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Walla Walla churches support rights for immigrants

Like many churches in the conference, members of First Congregational Church of Walla Walla have been involved in local immigrant rights efforts.

Nathaniel Mahlberg, right, helped lead the September march.
Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Mahlberg

The pastor, the Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, andseveral members participate in the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition (WWIRC), which has held “Know Your Rights” trainings  reaching 1,000 in the area and has established a bilingual  24/7 Rapid Response Hotline to help people with documentation and law enforcement. 

In September, WWIRC led a march of more than 100 people, affirming commitment to immigrant rights and support of a clean “Dream Act” for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The march started and ended in the church parking lot.

Signs said: “We are a nation of immigrants.,” and “Immigrants make good citizens.” Participants were urged to write letters and call Congress.

In Nathaniel’s presentation, which was translated into Spanish, he said inclusion is part of Christian and Jewish teachings.

He invited the crowd to repeat chants:

• “Dreamers dream the American dream.”

• “Their parents dream the American dream.”

• “They all belong here.”

“It’s about who belongs,” he said, “and how we extend that belonging.”

The marchers were motivated by their anger over an attempt to take away that sense of belonging and use it as bargaining chip for political gain.

Nathaniel invited marchers to touch into “the wellspring of love that animates that, and the sense of belonging we have in our hearts that we want to extend to all those with whom we share this land.”

The Walla Walla Immigrants Rights Coalition began more than a year ago, about a year after Nathaniel began serving First Congregational UCC.

“It began in response to escalating rhetoric and threats against immigrant communities here,” he said. “Many who worked on immigrant rights decided to come together to support immigrants.”

An Anglo member of his church was friends with recent immigrants, helping them through a crisis related to their status, doing what was natural caring of neighbors.

A few individuals have been picked up by ICE, put in the county jail and deported, leaving their families. 

“We respond to the families as needs arise,” he said.

Walla Walla is an agricultural town, so there are agricultural workers.  There are also students, people working at the colleges, the hospital and the veteran’s clinic.

There are several Hispanic Adventist churches and two Catholic churches with Spanish masses.

The coalition provides rapid response, responding to emerging needs, as well as training on rights, government relations and accountability, and doing other acts of public witness—a vigil before Christman to call elected officials to be compassionate and find effective pathways to citizenship.

In January, Nathaniel was among 24 Walla Walla area clergy—including the Rev. Marj Johnston of Dayton UCC and his predecessors, the Rev. Cecelia Mckean and the Rev. Adam Kirtley—signing a letter to Senators and Representatives urging them to act justly and humanely toward undocumented immigrants (dreamers). The clergy called on them to pass legislation that allows them to remain in the U.S. with a pathway to citizenship.

“We see that our faith compels us not only to welcome as fellow citizens those who come to our nation from a foreign land (Leviticus 19:34) but also to treat them as if they are Christ (Matthew 25:34-40). This is not an incidental commandment from our God of love and justice,” the letter said.

“Immigrants often are fleeing violence or hardship, and meet scorn in their new home. Many of our forebears experienced this. We are called as Christians to do better than cast out immigrants working to improve their and their families’ lives,” the letter continued.

It said that in Walla Walla, Dreamers are our congregants, neighbors, co-workers, classmates and lifelong friends.

“This work is hard work. We welcome collaboration with the folks of our Conference who are struggling on behalf of the biblical mandate of compassion for the immigrants among us, ” Nathaniel said.

In his congregation, Nathaniel said members held panel discussions last spring.

His involvement also stems from working in the summer of 2012 with Crispaz, Christians for Peace in El Salvador. There, he learned that people are pressured to migrate north, despite the risk, because of violence and poverty that are legacies of the civil war in 1980s and 1990s

“The U.S. is not innocent, but supported the repressive, violent regime,” he said.

Nathaniel believes the U.S. needs to recognize how it contributes to global inequality and violence that leads people to migrate North.

“We are bound in a web of mutuality, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, responsible to each other and responsible for what happens in the global South.

Nathaniel is also inspired by the witness of Archbishop Oscar Romero and El Salvadoran nuns and priests who continue to do Christ’s work.

“To help do right by the immigrant communities here is the least I can do,” he said, seeking to bridge the language divide and build relationships between the Anglo and Latino communities.

For information, call 509-525-8753 or 509-240-2494, or email


Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ News © February-March 2018


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