered trespassers and to draw attention to the inhospitality of our leaders.
For the Dreamer, remaining, working, living, loving, sharing, making good grades, buying, selling, and paying taxes, are all civil disobedience. Every breath taken of U.S. air is civil disobedience. For everyone else, any act of friendship, hospitality, support, or love toward the Dreamer is an act of civil disobedience. So xenophobic, evil, and misanthropic is our law!
UMCM supported the students’ efforts in a number of ways. We helped students travel to Washington where they met with the UM Board of Church and Society. We accompanied them with prayer and pastoral support. We marched with them and gathered other church leaders to their cause. We opened the Methodist Student Center to their meetings and teach-ins, and we brought them to a prayer service at La Trinidad UMC where I now serve as pastor. We hosted film screenings of undocumented filmmaker Pablo Veliz’s “Cardboard Dreams.” (Benita Veliz, Pablo’s sister, spoke at the Democratic National Convention.) The efforts of Rev. Smith gathered the attention of the national church media.
Ultimately, while the DREAM Act failed in Congress, it succeeded within the UMC, with a resolution approved at the 2012 General Conference.
The DREAM Act hunger strike ended with a community-wide pot-luck supper held at Jefferson United Methodist Church, where my spouse, Rev. Raquel Cajiri Feagins, herself an immigrant from Bolivia who graduated first in her class from a U.S. high school, welcomed Mayor Julián Castro and leaders from many civic organizations to express appreciation for the courage and integrity of the students.
This solidarity and work did not take place without some controversy. Our own UTSA student group was indifferent and even uncomfortable with these efforts. Some of our board members were offended, and suggested I should not become involved unless our student group wanted to be involved. I explained that I was a campus minister, not a young adult pastor serving a private social group. My duty was to the entire campus, students, faculty, and staff, even to God, as pastor and as witness. While it may have offended some, our efforts opened many doors and relationships for ministry that have continued to this day.
In the Spring of 2013, I received word that I would be appointed to La Trinidad UMC, an historic downtown congregation built largely by the efforts of refugees and immigrants from Mexico. Several of the students I met during that demonstration continue serving the cause of social justice to this day, and some of them work in the same ministry area as La Trinidad UMC. Those friendships, partnerships, and alliances forged in campus ministry now extend to the world parish, as the passion and hope for justice continues to extend the mercy and grace of Christ to those he came to save.
John Feagins served local church appointments in La Feria, Laredo, and Chapel Hill UMC San Antonio, Texas, before his five years at San Antonio United Campus Ministries, and is now pastor at La Trinidad UMC San Antonio.