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From Arizona to North Carolina, 'UndocuBus' draws UU support

Cross-country ride raises awareness of undocumented immigrants and their struggles.
By Donald E. Skinner

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On August 30, the UndocuBus arrived at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, N.C., where riders slept for two nights in the sanctuary and the fellowship hall. (Lisa Bovee-Kemper)

The people on the UndocuBus, which arrived in Charlotte, N.C., September 1 for the Democratic National Convention, may have gotten there on the strength of their courage and convictions, but the barbecued chicken in Denver and the okra gumbo in New Orleans helped a lot.

The bus, which started its trip from Phoenix on July 29, carried about 30 undocumented immigrants to Charlotte, where they sought to raise awareness of people who are in the United States without government approval. The trip was called “No Papers, No Fear—Ride for Justice” or “Sin papeles, sin miedo—Jornada par la Justicia.” The bus made stops in many communities along the way, including Albuquerque, N.M., Denver, Colo., New Orleans, La., Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Asheville, N.C.

At many of these stops Unitarian Universalists fed and housed the riders.

The bus visited Denver from July 30 to August 2. Kierstin Homblette, the Beloved Community coordinator for congregations that comprise the Boulder-Denver Cluster of congregations, helped coordinate the visit.

“Seeing folks come out as undocumented was inspirational to us,” she said, noting that UU congregations in the area have been actively working on immigration issues. “People were happy to have something to do beyond signing petitions and showing up at rallies. There was something really powerful about providing food—physically sustaining peoples’ bodies.” Congregants prepared breakfast casseroles, barbecued chicken, baked potatoes, and much more, along with other members of an immigration rights coalition the congregations are part of.

Mountain Desert District Executive Nancy Bowen spoke at a rally at the state capitol. Said Homblette, “It was really exciting to see the foundation-building we did on immigration issues last year really spring into action. As a cluster we could do more than what any one congregation could have done on its own.” She estimated that about 30 UUs helped with the UndocuBus events. Homblette added, “Preparing food, then sitting down and talking with people, sharing stories—this is the most important thing we could have done.”

In New Orleans, the bus riders stayed at the volunteer center run by The Center for Ethical Living & Social Justice Renewal, a project of the three local UU congregations.

The Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, minister of First UU Church of New Orleans, said, “We did what New Orleaneans do best: welcoming the stranger with delicious food.” Members of the three congregations made red beans with sausage and rice, a pot of white beans, okra gumbo, and two “Sock-It-To-Me” cakes.

The travelers were honored at a rally at First UU, including being draped with Mardi Gras beads. They gave testimony on why they rode the bus. Local undocumented residents spoke about their own experiences.

The following day some of the women on the bus, along with local supporters, including Morel-Ensminger, held a “Women in White” protest at the office of Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman. After 30 minutes of singing and chanting in the rain, the sheriff’s wife, Renee Gusman, met with them and promised to carry their concerns about the sheriff’s cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] back to the sheriff.

On the third day in New Orleans more than 100 people joined the riders in a courtroom, where an immigration judge threw out a case brought by ICE against Joaquin Navarro Hernandez, who had been arrested for activism against ICE practices. The judge admonished ICE attorneys for their lack of “real evidence.”

Morel-Ensminger said the three days were very emotional. “The rally on the first night was so powerful. Then, the Women in White in the pouring rain at the sheriff’s office, and the sheriff’s wife coming out to talk with us. We felt so good about it. We felt our concerns were heard. Then hearing the immigration judge just excoriate ICE that its testimony was unsupported. We were just wreathed in smiles. It was a wonderful high note to send the bus riders off on.”

She added, “For us it was like getting a chance to participate in the Freedom Rides of the ‘60s. This is just as important. We were just honored to be a part of it.”

In Nashville, Tenn., about 100 members of First UU Church were involved with the UndocuBus, including providing housing. The Rev. Gail Seavey said, “I got involved because I have seen local harassment here in South Nashville. I’ve seen many ‘driving while brown’ arrests, and I’m tired of seeing my neighbors harassed and feeling like I can do nothing about it. Any time a group is targeted and their human rights are taken away is a time when we all have to pay attention, because if it happens to one, another will be next.”

The bus arrived in Birmingham, Ala., August 17 and riders attended a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing on whether the state’s passage of a bill that was patterned after Arizona’s anti-immigrant measure, SB 1070, was a violation of civil rights. Initially denied permission to speak, bus riders and supporters turned their backs on the commission and were escorted out of the room by officers providing security.

Two of the riders were allowed to testify later in the day. “The whole event was very moving,” said the Rev. Fred Hammond, minister of the UU Congregation of Tuscaloosa. “It was good for the commission to see people who were impacted by these copycat laws.”

From Birmingham the bus made its way to Tuscaloosa where riders met with Latinos from around the state and then had dinner at the UU Congregation of Tuscaloosa. Sunday morning some of the riders joined the congregation in worship. Others traveled to Selma to meet with civil rights leaders there and symbolically cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of a 1965 attack by police on a peaceful civil rights march.

Other riders met with a group of day laborers at an apartment complex in Hoover, near Birmingham. When, the following day, the resident who had organized that meeting received an eviction notice for his part in arranging the gathering, the riders went back to Hoover for a rally of support.

The riders also visited the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where in 1963 then-Governor George Wallace attempted to block the enrollment of black students.

“It was a powerful, very moving day,” said Hammond. “We got some news coverage. People knew the bus riders were here.” One member of his congregation, Tiffany Stanton, who opened her home to several bus riders, said, “We all feel lucky to have been involved, even in this peripheral way. It reminded me that people fighting for a cause are more than just brave fighters. They are also regular people with interesting lives to share. I feel like we received more than we gave.”

At its stop in Knoxville, Tenn., two undocumented riders and two supporters were arrested August 28 during a peaceful street protest. They were released the next day.

One of the undocumented riders was Kemi Bello, 23, of Houston, Tex. She came to the U.S. with her parents from Nigeria when she was six. They came for medical treatment for Kemi’s younger sister. They overstayed their visa and then there was no way to get back in compliance, she said. “The system leaves a lot of people in limbo.”

She said she rode the bus because “it’s important for undocumented people to tell their own stories and to share experiences with each other. We’re focusing on the power of community. Journeys like this help to build a common narrative of all the different experiences of being undocumented. That in itself will be a tool we can use going forward.”

She said she witnessed a “spectrum of reactions” as the bus traveled across the country. “But overall people have been receptive to what we’re doing. It’s been encouraging to me.”

Arriving in North Carolina

The final state in the UndocuBus journey was North Carolina.

The bus stopped in Asheville, where riders spent two nights sleeping in the sanctuary and the fellowship hall of the UU Congregation of Asheville.

“It was such a deeply meaningful thing to have this other kind of religious expression happening in these spaces,” said the Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, the congregation’s assistant minister. “It expands the definition of what it means to be spiritual together, what it means to be a religious community, and what it means to live our faith.”

In addition to providing a place to sleep at night, the congregation also provided meals, including a community dinner for 125 people, where riders of vastly different ages told their personal stories of coming from many different countries. “That’s one of the things that was so powerful for me to witness,” said Bovee-Kemper. “To hear their stories and see how widely varied they are.”

During the days, riders protested the office of a county sheriff known for conducting immigration checkpoints, and they staged a protest at a local restaurant that was the scene of an ICE raid last year.

After the bus arrived at its final destination in Charlotte, Annette Marquis, district executive of the UUA’s Southeast District, marched with bus riders and other protesters Sunday, September 2. Marquis has also been helping coordinate meals for the riders while they are in the Southeast District. “This is their action,” she said. “Our key role is support.”

Marquis said she was particularly moved by the story of Angel Alvares, a young adult rider and self-identified “undocu-queer.” Alvares had been arrested during a routine traffic stop while in drag. He was held in detention facilities for 120 days. Marquis said he connected to UU congregations along the route and that he was appreciative of how welcoming UUs were to queer people.

“The strength that my family showed me, and my LGBT community during this experience, and the stories of those still in the detention center, are what gives me the will to face my fears.” Alvares wrote. “It is for them that I am on the bus.”

Michelle Bates Deakin contributed reporting to this story.

An abridged version of this article appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of UU World ("UndocuBus draws UU support," page 44). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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