Walking the walk: tracing one woman’s steps into advocating for immigration reform

My parents met Kristen and her husband through their church in suburban Seattle. The four of them have become close friends over the years – sharing Bible study discussions, attending baby showers for each other’s now-adult children, going on architecture tours in Seattle. On her Facebook profile, Kristen describes herself: “Wife, mom, grandma.”

Recently, I have begun to notice how outspoken and politically progressive Kristen’s posts on social media have become, particularly on the topic of immigration. “I’m particularly interested in writing about how people of faith become interested in these issues,” I write to her in the email asking if she is willing to be interviewed. “Hope to hear from you.”

kristen-photoWhen we speak on the phone, Kristen is warm and forthcoming, with the gentle honesty that comes with thoughtful self-reflection.  She shares that she grew up with Christian parents who periodically hosted missionaries in their home. After college in the early 1980’s, she was living in San Francisco when she began learning about the violence and political unrest in Central America. Encounters with undocumented El Salvadoran men working in a local deli helped her to link the conflicts about which she had been hearing with the struggles of immigrants in her own community. She wanted to take action, but chose not to get involved with Christian groups advocating for peace in the region because she worried she should focus on starting a career. She volunteered with refugees seeking sanctuary in a local church, but was overwhelmed by the immensity of the conflicts that drove them to immigrate. “I felt ill-equipped to do anything of substance, so I retreated into a safe suburban life,” she explains.

She moved to Seattle, got married, raised three children, sent kids off to college, cared for grandchildren. Her desire to pursue social justice didn’t go away, but for years she remained convinced that she didn’t have the emotional bandwidth or knowledge to focus her energies beyond the immediate. Looking back now, she says she was deterred by fear, and spent a lot of years wishing she “wouldn’t be so scared.”

Kristen learned about El Camino del Inmigrante (“The Path of the Immigrant”) through a friend connected to Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). The national organization, which identifies itself as “a network of Christians committed to seeing people and communities wholistically restored,” coordinated the ten-day walking pilgrimage for the first time this year. While traveling 150 miles from Tijuana to Los Angeles (a route loosely representing the path an immigrant might take during a journey from Central America to the US), walkers from all over the country slept and ate in local churches, praying and sharing devotionals about the immigrant experience.

While marches for immigration reform are not completely uncommon, El Camino is unique in its size and length; its walkers take part for a variety of reasons. For Kristen, the walk sounded like both a practical opportunity to better understand the personal effects of the broken system and a way to call on elected officials to take action on humane immigration reform. She created an online fundraising page and raised just over $600 for CCDA. “I am walking in community with brothers and sisters to bring attention and support for the conditions and policies affecting immigrants,” she wrote on her page, and took long walks to prepare.

Participating in El Camino in August allowed Kristen to get “a tiny little sense” of the dangers people face when fleeing violence and poverty to reach the US. She was surprised by how badly her feet hurt and how quickly she developed painful blisters, despite wearing comfortable running shoes and socks. She shared her experience through a blog for CCDA’s website and live videos posted to her Facebook page so friends and family could watch in real-time. In the videos, she holds up her iPhone camera and narrates her progress – “Ok, it’s day eight, starting out with some friends!”– while walking along the sidewalk in a white sunhat, periodically swinging the camera to introduce her companions. She posted videos of crowds rallying outside a detention center, clergy leading prayers in Spanish before news cameras, a water break on a sandy beach, dinner at a Los Angeles church. She met walkers of all ages who exposed her to networks of activists far beyond her local community, many of whom work directly with immigrants in urban areas. When her blisters kept her from walking the whole way, she rode in a van and meditated on the physical dangers and familial separation common to the immigrant experience.

After the walk, Kristen returned to Bellevue, a suburb across the lake from Seattle with a population of approximately 140,000. It’s one of the most diverse cities in Washington, home to immigrants, Microsoft billionaires and a big downtown luxury mall, and has been ranked the 2nd  best place to live in the country by USA Today. Kristen’s 3,000-member church is part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination known for its relatively progressive stance on doctrine, but this church’s political leanings range widely; my father, a long-time member, fondly describes it as a “purple church” for its mixing of conservatives and liberals.

The church places an emphasis on serving the local and international community, typically through activities like mentoring at-risk youth ( the church hosts a high school for students who have no other options to continue their education), providing homes for homeless youth who have aged out of foster care, repairing cars and donating vehicles to those in need, working in the public schools and repairing homes for low income residents, and sending teams to serve locally and in developing countries. Kristen finds her passion for advocating for systemic changes can leave her a bit lonely, as she lacks the community of activists that surrounded her during El Camino.

Through involvement with her church’s Justice and Reconciliation Committee, Kristen hopes to help others to establish their own visions for social justice and how they can take action. Her experience on El Camino provides a way for her to broach the subject of welcoming immigrants on a personal level, as people are usually intrigued that she decided to walk for several days with mostly strangers. She recently penned a blog for the church’s website, relating her experience on El Camino to her journey of faith. “Slowly, I am stepping out of the comfort of fear and into the renewal of hearts,” she wrote.

Kristen is one of many Christians who, convinced humane immigration reform is a Christian imperative, have become vocal in the immigrant rights movement. Their beliefs are typically grounded in Biblical scriptures in which God commands people to be hospitable to strangers, even lawbreakers, and to carry each other’s burdens. A concerted discussion in recent years has raised the lack of distinctively Christian reflection on the immigration issue, couched in concerns about “a growing rift in the evangelical continuum, one with significant uncertainty about its future.” This soul-searching has led some leaders to point out that not all evangelicals are conservative, anti-immigrant Republicans – and that Christians need to speak out against such rhetoric in order to reclaim the “true” evangelical identity. In the current U.S. election, xenophobic and racist rhetoric has been given a public platform, and the so-called “silent majority” of liberal Christians may in fact be compelled to speak out against bigotry more loudly than ever.

Diverse groups of evangelical clergy have become arguably more outspoken than ever on issues such as white supremacy, immigration, the current presidential election and the refugee crisis. But it isn’t just clergy getting involved. Many individuals like Kristen are motivated to move outside of their comfort zones by serving immigrants face-to-face and building awareness and concern in their communities of faith. In fact, polls have shown that a majority of American evangelicals want to see Congress pass immigration reform, including a path to citizenship, but real policy reform will likely remain stalled for the near future.

The blisters on Kristen’s feet haven’t healed quite yet. She stays busy, reading up on pressing political issues, visiting detainees at a local immigration detention center and signing up to house a Syrian refugee family in her house’s spare room. And her interest in social justice has reached beyond immigration issues to inform her growing concern about racial injustice in America. In her current Facebook profile picture, taken at a Black Lives Matter protest she attended with her daughter, she holds up a sign that reads, Fear is not an excuse.

Kristen says she wishes she could go back and encourage her younger self to step beyond her comfort zone – but also says it’s never too late. “It’s not an option or a choice,” she says. “The Bible tells me these are people we care about.”

 

Photo (above) of Kristen during El Camino del Inmigrante, courtesy of Kristen Chesmore.

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