There has been much discussion on the North Alabama Conference website regarding Alabama’s new immigration law (HB 56). One question that was raised repeatedly in the discussion is “Who speaks for the United Methodist Church?” Rev. Mark Parris, pastor of Northport First UMC and a clergy delegate to the 2012 General Conference and Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church serving as head of the North Alabama delegation, has offered a brief answer to that repeatedly asked question. Rev. Parris also shares his thoughts on Alabama's HB 56.
In early June two pastors in our United Methodist North Alabama Annual Conference wrote “An Open Letter to Governor Robert Bentley, Senator Scott Beason, and Representative Micky Hammon.” Hundreds of United Methodist pastors across Alabama have signed this open letter in opposition to Alabama House Bill 56, an immigration bill that many are calling severe. Some pastors and church members have taken exception to this letter, asking, “What gives them the right to speak for me on this issue?” I respect their concern, as that is their right in a democratic society.
This open letter was in accordance with our church polity and discipline. In our denomination the General Conference, composed of elected lay and clergy delegates meets every four years. Only the General Conference and the resulting United Methodist Book of Discipline speak officially for our church. The letter was in harmony with our Book of Discipline, so the letter is certainly legitimate.
General Conference is a ten day gathering consisting largely of legislative committee meetings the first week and plenary sessions the second, with worship and celebration throughout. Petitions for amending the Book of Discipline and the Book of Resolutions are distributed in advance of the conference to the elected members of the appropriate committee. The committee studies each request, then votes concurrence or non-concurrence with the petition. That decision goes forward to the General Conference as a whole the next week. The petition is then debated and voted upon by the body. If affirmed, these become policy and law in the Book of Discipline. The resolutions receiving affirmation become the Book of Resolutions, guiding the work and ministry of the church on almost 200 subjects.
These two books speak for the United Methodist Church, but especially the Book of Discipline. Though I am in disagreement with some statements found in both books, they are still our means of polity and instruction. I can disagree with a statement or policy, but as a United Methodist, I am governed by it and by scripture.
Our United Methodist policy and scripture guide us away from cruel and inhuman laws on the subject at hand. Exodus 22:21 says, “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.” I cannot support this bill in light of this and other scripture passages, and in light of conscience.
I have opposed Alabama HB 56 because it gives too much power to those who must make subjective decisions. “Suspicion” can give a law enforcement officer a great deal of latitude toward racial profiling and prejudicial enforcement. The bill puts a heavier load upon the teachers and administrators of schools, further hindering the education process. It tells churches and other ministries of compassion that we cannot feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter, give a ride, offer counsel, etc. if we know or suspect that they are in the country illegally. I cannot picture our Lord Jesus Christ saying, “I can heal you of leprosy but I cannot heal your friend of blindness because he/she may be undocumented.” Or “I cannot proclaim the truth that sets one free until my disciples dismiss those of whom we are uncertain.” Read Matthew 25:31-46 and also HB 56 and ask yourself which one you must obey.
An overstatement for HB 56? Read it carefully and observe the gaps that could lead to such problems. I personally believe each country should have fair and equitable policies of immigration. HB 56 is not the one to do this for the state of Alabama. I stand with my brothers who led us in this
Rev. Mark Parris
Head of Delegation
General Conference 2012
The North Alabama Conference
of The United Methodist Church