By Jennifer Colosimo
In 2013, Kathryn Kimmel visited Mississippi for the first time. That same year, she joined the staff at University Baptist Church, answering a call that she knew would help her stretch her pastoral wings. Little did she know that she would soon co-pastor a congregation that would push, challenge and encourage her in ways she hadn’t imagined, and on topics much bigger than her new home in Hattiesburg.
The Justice Class—as they’re self-named—was one of those groups to challenge Kimmel to re-imagine the church’s role today. The hot topic of conversation? Immigration. To learn more about the issue and how they could make a difference, they studied what was going on in the country, read articles together, watched videos, listened to podcasts and eventually led the larger church in a study on the subject through UBC’s Wednesday night program.
So, when ICE raided seven different food processing plants in Mississippi this summer—the largest workplace sting in a decade, resulting in 680 arrests, children at home without their parents and families unable to pay bills or buy food—the congregation was ripe to react.
“As a church that has quite a diverse population, including many Latin American college students and young families, these conversations weren’t a surprise,” said Kimmel. “[After the raids,] our first actions were emails between [Justice] class members with updates on what was happening and how we could be involved initially. Next were texts and emails about CBF of Mississippi involvement, a press conference, talk of where to funnel donations to help, etc. Then, word went out to the entire congregation about a food pantry being put together to serve the folks involved in the Laurel area. [UBC’s] Co-Pastor Brett Harris shuttled those donations to the church spearheading that effort, and word was sent to the congregation on where they could send monetary donations as people on the ground worked with the affected families.”
Kimmel explained that as the only CBF church in Hattiesburg, CBF of Mississippi has helped them build strong and wide connections across the state as they put their faith into practice. As a church known for asking questions and having spirited discussions, changing the perspective on immigration is one many feel strongly about, and it’s no surprise the raids response wasn’t their first form of outreach.
Several years ago, UBC partnered with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Symphony Orchestra to be good neighbors to their incoming international students. That involved invitations to Wednesday nights to break bread and meet people which, in turn, inspired friendships and trust between this new community and members of the church.
“I think it’s a pretty big deal that we have about 30 Latin American students coming to dinner with us on Wednesday nights who trust us and call us family,” said Kimmel. “That makes a difference for the immigration conversation, because it causes some of our congregation who might see it at a distance to think differently, because of the relationships they’ve built in the body of Christ.”
Kimmel is counting on those relationships to help inform their response and guide their intentions and continued conversations.
“We want to understand what our role is in all of this,” said Kimmel, who has held positions as associate youth minister, hospice chaplain and CBF Ministries Council member. It was in her role on ministries council that she helped lay the foundation for its purpose, including shaping the grant-giving group and aiding on the workshops for General Assembly. She is also a current member of the Coordinating Council for CBFMS, where she offers a voice in the decision-making process on what matters to the UBC community and where they’re going. She also participated in Civil Rides in October, a two-day, 75-mile-per-day cycling event to raise money for Together for Hope and Out Hunger, organizations which help relieve rural poverty and enable the continued work in some of the poorest counties in the nation with asset development and bringing communities together to enrich and enliven those places.
When the ICE raids happened, Kimmel admits it was really hard to know what to do. They donated food, they sent money—but, what else?
“Part of what Co-Pastor Brett Harris and I are working on right now is hosting a community conversation to engage those questions,” she added. “We’re inviting an immigration lawyer and someone who’s been doing a lot of translation work with some of the immigrants who were detained to get a better idea of the whole situation and where we can be most helpful.”
This public-forum type event is still in the works, but the hope is to determine what the greater community’s potential impact can be.
“One of my strengths is relationality. I love getting to know people. I love hearing their stories and I love being able to tell stories to help people reimagine who God is, and who they are as followers of God. That’s one of my favorite parts of ministry,” said Kimmel. “The immediate hope of these particular conversations is to help people see this subject in a new light. It’s so different to hear about something that’s happening on the border when you’re here in Mississippi. We know it’s happening, but it’s so far away that it doesn’t always hit home. We hope this conversation offers people tangible stories to help them connect to what is happening. I think it’s hard to do meaningful work until it really matters to people.”