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“Don’t Touch the Children”

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December 17, 2018

by Tom Stanton, TMF VP, General Counsel and Sr. Area Representative for the Rio Texas Conference

“Don’t Touch the Children”

This week’s guest blogger is Tom Stanton, TMF Vice President, General Counsel and Senior Area Consultant, and also a member of the board of directors for Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON). In recent years, TMF Grants Ministry and Leadership Ministry teams have invested and supported the mission of JFON in Texas and beyond. Here, Tom describes the first time he served as a legal representative for a child immigrating to the United States and what the presence of JFON in Texas means to him.

“Don’t touch the children.” “We allow no physical contact.” 

I had driven by the building probably a thousand times on my commute into downtown El Paso on the border with Mexico and never knew, and was not even curious to find out, what lay behind the uninviting walls. Now I was being escorted down the stairs into the basement where children were held. 

Bianca was 12-years-old and she was my new client. A Texas state court judge appointed me to find her. The child welfare case worker gave me an address where my client might be found. And Bianca and I had our first meeting in a federal detention center for unaccompanied minors from Central America. It was a basement with no windows in a building in downtown El Paso, Texas. 

My notes from that meeting with Bianca are dated 1999, the same year that the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) established Justice for Our Neighbors, also known as JFON. In the ensuing years, five communities in Texas, and a dozen more across the United States would bring attorneys, full time staff, and volunteers in remarkable teams to advocate for children like Bianca. We call these local groups of attorneys, staff and volunteers, “JFON Sites.” They are places where a single attorney, emerging stunned from that basement holding center, might find support and a road map of how to provide refuge for Bianca. There was not such a place for me to go in El Paso on that day.

If the children could not be touched in the detention center, we better get them into a place where they may be cared for by willing families while they awaited hearings, and in so doing, touch many of us to our core. 

TMF, in very specific ways, seeks to help local communities of faith achieve their God-ordained mission. Deep in the DNA of The United Methodist Church is the invitation to each of us, wherever or however we gather as “church,” to respond to God’s saving grace by engaging in acts of compassion and justice with our neighbors. Book of Discipline, Para 102. 

Texas Methodist Foundation has answered the invitation in several surprising ways. In the recent two years, TMF has given leverage grants to the five JFON Texas sites to expand their capacity. TMF’s John Thornburg took the JFON National Board through a visioning process to identify its hoped-for outcomes and encourage courageous steps to move toward those outcomes. I have been invited into three of the Texas JFON organizations to support the development of effective practices and cultures of purpose.  

At TMF, we have learned that change and transformation often begin with a good question and the conversation that follows. In the summer of 2018, Rev. Dr. Eddie Rivera, a District Superintendent in the UMC and “mission strategist” assigned to churches in the border region of New Mexico and West Texas, found himself in the midst of over 700 minors separated from their families in a detention center in Tornillo, Texas. Upon entering the detention center, he was firmly told:

“Don’t touch the children.” “We allow no physical contact.” 

Not long after, Eddie reached out to me to ask, “Tom, what do you know about Justice For our Neighbors, and how can we develop a JFON Site in El Paso?” As we talked about next steps, I was reminded of Bianca and others over the years in my life and law practice. 

In the months that followed my first meeting with her, Bianca would find a sponsoring family and attend public high school and eventually graduate. I don’t know whether she ever achieved citizenship. I know that Bianca would be glad to know with her adult eyes and heart that JFON, TMF, Eddie Rivera, and others are seeking to link our love of God with love of our neighbor, a passion for justice and refuge, and yes, comforting, nurturing, physical contact. 

About the author: Prior to coming to TMF, Tom Stanton practiced law with an emphasis on mediation. He has been involved in church missions in Africa and Mexico. Tom holds a bachelor’s degree in Theology and Economics from Georgetown University and a law degree from the University of Texas School of Law.

Editor’s note about the TMF Spirit of Christmas Series:  In 2018 TMF awarded grants to more than two dozen organizations to further their courageous, spirit-filled ministries. Our Spirit of Christmas series highlights the accomplishments of six ministries that inspire us to deepen our worship, increase our giving, love our neighbors and serve our communities all year long. Read our weekly blog posts and join our conversations on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

To learn how TMF supports courageous and purposeful ministries across Texas and New Mexico, please contact TMF Director of Grants Ministry Jacki Lammert or read more here.


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