Tylerites’ spiritual values speak to the migrant crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border

People of faith share what their spirituality asks them to think--and do--about the migrant crisis.

“When I think of Christians doing things the way my heart aches to do things, I think of the Episcopal Church.” “People are people, and we are human beings before we are part of a religion.” “We have become increasingly alarmed at the terrible treatment and conditions facing immigrants at our borders in recent years.”

Jan. 30 marked one year since President Trump announced his Migrant Protection Protocols, a policy that requires migrants seeking to cross the Southern border wait in Mexico until they can be legally processed. 

In this second installment of our faith perspective on migrant issues, we wanted to learn about how people of faith here in Tyler, including religious leaders, are thinking and talking about the migrant crisis. Are they speaking about border conditions at their services? Has their faith moved them to act on this issue in any way? Why or why not? You can find the first installment in this series here.

In this second piece we hear from Amanda Nail, who attends Christ Church South in Tyler, Shirin Tavakol, who attends First Christian Church in Tyler, and Lyssa Jenkens, affiliated minister with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Tyler. In this installment we wanted to hear from people who value spirituality, but don’t necessarily fit in a traditional religious category or denomination. Our conversations have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Do you consider yourself a community leader in Tyler or someone who is deeply guided by your faith or a set of ethical guidelines? Would you like to share your perspective on how your convictions influence the way you think—or act—related to the border crisis? Please get in touch.

Amanda Nail

Amanda Nail attends Christ Church South Episcopal Church. She teaches 11th grade English and Practical and Creative Writing for English Language Learners at Robert E. Lee High School. Photo by Yasmeen Khalifa.

I was raised a Southern Baptist. I was actually very devout. I was later drawn to the Episcopal faith because of the church’s consistent history with standing up for those who society typically neglects or attacks. Recently I had been visiting Christ Church South and assumed that because of the faith’s history they were having these conversations.

I haven’t been able to visit Christ Church consistently so I still can’t speak to that specific congregation’s response to the issues at the border, only what the larger faith’s response has been, which is one of advocacy and acceptance. I read online articles posted and shared by Episcopalian friends through social media and the Episcopal church in Longview I used to attend, St. Michael and All Angels. That church in Longview was definitely having the conversations and actively dialoguing about how to pray, what support they could offer, and many of their members attended local marches on the topic.

What really turned me away from the Evangelical Christian faith I grew up in is this language that we use in that faith system is very much a ‘me against you,’ ‘us against them.’ It’s not even intentional, I don’t think, and that makes it more terrifying. I think that it’s too easy for them to justify and see (migrants) as an enemy instead of someone we’re meant to love. That’s what I see when I get in conversations about it.

Being a teacher of (English Language Learners at Robert E. Lee High School) students whose families are here from other places, that really has changed my perspective even more, because I think it’s easy to sit there and call people wrong when you don’t know those people. When they’re just images on the television screen or social media, they’re not really human, they’re just another image you see. But when you’re sitting in front of them, and you’re teaching them, and you’re talking to them, you’re getting to know their family through the things they write and the things they say, then you remember, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re human just like me.’ I teach two classes of creative and practical writing for English language learners. They are all Hispanic children who have immigrated or grown up here with families who primarily speak Spanish.

Last year we did a unit on prejudice with my seventh graders. The stories they would tell! Now I am teaching high school and we still talk about this subject. We have to. It’s something they are going to be faced with. The naiveté and innocence of childhood doesn’t last long anymore, until they are exposed to racism and hate and ignorance. My middle schoolers, we talked about prejudice because they were reading The Outsiders, ironically enough. We talked about how they often felt like outsiders and how they knew that they were, and what did they feel like. I had mostly my Hispanic students speaking up about that and talking about times they would get pulled over by the police for speeding, or a broken tail light, or something that any of us would get pulled over for. And the script that their family would have to run down in the car and panic and ask, “Does everyone have their papers? Do we have our license with us?” They told me about the constant anxiety they lived in. There are people who are doing it the right way, who have their papers, they have their stuff in order, and there is still that fear, because they don’t have a voice. I think they know that.

I do (wish that churches took a more active role in the issue). I think that’s why I was drawn to the Episcopal Church. I kind of landed there on accident. I so wanted something that was different from what I’ve always been used to. They were a sect of Christianity that first started getting involved in the civil rights movement. When I think of Christians doing things the way my heart aches to do things, I think of the Episcopal Church.

My faith compelled me to post online and share about the issue, for sure. I’ve always longed to be an activist, and there’s nothing more painful than having the desire to help people but not knowing how to do it beyond just using your words. I’m an English teacher so I know words are powerful, but there comes a point when words don’t feel like enough and you do want to take action. I scoured the Internet for ways to help, and everything I read said “Give your money or talk about it.” I thought ‘what else could I do?’ Not all of us can pick up and head to the border. If I didn’t have my family and a job that I was responsible for, I would have packed up and gone down there and seen for myself. There has to be other ways to help, but I don’t know what those are. Now for ministers and people who have office hours and can do that, maybe they can look for ways to do that.

Shirin Tavakol

Shirin Tavakol attends First Christian Church in Tyler. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor intern at Samaritan Counseling Center. Photo by Yasmeen Khalifa.

I haven’t heard people at congregations I’ve attended talking about the migrant crisis, at least not directly. I think they don’t try to talk about sticky issues in public. These are our issues, we can’t hide from these issues, but at the same time, it would probably create a lot of division to talk about it. We already have so much division over different stuff.

It is so hard to get personally involved because I am so busy with my family, school, and my job, even though I would love to get involved more.

I have always been passionate and curious about spirituality. I was born in a very open-minded family. We were born Muslim, in a Muslim country, Iran. The Muslim teachings I heard growing up were interesting. Even though I was very young, I thought something is missing, because the picture and portrayal of God was very harsh. Even my parents were nicer than God.

When the Iran-Iraq war happened, I was very angry at God because we saw people killed in front of our eyes, their houses were destroyed, so many crises happened. I expected that God would intervene. I knew he was real (because I had experienced him in a dream at a younger age). So when He didn’t have any response to those crises, I was so angry.

Then I had a dream where I met Jesus, even though I had not had any real interaction with Christianity before that. So I started reading about Christianity. To me, when I started reading the Bible, God was more accessible, he wasn’t far off. I didn’t have to do many things to reach him.

Then, I got married and my husband and I came to the United States for his work. I started going to a Bible study in Tyler. I didn’t see myself as a Christian, more as a searcher. I had so many questions.

Then one of the people in my Bible study group in Tyler started talking about people in Palestine who had been killed, as if they deserved it. This person was happy about it. That was so offensive to me. I thought “People are people, and we are human beings before we are part of a religion. Jesus is the Prince of Peace; how can you say you are a Christian and be happy that people are killed?”

Now, I still enjoy spirituality, but I don’t like to use labels for myself or put myself in a box. I also like to read Rumi and Hafez, and study quantum physics as a way to practice spirituality. The truth is one, but we all have different names for it. I respect all people who think they found the truth, but I can’t stand people that think their way is the only way. I think God has 1,000 names.

Very recently I started going to First Christian. They are really open-minded and good people. But I don’t hesitate to go to the mosque or temple, too.

Lyssa Jenkens

Rev. Dr. Lyssa Jenkens of Dallas is a Unitarian Universalist community minister for Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Tyler. She provides consulting services for organizational and social change and has developed of a toolkit for an interfaith organization serving immigrant populations. Photo courtesy of Lyssa Jenkens.

Our small church in Tyler is one of our most generous donors.  I have found that in these complicated crises, financial support to organizations with deep knowledge and engagement is often the most effective support possible.  So, we are most grateful to Tyler.

Our denomination took a strong position in support of immigrants as a moral issue in 2013, grounded in both Christian and Jewish teachings, as well as our own history of service to the most marginalized populations. And, we have become increasingly alarmed at the terrible treatment and conditions facing immigrants at our borders in recent years.

“God bless you with water, which is life.” Courtesy Flood the Desert Action Highlights.

The list of activities facilitated by our denomination is too extensive to list, ranging from religious education resources for all ages and worship materials to sanctuary churches (including First Unitarian Universalist in Austin), alliances with activist organizations and ministerial presence at the border as allies and advocates. 

The Tyler congregation joins me in supporting the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), an international human rights organization based on our religious values and practices. This organization was founded at the outset of World War II, when our denomination sent a UU minister and his wife to Prague to see what could be done to help the refugees fleeing the terrors of the Third Reich.

I am the immediate past chair of the UUSC board and remain an active member of the board.  As a Texan, I am especially interested in our focus on the Central American migrant crisis.

We do our work through advocacy, research and, most especially, partnerships.  We believe that the people on the ground know much more than we do regarding what is most needed and effective.   Current partners include: Freedom for Immigrants, Fundación Para la Justicia y El Estado Democrático de Derecho, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, No More Deaths, Rural Community Workers Alliance, and UndocuBlack Network.

Volunteers from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in the Arizona desert, distributing bottles of water to migrants along the border. Courtesy Flood the Desert Action Highlights.

We bring a variety of resources to our partners, based on their needs, ranging from grants and loans to technical support, networking and other capacity building activities. 

I had the privilege of meeting our partners at No More Deaths in Tucson last year.  We have supported them with financial and other resources for many years.  Most recently, we have participated in direct actions (Flood the Desert) and supported them in the legal battles around their efforts to provide water to migrants crossing the most dangerous areas of the desert between Mexico and Arizona.

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