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In an effort to highlight the many Anabaptists engaged in important work and ministry across the country and around the world, we’re starting a new series. Most Thursdays, we’ll publish a seven question interview with a different Anabaptist talking about their life, work, spiritual journey, etc. You can view past interviews here.
Name: Saulo Padilla
Occupation: Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Immigration Education Coordinator
Home congregation: Assembly Mennonite Church, Goshen, Ind.
1. What are your earliest memories of church?
I was part of an evangelical church in Guatemala. I was born in that church, and my dedication happened there. I was there until I was 15 and then we moved to Canada.
The church was a very missionary-oriented church. We used to do missionary trips to small towns in Guatemala. I grew up singing hymns. I don’t think we had a guitar or a bass or anything else until the last couple of years I was there. Before that it was just organ and piano. It was a very conservative church. Those are my first memories.
Also, my dad left when I was 10, and then the church became a place of refuge and care for us when dad was gone.
2. How did you get into this work with immigration education?
When I was at Goshen (Ind.) College, Rebecca Jimenez Yoder, who worked with MCC [Mennonite Central Committee], put together a learning tour to the border. I did that during spring break in March 2002.
When I came to Goshen to study, my idea was to come study Hispanic ministry in music and then to go back to Canada or Guatemala to do some service. When I went on that trip, something triggered in me about the reality of immigration here [in the U.S.]. At that point, I went to Iglesia del Buen Pastor and probably 65 percent of our congregation was undocumented. That became an opening to this work. As an immigrant I wasn’t aware of the struggles, because I came to the U.S. another way. I went to Canada first and then came here.
The church also taught me this work. Fifteen years ago I was a mechanic. People kept talking to me and telling me to come to Goshen College. I got my GED when I was 31 years old. Because of what some people in church saw in me—leadership potential—I came to GC with my wife and daughters. When I was here, someone at GC tapped me on the shoulder and said, You should go to AMBS [Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary]. And then I went to AMBS. When I was there and finishing my master’s degree, somebody at the church tapped me on the shoulder and said they were looking for somebody at MCC to work on immigration issues. It was the same position that had taken me to the border a few years back. So I blame it on the church that gave me these opportunities!
3. What does a normal day look like for you?
There are two normal days. One is being here tending to e-mails and conference calls with people requesting information on immigration, and maybe working with different networks and partners. I just finished a conference call with people from the migrant trail who are walking in the desert. So one normal day is being in the office, and I don’t enjoy that as much as the other normal day.
The other type of day is being out and putting together trainings for immigration law for nonprofits or being at the [U.S.-Mexico] border and doing a learning tour with members of our churches. That is probably where I find myself being at my best. It gives me so much life. Finding opportunities for people to learn and to see and to actually experience some of those things. That’s the experience that I had in 2002, and it’s why I continue to share it with other people. It was life-changing for me.
4. What are some of the biggest challenges facing immigrants in the U.S. today?
There are different situations. I know of a family from one our churches—a family from Mexico—who crossed the border seeking a better future with their kids about 10 years ago. They do not have a family relationship to a citizen or a resident in the U.S. and without it, there are few ways of becoming legal. For them, there is no line to documents. That is a big challenge for many people. I can bring the best immigration lawyer, and still there is no path for them to get legalized here.
There are so many people in our congregations who are in that same status. We don’t have an answer for them. There is basically no hope unless something like amnesty or some type of a pardon is created for them.
The other one that we find a lot is that many children are growing up far away from their parents. There’s the story of Pastor Max [a Mennonite pastor who was deported in March 2015]. Many children have a parent missing, and that creates some dynamics in a family. The mother is going to work and kids are home alone. Perhaps older kids are taking care of younger kids. Sometimes kids can turn out to be very violent or you’ll see kids beating up their mothers because they are angry. Or perhaps they are getting involved in other kinds of activities: drugs, alcohol, pills, eating disorders, etc. Those are some of the biggest challenges that we see. In 10 years, what will Hispanic communities look like?
Immigrant communities are all facing these challenges of no protection and separation of families.
5. I know Mennonite Church USA has spent a lot of time exploring this question, but in your own words, why should people of faith care about immigration justice?
One is because I think if we look at the Bible through the lens of migration, the immigrant and the sojourner are at the center of the heart of God. All throughout the scriptures we see how the stranger is always to be cared for and God is very concerned for them. We have clear biblical commandments to care for the stranger.
If you separate the Bible into stories of the characters, we can see Abraham, Joseph, Ruth, and others, as immigrants. For immigrants, the biblical story becomes our story, too. You can find yourself in the story and the struggle. The Bible is this book giving you hope.
I also think that the church has been, as an immigrant, a place that has given me hope and opportunity. If anybody can do this work, I would say it’s the church.
At 15, I became an immigrant myself in Canada and went through the process of language change and separation from my own family. At the center of this journey were people in the church taking care of us. When I dropped out of school, my parents separated and we were alone, these leaders took care of me and my brothers and still gave us opportunities during all of that messy stuff.
When I invite communities and churches to do this work, it is because I know and have experienced it myself. I’m not making an invitation out of a utopian vision for the church; it’s from my own experience of the church doing this work.
6. How would you encourage people to get engaged or learn more?
By walking alongside immigrants. It can be listening as a congregation or becoming acquainted with an immigrant community or family and getting to know them as people and humans. Gently create a good relationship with them. Even somebody who is on the fence about immigration, once they see the humanity in immigrants, then all those questions they have start getting answers. Are they paying taxes? Yes, they’re paying taxes. Is there a way to become legal? Maybe not. What are the reasons they came here? Then immigration is not an issue. It’s a family. It’s a person they can touch.
Also put yourself in a position to learn more. There are many resources through MCC and some resources are online. There’s the Radical Hospitality curriculum [from Mennonite Church USA]. Use those tools and learn more about how complex the issue of immigration is. It’s not something that’s just easy to engage.
Tours are very life-changing for people. I am often pleasantly surprised when I visit congregations. They may be very conservative, but they’ve had an undocumented immigrant family that came and stayed, and that changes the whole thing. I like seeing how relationships lead into things.
7. What are your top three texts of all time (books, songs, poems, etc.)?
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