African-American Churches in the East Bay Give Immigrants Voice

Matt O’Brien, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, California), September 7, 2009

Latino immigrant workers took to the pulpits of African-American churches in the East Bay on Sunday morning and sought to gain allies in the fight to overhaul America’s immigration system.

“I hope that my presence here helps you see me as a friend,” said Rolando Rodriguez, speaking with the help of an interpreter before a receptive and boisterous crowd at the Bay Area Christian Connection, a church in downtown Oakland.

The 46-year-old described how after a long career in Guatemala’s sugar cane fields, he was forced to flee political persecution in his native town and now struggles to find odd jobs on the streets of East Oakland.

Cautioning against seeing Rodriguez as unwanted job competition or a source of feared cultural change in their Oakland neighborhoods, the Rev. Brian Woodson implored his congregants to get to know a neighbor.

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The pastors who invited Latino guests to speak at 16 East Bay churches on Sunday morning said their Christian congregations are natural allies with immigrants looking for justice and a better life. They also said they wanted to overcome underlying barriers between two communities–immigrant and African-American–who have increasingly lived side-by-side in East Bay cities.

“In the public arena, most African-Americans do not want to criticize immigrants. They do it privately,” said the Rev. Phil Lawson, a retired pastor in Hercules.

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But a new effort to welcome Latino visitors into predominantly African-American churches has shifted the focus into thinking about the country’s newcomers and the controversial topic of illegal immigration.

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What came out of the meeting was the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, a group that helped coordinate Sunday’s events with the East Bay Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.

Their objectives include legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants, improving the conditions immigrants face in federal detention facilities and ending what they say is a system that allows businesses to exploit low-income immigrants.

Lawson said pastors have held private meetings with congregations, creating a safe space to talk about how immigration has changed the landscape of neighborhoods across the East Bay that for decades were home to African-Americans.

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“Most African-Americans, either they or their parents migrated (to the Bay Area) from other places in the state or from the South, or Texas, looking for work, looking to better their lives, which is exactly why immigrants migrate,” Lawson said. “There’s a powerful connection between immigrants coming into the United States and the African-American community.”

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