Saturday, Oct. 19, First Christian Church in Fort Worth, TX, hosted around 40 people from several congregations for a “Change the Conversation” conference on immigration.
The event planning committee decided to focus on immigration and refugee issues because “We wanted truth,” explains committee member and FCC elder Ruth Winkler. “We wanted to hear some truth from experts, and respond to what is real, as opposed to political rhetoric.”
For Winkler, the event’s purpose was “to bring people into conversation around difficult issues. We want to be a safe place – a place of grace – where difficult ideas can be discussed, even if we don’t all agree.”
For FCC’s senior minister Rev. Tom Plumbley, “This conversation comes out of our Disciples DNA to invite people to the Table – all sorts of tables. Our participants understand that call and can take what they learned back to their congregations, families and communities.”
In Fort Worth, the 13th-largest U.S. city, immigrants account for around 19 percent of the population. The congregation was already familiar with local organizations to invite to this event, hosting Ashley Faye, director of development at Refugee Services of Texas; Rev. Xergio Ly Chacin, director of immigration services for Catholic Charities Fort Worth; Michael Olivares, immigration lawyer; and Anita McNew, a therapist who spoke about the predictable long-term effects of childhood trauma and family separation experienced in refugee and immigrant communities.
The congregation also invited Disciples leaders to speak. The keynote speaker was Rev. Dr. Sharon Stanley-Rea, director of Refugee and Immigration Ministries (housed in Disciples Home Missions). The event also featured Rev. Feliberto Pereira, founder and executive director of Southwest Good Samaritan Ministries (SWGSM), a ministry partner of the Southwest region.
Participants ranged in age from younger than 10 to older than 80, and there was an effort to include all ages. Children cared for in the nursery were invited to join the whole group, with activities like drawing pictures of what they’d pack in a suitcase if they had to leave home and writing letters to welcome new refugees. The full group was quizzed on questions from the U.S. citizenship test naturalized citizens must pass.
This is the second such event the congregation has held. Last year, they hosted a Change the Conversation conference focused on the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment.
FCC, already planning for the next “Change the Conversation’ event, makes an intentional effort to look ahead. Plumbley says, “At 164 years old, sometimes it’s easy to lose focus on what the congregation should be about. Our efforts now are to help the congregation look up and out to the rest of the world. What is Jesus calling us to do in this time and place?”
Winkler agrees, suggesting, “I believe one of the things Jesus modeled the most for us was building relationships…The church is a place where our community builds relationships. We have a responsibility to our neighbor, and we serve each other better by understanding the reality around us. This event helps us love each other in spite of our differences and move forward, not necessarily totally agreeing, but moving forward in the way Jesus asks us to move for others.”