United Methodists clash over ‘i’-word question

If you drop the “i” word, you may pick up controversy.

Reverend Lee and Wive also Reverend Lee

UMNS FILE PHOTO BY KATHLEEN BARRY • • • The Rev. Eun-sang Lee (center) is pastor of First UMC in Salt Lake City, where the church council voted March 12 to ban use of the word “illegal” when referring to undocumented immigrants. At left is Mr. Lee’s wife, the Rev. Yvonne Young-ja Lee.

That happened to the First United Methodist Church of Salt Lake City when its council approved a resolution opposing the use of “illegal” to refer to people, meaning such terms as “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” were officially discouraged.

The March 12 decision, urged by the pastor, the Rev. Eun-sang Lee, apparently was a first for a Utah church. The Salt Lake Tribune covered the move, and hundreds of comments rolled in via the newspaper’s website and social media.

“We have received some nasty responses, but also encouraging remarks,” said Mr. Lee, who immigrated legally from South Korea in 1978. “All we’re trying to do is to put a human face on this issue.”

Language is definitely part of the contentious immigration debate, and United Methodists are speaking out—mostly, but not exclusively, on the side of substituting “undocumented” for “illegal” in describing people who are in this country illegally.

The UMC’s General Commission on Religion and Race has joined the national “Drop the I-Word” campaign sponsored by the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank.

Through its website and printed materials, the commission calls on United Methodist congregations to monitor their language in regard to immigration and argues that “illegal” unfairly summarizes those who are “out of (legal) status.”

The commission argues that “illegal” used this way is inflammatory, and can even be racist, serving to pit racial and ethnic groups against one another in the search for scarce jobs.

I don’t give a rip about political correctness. But I am ordained to worry about gospel correctness. – Bishop Will Willimon

On the website, the commission notes that only General Conference can speak for the UMC, something it hasn’t done specifically on language and immigration. But the commission cites the Book of Discipline’s call for affirming “the worth of all humanity and value of interrelationship in all of God’s creation,” as well as its own charge to work toward eradication of racism, as its reasons for pushing Drop the I-Word.

“It’s been said that our words shape our world and I would add our words shape our church,” said Erin Hawkins, top executive of the commission, in an email interview. “How can we expect people to be part of a church when the language we use to describe people is derogatory, hurtful and fails to recognize them as children of God?”


PHOTO COURTESY ONFIRE • • • Members of OnFire, the young adult chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action, supported immigration reform in a march on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in March 2010.

First UMC Salt Lake City—where about half of the 200 members are immigrants—is the latest UM church to respond to the commission’s call to join the campaign. The commission identifies 17 other churches as having signed on, as well as some UM campus groups and two UM “Justice for Our Neighbors” immigration ministries.

One participant is Oak Forest UMC, in Little Rock, Ark. It’s an all-Anglo congregation, but one with a free medical clinic where many of the patients are Latinos, including “undocumented folks,” said the Rev. Russ Breshears, pastor.

“Drop the I-Word was just a natural fit,” he added. “The church had already embraced that core value of reaching out to Latinos.”

The same is true at Trinity UMC and Las Americas Comunidad de Fe in Des Moines, Iowa. The latter is a Spanish-speaking faith community that meets at Trinity, and the community’s pastor, the Rev. Barb Dinnen, said she has been giving talks on immigration, including the need to be mindful of language, for years.

“The advocacy piece of Drop the I-Word is a no-brainer for us,” she said.

Even beyond the campaign, United Methodists have been speaking out about language and immigration. Earlier this year the Tennessee Conference joined an interfaith appeal to GOP presidential candidates arriving for the state’s primary.

“Please do not inject our state with the language of ‘illegals,’ the unworkable ideas of deporting millions of individuals and thereby destroying families, and the heated claims that characterize the undocumented and their children as a class of criminals,’” the statement said.

The UMC officially supports comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legal status for those here illegally, and the Board of Church and Society leads the lobbying effort. At that agency, too, the practice is to avoid using “illegal” to describe a person.

“Dropping the ‘i’ word is simply a first step toward becoming more missional in our relations to immigrants,” said Bill Mefford, Church and Society’s director of civil and human rights.

‘Descriptive,’ ‘precise’

But the United Methodist Church is, as has often been stated, a big tent, and within it are those who take a different view.

Mac Buttram is a retired United Methodist pastor and Republican member of the Alabama House of Representatives who backs the state’s immigration law, which has been opposed by many UM clergy of the state.

Mr. Buttram avoids “illegal alien”—“To me an alien is somebody from another planet”—but does use “illegal immigrant.”

“It’s descriptive,” he said. “The person is an immigrant and they’re here illegally.”

Roy Beck is a longtime United Methodist (and former Reporter associate editor) who leads NumbersUSA, which advocates limiting immigration to the United States. He argues that illegal immigration is a huge problem that costs poor people who are here legally through suppressed wages and competition for scarce jobs.

Mr. Beck takes issue with “undocumented worker,” saying, “Nearly everyone who is supposedly undocumented does have documents. . . . They have fraudulent documents.”

And he intends to keep using “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant.”

“The argument of course is that no person is an illegal human being, but nobody is saying these people are illegal human beings,” he said. “They’re saying they have a status. They’re here illegally.”

Meanwhile, Liza Kittle, president of the RENEW Network—an evangelical network of laity and clergy that promotes the acceptance of more women’s ministry options in the UMC—offers a denominationally specific complaint.

“I believe this is an example of the partisan political advocacy of some of our boards and agencies and leaders who are attempting to frame the debate on immigration, a topic which is very divisive among United Methodists,” she said.

“By trying to ban the word ‘illegal’ by saying it ‘creates an environment of hate by exploiting racial fear,’ GCORR is in turn labeling those who disagree with them on immigration issues as racist.”

Newsroom discussion

At Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Tony Pederson, former executive editor of the Houston Chronicle, chairs a journalism department in which students are taught to cover the news objectively and follow the Associated Press Stylebook, which stands by “illegal immigrant.”

“I believe ‘illegal immigrant’ is a precise and correct terminology,” said Mr. Pedersen. “To ban the use of ‘illegal’ seems to me PC (political correctness) run amok. To insist on a substitution of ‘undocumented’ brings into the discussion a whole range of other possibilities that are confusing and obfuscating on an issue that desperately needs precision and clarity.”

He noted that the language issue has been around “since at least the ’90s.” News organizations are still debating it. Indeed, the Salt Lake City story helped prompt a newsroom discussion at The Tribune about whether to go with ‘undocumented worker’ or ‘illegal immigrant.’”

“In the end, we decided both terms are acceptable in The Tribune and at sltrib.com,” wrote Lisa Carricaburu, assistant managing editor, in a recent column. “Both are precise language we believe accurately describes individuals’ immigration status if they are in the United States—or any other country—illegally. It is incumbent on our reporters and editors to verify immigration status to the extent they are able before using either term, and—as always—to report on immigration issues accurately and fairly.”

One United Methodist long known for speaking forthrightly, even bluntly, is Bishop Will Willimon of the North Alabama Conference. He has also led UM opposition to Alabama’s immigration law. That’s his priority, but he supports Drop the I-Word and bristles at the idea that it is, for him, a matter of political correctness.

“I don’t give a rip about political correctness,” Bishop Willimon said. “But I am ordained to worry about gospel correctness.”

The debate about words is certain to continue. The Commission on Religion and Race has submitted a petition to the 2012 General Conference, asking United Methodists “to commit in both written and verbal communication that no child of God is ‘illegal.’”


Sam Hodges, Managing Editor – shodges@umr.org

Missy Buchanan, UMR Columnist

Missy Buchanan is a sought-after speaker on topics of older adult ministry and spiritual creativity, she brings passion and humor to many events for churches, organizations, and women’s groups. She has appeared on Good Morning America with co-host Robin Roberts and is the author of books including Living with Purpose in a Worn-Out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults, Talking with God in Old Age: Meditations and Psalms, and Don’t Write My Obituary Just Yet: Inspiring Faith Stories for Older Adults. She has written for many publications including Presbyterians Today, Mature Years, Christian Association Serving Adults Ministries, Entrepreneur, and The Dallas Morning News.

Facebook Twitter 

Leave a Reply

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
Notify of
%d bloggers like this: