Former Plainfield resident Margo Gislain is among 600 Methodists — clergy and otherwise — who signed a church complaint saying Attorney General Jeff Sessions violated doctrine by advocating and supporting the separation of immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Gislain, now a student at the University of Puget Sound, was among those admonishing fellow Methodists in a public letter penned by her university chaplain, the Rev. Dave Wright. In an email to the Tribune on Tuesday, Wright said he had the idea during a conversation with a friend. Hearing Wright’s frustration over Sessions using the Bible to defend separating families at the border, the friend said: “Well, he’s Methodist, can’t you do something?”
Wright did some preliminary writing before sharing and collaborating with other Methodists. Then, he says, he was “inundated with requests to join the complaint.” Two dozen Illinoisans signed the formal letter of complaint addressed to Sessions’ two reverends, one in his home state of Alabama and the other at the church he attends in Alexandria, Va. The letter says those who signed charge Sessions with the offenses of child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and making proclamations contrary to the views of the United Methodist Church.
“Ultimately we felt that this was the one thing we could do, building off the excellent and powerful public statements by various national United Methodist leaders, that might actually require something of Mr. Sessions to address this,” Wright said.
The formal complaint system is more often used for reports of misconduct against clergy, Wright said, and is based off a unifying principle of the faith, the “Book of Discipline,” which is essentially a code of conduct for Methodists. Wright said typically a conversation is had with the church member and sometimes the issue is elevated to mediation. In the most extreme case there could be a “court trial,” he said, with a member potentially having his or her membership revoked.
Wright’s hopes for the outcome are ambitious.
“My own — which I’ve been pretty clear about with people as these discussions have happened — is for Mr. Sessions to engage with his pastors and church leaders in a discernment process that leads him to recognize how utterly alien his policies, actions, and use of Scripture are to our tradition, and then to work to use the tremendous social/political power he has to not only stop causing harm but to undo what harm he can,” Wright wrote.
Neither of the two reverends to whom the letter was addressed returned messages seeking comment Tuesday. A spokesperson for the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church — the larger group overseeing Ashland Place United Methodist Church, Sessions’ church in Mobile, Ala., — sent a statement that does not address the letter of complaint or Sessions’ words, but it does make clear its stance on family separation.
Attributed to Bishop David Graves, the Alabama-West Florida resident bishop, the statement “regarding immigration and family separation,” says:
“The Christ we follow would have no part in ripping children from their mothers’ arms or shunning those fleeing violence. It is unimaginable that faith leaders even have to say that these policies are antithetical to the teachings of Christ.”
A request for comment from the attorney general was not answered Tuesday afternoon.
Gislain, the 20-year-old Plainfield North graduate, was one of 24 people from Illinois who signed the formal complaint.
“There’s power in numbers, and I think it would be irresponsible if I didn’t speak up,” she said. “The more people that speak up and say ‘no family is illegal,’ the better. Just because they were born on the other side of the border doesn’t mean they deserve to be in cages.”
Gislain attended Plainfield United Methodist Church growing up. She’ll be a college senior this fall and is a political science major. She said she has always been vocal in her beliefs, attending protests, rallies and marches even as a child.
The Rev. Katherine Paisley has been pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Oak Park for a year, having moved there after five years in Irving Park and more than 20 before that in Tennessee, after attending Vanderbilt University.
Of the four complaints levied against Sessions, Paisley quickly turned her attention to the charge of “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church.”
Hearing the attorney general use Romans 13 to indicate how one must be obedient to secular law goes against the Judeo-Christian tradition, she said.
“I think he’s wrong in how he’s misusing Romans. I think he’s wrong in interpreting what Paul was saying,” she said. “Past that, the Bible is pretty consistently revelatory of a God who’s on the side of those who are oppressed. And that seems to be a whole string of scriptural tradition that he ignores.”
Her hope is that Sessions’ pastor or pastors will have one-on-one conversations with him about what he’s said, which could serve as a “gentle correction,” Paisley said. She further hopes that if Sessions comes to see things as the 600-plus signers do, perhaps a reformed attorney general could then “speak truth to power.” Paisley laughed to herself with that thought but added that she hopes Sessions also would publicly recant his statements.
“He’s ignoring the broad stream of justice that flows through the Scriptures,” Paisley said. “And the fact that care for the vulnerable is very much a part of Methodist history.”
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