NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – To Bethel College President Barry C. Bartel, the current hot-button political issue of immigration in the United States has personal resonance.
“There is a link to our experience [as Mennonites] – we are an immigrant people and a people who have crossed country boundaries seeking places where we could be faithful to our God and to our convictions,” Bartel said. “My father’s first language was Low German, as his great-grandparents had immigrated to Kansas in the late 19th century.”
Bartel was reflecting on his participation in Voices from the Valley, a learning tour sponsored by Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference (PSMC) and West Coast Mennonite Central Committee (WCMCC) on July 2, a day before the Mennonite Church USA convention opened in San Jose, Calif.
Organizers of the tour included one of PSMC’s two conference ministers, Al Whaley from Phoenix, and WCMCC staff members Jodi Read, Tucson, Ariz., and Miriam Cardenas, Reedley, Calif.
Among the 20 participants, in addition to Bartel and his wife, Brenda Bartel, were conference ministers Duncan Smith (Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference) and Warren Tyson (Eastern District Conference) along with his wife, Linda Tyson, Iglesia Menonita Hispana moderator Juan Montes (who is also pastor of Primera Iglesia Menonita in Reedley) and moderator-elect Juana Nunez, Ocoee, Fla., and other staff and board members from WCMCC and the wider MCC organization.
WCMCC material described Voices from the Valley as being “part of a larger picture of MCC work in listening to and being in relationship with constituent brothers and sisters, some of whom are also immigrants. Both PSMC and MCC see building relationships among brothers and sisters often separated by social and language divides as vital to the wellbeing of a vibrant Anabaptist faith community.”
Departing early in the morning of July 2 from the convention center in San Jose, the group traveled several hours to the central San Joaquin Valley, near Reedley, where their first activity was meeting and sharing lunch with a crew of migrant farm workers, many of whom are undocumented. From there, they went to the First Mennonite Church and Primera Iglesia Menonita building in Reedley, where they heard from Montes along with one of his congregation’s leaders, Samuel Resendez, FMC members Paul Buxman and Dorothy Boldt, both farmers, and Nayeli Arreola, a student at Fresno Pacific University and president of Associated Students of FPU.
Buxman and Boldt talked about the impact of the severe freeze in the Central Valley earlier this year and their experience with migrant workers, whom they consider an integral part of the community and even their own families. Immigration, with the complex issues surrounding it, said Buxman, “is about people, not peaches.”
The tour concluded at the WCMCC office in Reedley with a biblical reflection by WCMCC director Sheri Wiedenhofer and board member Dina G. Piña.
“Immigration issues confront our society and our church, and [Brenda and I] wanted to get beyond the rhetoric of the press coverage,” Bartel said of his participation in Voices from the Valley. “Those issues are also in front of the Mennonite church as the largest growth occurs in congregations with different racial-ethnic backgrounds. The MC USA delegates passed a statement on immigration in Atlanta in 2003 and Mennonite Central Committee works on immigration issues. This learning tour was an opportunity to learn from the church and from MCC.”
To Bartel, joining the learning tour was putting one of Bethel’s priorities into practice. “Leadership at Bethel College has been working at enhancing the student experience,” he said. “We have learned more about how persons from different backgrounds experience Bethel. We stress how important cross-cultural learning is to a comprehensive education – in fact, we can gain so much by understanding the dynamics of learning from each other right on our campus.
“There is a significant Hispanic population in the Newton area,” he continued. “Some have been here for generations and others have arrived more recently. I look forward to developing better connections locally as well.”
“It is one thing to study and learn,” Bartel noted, “but experiencing a situation adds a more profound dimension. To visit in an orchard with an undocumented worker on a lunch break gives a human face to an issue that too easily gets polarized.”
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.