Rev. Linda Orsen Theophilus, pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Pennsylvania and chair of the Immigration Taskforce for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the ELCA, is a bold “voice crying in the wilderness” for compassionate immigration reform. Pastor Linda recently received a “Serve. Pray. Speak” advocacy award for her work on the 35th anniversary celebration of Lutheran Advocacy Mission in Pennsylvania (LAMPa) and was in Washington, D.C. last week for the Detention Watch Network National Conference, advocating for reforms to the inhumane immigration detention and deportation system. Rosalynd Erney, LIRS Advocacy Fellow, caught up with Pastor Linda on a busy D.C. metro train to chat about becoming an advocate and the future of immigration reform in Pennsylvania.
Rosalynd Erney (RE): What were the goals of the recent Lutheran Day and LAMPa’s 35th anniversary events in Harrisburg?
Pastor Linda Theophilus (LT): Lutheran Day at the Capitol is an annual event where Lutherans come from across the state to speak to our representatives and to learn and to be inspired. While there are always issues that have to do with hunger and poverty, this year we also had the Pennsylvania Dream Act. At the 35th anniversary event we were celebrating what Lutherans have been doing, recognizing the accomplishments and encouraging ourselves with the reasons why we do this. Since we are freed by grace and there’s nothing we need to do to be in a right relationship with God, we have all this time to do good things for our neighbors. Sometimes I’ve been a voice crying in the wilderness, but there’s growing respect and understanding of how important this is.
RE: What’s next for Pennsylvania in terms of the fight for immigration reform? What are your goals or hopes for the coming year?
LT: Under the leadership of the LAMPa, there’s now an Immigration Leadership Circle. We’re connecting up across the state, primarily with conference calls. As we continue to evolve, there’ll be more activities and ways to network together.
At the statewide level for legislature, the Pennsylvania Dream Act was introduced by one of our Lutheran senators, Senator Smucker, who’s a member of Zion Lutheran Church in Leolia. He introduced it because it’s the right thing to do. So, galvanizing support for the Pennsylvania Dream Act is something on our agenda. Another is to get more involved in visitation in the county jails where there are immigrants in detention.
RE: What do you see as some of the challenges of involving faith communities in the fight for immigrant justice at the grassroots level?
LT: One of the challenges is just that people are involved in their own personal lives, and this doesn’t feel personal. Especially in the parts of Pennsylvania where there’s a very small percentage of foreign-born people, it’s very easy to feel like this doesn’t affect our neighbors, it doesn’t affect our communities. But then there are always people for whom this is a family matter; their son or daughter is married to someone from another country. Somehow these stories have connected. They do become our neighbors and our families. Breaking through the cloud of obligation and interests and apathy is probably the biggest challenge.
RE: What would be some of the advice that you would give to someone just starting out in their advocacy?
LT: The first letter that I wrote regarding immigration advocacy, I just knew that there were people who weren’t getting due process, and weren’t getting a chance to have their stories heard by someone who had the authority to make the decision about whether they should stay in the United States or not. So I didn’t know a lot about the issues, but I know that due process is an important American value. So I wrote to my representative and I said, ‘please support this, I hear it’s not happening for immigrants.’ So you take what you know, and why it’s important to you. And the Representatives and Senators, they want to hear what’s important to their constituents, whether it relates to a bill or you understand the ins and outs of policy.
RE: How can other people of faith in Pennsylvania get involved in what you’re doing?
LT: They can go to www.lirs.org and sign up on the Action Center; that’s actually very important because we always work in collaboration with LIRS. Reach out to LAMPa, and sign up for the Leadership Circle. People can get engaged in the visitation project, not just in York County, but there are many county jails. We are hoping there will be opportunities for pen pals. You can also find your other allies who are working in local communities! And come out on May 22nd.
RE: Can you tell us more about the May 22nd “Whatever Happened to Immigration Reform?” event in Pittsburgh?
LT: This May is the third time we’re holding an informational event for ourselves and for our allies from other denominations and organizations to learn about immigration reform. [The event will feature] great speakers, Folabi Olagbaju and Jen Smyers, who really know the issues and what’s happening in D.C., and ways we can effectively engage from our own home territories. Hopefully we’ll have some DREAMers come, some young folks who have been raised here in the United States and are waiting to stay in the only country that they know as their home. We’re going to have a time for networking and refreshments, and it will also be an opportunity for people who don’t know what’s going on to start to get a sense of what’s happening and why it’s important. The other thing that we’re hoping to do is to get people signed up to visit their representatives and their staff back in their home territory.
If you live in Pennsylvania, you won’t want to miss “Whatever Happened to Immigration Reform?” on Thursday, May 22 from 6:30pm to 9pm. The event will be held at the Southwestern PA Synod Office of the ELCA, 9625 Perry Highway, Pittsburgh, PA 15237. Please RSVP to Rev. Theophilus at 412-401-5742 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Pastor Linda said, it’s easy for anyone to get involved in advocating for immigration reform by learning and knowing what’s important to you. Check out our Action Center or visit a detention center near you.