Last December, on the day before Christmas Eve, our congregations prepared to celebrate a holy story of wondrous love. We were also preparing a room in one of our buildings, in hope that we could help a young brother, uncle, and neighbor enter sanctuary to fight for the right to stay with his family. Instead, he was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after being held by Sheriff Dwayne Carey on their behalf. Rather than spending Christmas with his family, he spent the holiday in a detention center and was faced with removal proceedings.
Now Willy Garcia is courageously telling his story: racial profiling by local police, a wrongful arrest, the sheriff’s collaboration with ICE to keep him in jail after charges were dropped, and the fight to stay with his loved ones, in his home. As Willy’s story makes plain, our country’s immigration practices separate families not just at the border, but also here in our community.
If one listened only to our local law enforcement, it would also be easy to think Columbia is immune to the systemic racism against Black, brown, and immigrant lives that plagues other parts of the country. On May 28, the Columbia Police, MU Police and the Boone County Sheriff’s Department released “A Joint Statement … on Minneapolis.” They wrote: “In our own community, all law enforcement officers are held to the highest standards.”
But racially-based policing disparities are not just in Minneapolis or Atlanta or St. Louis, despite insistence from local law enforcement leaders that everyone is “treated fairly.” 2019 data from the Missouri Vehicle Stops report revealed Black drivers were pulled over nearly four times more often than white drivers in Boone County, showing our community is no exception to racist policing.
Beyond the data, the lived experience of Black residents of Columbia also testifies to a different reality for people of different races in our community. One night in these weeks of public witness, we were on the streets with nonviolent protestors near police headquarters. We noticed the presence of police in special uniform, carrying military-grade weapons that could quickly end a life. Missouri Faith Voices organizer Brittany Hughes asked the officer in charge, “Why the riot gear? This is a nonviolent protest.” He responded, “I hope we don’t need it. This is just standard operating procedure.”
When standard operating procedure is a sniper training a rifle on Black young people in the street — and when standard operating procedure means tearing a young man away from his community and family at Christmas time (or any time) — we recognize the calling of our faith to speak the truth: Standard operating procedure is death dealing to Black, brown and immigrant lives and communities and must be dismantled.
These systems that deal death are not just out there somewhere — at the border or in some other town — they are here in our community. Unless we speak the truth and demand something different, these systems are enacted in our name.
People of faith, when met with standard operating procedure that harms those most vulnerable, point instead to a bigger vision of justice for our communities. We imagine thriving for all and we put our faith to work to make it happen.
Missouri Faith Voices is a multi-faith, multi-racial organization creating hope and producing power to challenge such unjust practices. As Faith Voices Clergy, we are called to recognize the way systems of oppression intertwine — from immigration enforcement to police brutality and racial profiling to the systemic under-resourcing of marginalized communities in our town.
This summer we ask our community to join us in resisting these intertwining systems here in Columbia and Boone County, in keeping with our faith communities’ traditions of creativity and resistance. To start, you can join us at 5 p.m., this Saturday evening, July 4 at the site of the 1923 lynching of James Scott — at the intersection of Stewart and Providence roads — to join a prophetic walk — naming the truth of our history and present circumstance, and dreaming together of something better for us all.
Imagine our friend Willy on that Christmas Eve, safe and warm and exchanging gifts with his family, rather than imprisoned in immigration detention. Imagine a community where our resources are reallocated from armored vehicles and more police and are invested instead in safe and affordable housing, addiction treatment, jobs for youth and other social services.
Columbia, let us imagine something better and work together to make it so.
The Revs. Sarah Klaassen and Molly Housh Gordon are white pastors serving Columbia’s two “Sanctuary Congregations,” a designation expressing our willingness to provide shelter and protection for our immigrant neighbors if needed.