Andre Gingerich Stoner

I just spent five days in Phoenix exploring possibilities for public witness for our 2013 convention.

So what about the heat in the Valley of the Sun?  Don’t go out in the afternoon sun.  That’s the time for an air conditioned café or convention hall.  But in the evening in the shade, it’s quite bearable.  It’s hot, but it really is a dry heat.  Keep drinking water, but it’s bearable.  And first thing in the morning, it’s beautiful.  Really beautiful.  I was still on east coast time (three hour difference), so I enjoyed several 6 am outings to get a newspaper and a cup of coffee.

I was in Phoenix with Jason Boone, coordinating minister for the Peace and Justice Support Network, and Hannah Heinzekehr, from Convention Planning, who drove over with her husband Justin from southern California.  We met with Mennonite pastors, a Methodist missionary based in Phoenix and working on immigration issues, some immigrant advocates and city officials.  We even got in on a large interfaith witness outside the tent city detention center run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.  He corrals men and women there who don’t have their papers.  He keeps them outside day and night, in 110 Arizona summers and 40 degree winters.  This is just one expression of our broken immigration system.

How should we approach public witness around immigration when we gather in Phoenix?  Here’s some of what we’re thinking.  For one thing, we’re not going to Phoenix to “fix” Arizona.  We’re going to learn from Arizona as a case study for what’s happening all across our country.  We want to take what we learn to help us be better neighbors in our own communities.  We also want to work with local partners — Mennonites and others of faith working for fairness, dignity, and right relationships — learn from them, support them, and not get in their way.  And finally, we want to be present in a Christ-like way:  listening and learning, standing with people who are suffering, building bridges of understanding, speaking for justice.

These last couple days, we walked the streets of Phoenix, imagining hundreds — maybe even thousands — of Mennonites on an evening prayer walk, passing places of suffering and hope,  praying for the detained, decision-makers, churches, ourselves.  Asking God to deepen our love, our courage, our witness.  We imagined early morning prayer circles outside the county jail ten blocks from the Convention Center, asking God to open our eyes and our hearts.  We envisioned opportunities during convention to hear stories from immigrants as well as a conversation with a border patrol agent and others.  We imagined a bus load of Mennonites in a traveling choir, stopping at a nursing home, a mall, singing to detainees at Sheriff Joe’s tent city.  And after convention, we can see Mennonites going back home and together with others visiting detainees and holding prayer vigils at detention centers in our own backyards.

These days some of this dreaming shifted to planning.  Some doors opened for us.  Some new ideas surfaced.  As we move forward, we’ll need lots of prayers – and from some of you at least some good help.  Be in touch!