Bishop on front lines of immigration battle

By Lilly Fowler, Religion News Service…

PASADENA, Calif.—When United Methodist Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño talks about tussling with political bigwigs on the topic of immigration reform, she is poised, yet forceful.

As the first female Hispanic bishop elected in the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination, Bishop Carcaño has had a lot of practice keeping her cool, especially when it comes to discussing divisive politics.

“Immigrants can stay as long as they don’t ask for more than we want to give them, and as long they keep serving our needs at whatever pittance of a pay we want to extend to them,” she said in an interview in her office here.

“When people begin to say that’s not fair, that’s not just, then that ruffles feathers.”

Bishop Carcaño (center) was among marchers going to the U.S. Senate office buildings in support of the DREAM Act, in December 2010. UMNS PHOTO BY SAMUEL AHN, COURTESY OF GENERAL BOARD OF CHURCH & SOCIETY

Bishop Carcaño has emerged as a key religious player on the hot-button political debate over immigration reform. On March 8, she was among 14 religious leaders who met with President Obama at the White House, where she was tasked with reaching out to Republican members of Congress who may be reluctant to tackle the issue.

While the meeting left the bishop with a sense that “immigration reform is indeed a very high priority for the president,” she doesn’t shy away from voicing her own critiques. For example, that there is still too much emphasis on securing the border, she says.

Bishop Carcaño believes immigration reform needs to include a way to reunite families that have been separated because of U.S. policies, and while President Obama speaks of cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers, she believes the labor rights of immigrants need to be respected.

In addition to her role as immigration spokesperson for the United Methodist Council of Bishops, Bishop Carcaño leads the church’s California-Pacific Conference, an area that covers much of Southern California, Hawaii and U.S. territories in the Pacific Ocean, such as Guam.

Family history

Bishop Carcaño, 59, grew up in Edinburg, Texas, not far from the U.S.-Mexico border. Her maternal grandmother was the first Protestant in the family.

The oldest of seven children, she felt an early call to ministry. But when at age 14 she confessed to her parents she was contemplating life in the church, her mother cried. Her father’s reaction wasn’t much better, commanding her, in a fit of anger, to go back to doing the dishes, the bishop recalls.

Her father, however, also deeply influenced Bishop Carcaño’s views on immigration. Although he initially came to the United States from Mexico in the 1940s under the Bracero Program that allowed the importation of temporary workers, he crossed the border illegally after the program ended because of financial hardship.

He was, Bishop Carcaño said, detained, threatened and accused of dealing drugs.

“He would say to us, ‘I’ve never even taken an aspirin. I didn’t know what a pill looked like or a drug looked like,’” she said. “The experience on the border really left him scarred for life.”

After graduating from the University of Texas-Pan American in 1975, she earned a master’s in theology from Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1979.

She has served churches across much of the American West, including Oregon and New Mexico, but she says her most challenging role came after she was elected bishop in 2004, when she presided over the church’s Phoenix-based Desert Southwest Conference, an area that includes parts of Arizona, Nevada and California.

Facing critics

Phoenix proved to be a difficult place for Bishop Carcaño to practice what she refers to as contextualized ministry, or ministering to people based on their immediate needs. The bishop says she immediately received enormous pushback from recent transplants to Arizona who were unaccustomed to living in a state that for decades had welcomed immigrants.

Bishop Minerva Carcaño addresses the Western Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church during its meeting last July in San Diego. UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST CONFERENCE COMMUNICATIONS TEAM

Traveling with other religious leaders, Bishop Carcaño says she also angered Arizona Sen. John McCain when she confronted him about the state’s get-tough 2010 immigration bill, which allows police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they stop.

“A senator can be biting your head off,” she said, “but you have to stand by your principles.”

Bishop Carcaño says she owes her work on immigration issues to her upbringing but also to Scripture and church teaching. She points, for example, to Leviticus 19, where God tells the Israelites that “the foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself.”

Some, such as Harriett Jane Olson, chief executive officer of the 800,000-member United Methodist Women, praise Bishop Carcaño for “really boundary-breaking leadership that she has exercised in a region of the country where it hasn’t always gone smoothly.”

The Rev. William B. Lawrence, dean of her alma mater at Perkins School of Theology, says Bishop Carcaño holds church members accountable for ministry for “those persons who live at the margins of society.”

Others, however, say that Bishop Carcaño’s views represent only a minority of the church. Mark Tooley, president of the conservative Washington-based Institute on Religion & Democracy, said Methodists are already defecting at an alarming rate, and the liberal teaching embodied by Bishop Carcaño and others is a main reason.

A 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that white mainline Protestants (which includes, but isn’t limited to, United Methodists) lean conservative on immigration reform: 40 percent want tighter border security as the top priority, compared to 17 percent who want a path to legal citizenship. The wide middle of the church—40 percent—wants both.

When Bishop Carcaño was appointed president of the UMC’s Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, she promised to “challenge statements or actions that offend, denigrate, or exclude any person because of the color of their skin, their economic circumstance, their political persuasion, their gender or their sexual orientation.”

Mr. Tooley notes that Bishop Carcaño’s opinions on immigration align with the church’s official positions. However, he says her opposition to the church’s teaching against gay marriage and gay ministers does not.

But for Bishop Carcaño, it’s all part of her belief in an egalitarian view of God’s grace that should always be shared with those on the margins—of society or church life.

“It does me no good, it does the world no good if I’m a good Christian in a corner, in my bedroom but do nothing to spread holiness out into the world,” Bishop Carcaño said.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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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)
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carol boyer

Bishop Minerva makes me proud of our denomination. She stands up for what is right for people–all people. So many of our citizens have short memories. When did your ancestors come to America? Were they registered by a government agency BEFORE they arrived? Do you believe they contributed to the country by their hard work and belief in the ideals of this place? Get to know these new immigrants. They are your ancestors; look at them and you'll see your own family. They are making this county strong. As a teacher I've seen things you probably haven't. A five-year-old child… Read more »

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