OAKLAND — Latino immigrant workers took to the pulpits of African-American churches in the East Bay on Sunday morning and sought to gain allies in the fight to overhaul America's immigration system.
"I hope that my presence here helps you see me as a friend," said Rolando Rodriguez, speaking with the help of an interpreter before a receptive and boisterous crowd at the Bay Area Christian Connection, a church in downtown Oakland.
The 46-year-old described how after a long career in Guatemala's sugar cane fields, he was forced to flee political persecution in his native town and now struggles to find odd jobs on the streets of East Oakland.
Cautioning against seeing Rodriguez as unwanted job competition or a source of feared cultural change in their Oakland neighborhoods, the Rev. Brian Woodson implored his congregants to get to know a neighbor.
"Sometimes when we don't talk to each other and don't hear each others' story, we alienate each other," Woodson said.
"Amen," one woman shouted in response. Another followed. Rodriguez returned to his seat with a round of applause.
Earlier in the morning, Maricruz Manzanarez became tearful as she shared the story of her first decade in America to members of the Easter Hill United Methodist Church in Richmond.
"I experienced racism. I experienced being illegal here," said Manzanarez, who was able to become a legal resident three years ago. "I think it's important for people
The pastors who invited Latino guests to speak at 16 East Bay churches on Sunday morning said their Christian congregations are natural allies with immigrants looking for justice and a better life. They also said they wanted to overcome underlying barriers between two communities — immigrant and African-American — who have increasingly lived side-by-side in East Bay cities.
"In the public arena, most African-Americans do not want to criticize immigrants. They do it privately," said the Rev. Phil Lawson, a retired pastor in Hercules.
Lawson said a number of black churches in the Bay Area have a decades-long history of dedicating time over Labor Day weekend for what's called "a message from labor."
Ministers take time out of weekend services to let union workers share stories of their work experiences and connect them to their Christian faith.
But a new effort to welcome Latino visitors into predominantly African-American churches has shifted the focus into thinking about the country's newcomers and the controversial topic of illegal immigration.
Lawson traces the growing interfaith support for changing immigration laws to a May 2006 meeting he held with a dozen local ministers and other African-American leaders at Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in North Oakland. At the time, lawmakers, lobbyists, media commentators and the American public were fiercely debating immigration reform bills that were eventually dropped after a cacophony of protests.
"I decided the black voice was not being heard in the immigration issue, so we decided to get members of the black community together," Lawson said.
What came out of the meeting was the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, a group that helped coordinate Sunday's events with the East Bay Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.
Their objectives include legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants, improving the conditions immigrants face in federal detention facilities and ending what they say is a system that allows businesses to exploit low-income immigrants.
Lawson said pastors have held private meetings with congregations, creating a safe space to talk about how immigration has changed the landscape of neighborhoods across the East Bay that for decades were home to African-Americans.
"Why are newcomers coming into our neighborhood? Why are they taking the jobs?" Lawson said, describing some of the questions discussed.
Lawson said he has looked for ways to find common ground.
"Most African-Americans, either they or their parents migrated (to the Bay Area) from other places in the state or from the South, or Texas, looking for work, looking to better their lives, which is exactly why immigrants migrate," Lawson said. "There's a powerful connection between immigrants coming into the United States and the African-American community."