By Jeff Brumley
What started as a Baptist women’s empowerment tour of Morocco grew into an eye-opening, jaw-dropping education on the painful realities of immigration and human trafficking on the African continent.
The October trip arranged by the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship also showed participants that the causes and consequences of illegal immigration are not just an American issue.
As a result, there are now about a dozen Baptists committed to urging their American churches, communities and politicians to support policies to help the nation model for the rest of the world how it treats those who are economically, and sometimes sexually, enslaved.
“We need to educate ourselves,” Paula Dempsey, director of Partnership Relations for the Alliance of Baptists, said after returning from Morocco. “We need to learn about what has really happened and how we can be part of making a difference.”
The Oct. 3-13 tour came in the seventh year of KBF’s formal partnership with the Protestant Church in Morocco, a multi-denominational organization that represents that nation’s less than 1 percent Christian minority.
Some KBF congregations have established sister relationships with churches in Morocco, while others work directly at the national level there by aiding refugees, illegal immigrants and victims of human trafficking, said Joshua Speight, associate coordinator for missions for KBF.
Previous trips have focused on humanitarian and educational needs, but this time it was dedicated to women in ministry. The idea was to connect Baptist women from Kentucky with Christian women in Morocco.
Most of the women there are not Moroccan, but students and workers from other parts of Africa who are living legally in Morocco, Speight said.
Those women come from Christian backgrounds that are theologically diverse — and often divided on the issue of women in ministry, he added.
“You can’t paint each of the congregations there with the same brush,” he said. “Some are more moderate and liberal, and some are more conservative and charismatic.”
But that didn’t keep Fellowship Baptists and their acceptance of women’s ordination from bonding with sub-Saharan Christians from generally patriarchal societies, said Becky Caswell-Speight, associate pastor at Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville.
The group went from city to city to each different Protestant church, including legendary places like Casablanca and Marrakesh. There, they worshiped together, prayed and held Bible studies focusing on women figures of the Old and New testaments, Caswell-Speight said.
As they left for another city, some women from the previous town accompanied the Kentuckians to the next location.
“Constantly traveling with women from sub-Saharan Africa, sharing time with each evening around biblical stories — it made you feel so much more connected,” she said.
It was in these intimate settings that the KBF-led caravan members were reminded of the Moroccan church’s struggle to minister to refugees and illegal immigrants who are languishing in that country.
Migrants, legal and illegal, often enter Morocco in hopes of using it as a springboard into Europe in search of jobs and security. But thousands become stuck there without the funds or documents required to proceed or return to their homes elsewhere in Africa. Unable to leave, most descend into poverty and many become victims of various kinds of human traffickers.
For the women and children it’s an especially terrifying experience, Caswell-Speight said. “We heard stories from women who have made the journey and what they had to go through,” she said. “It’s still processing because it’s so intense.”
The immigration issue is one of the reasons KBF wanted to partner with churches in Morocco, Joshua Speight said.
Many immigrants “are not there legally … so they don’t have access to health care, education and jobs,” he said. “People are living in the shadows.”
Nine Kentucky churches partner with nine Moroccan churches, to which they provide prayer, friendship and funds for pastoral interns and special projects. Another congregation, Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, works directly with a national aid group in Morocco that provides ministry and assistance directly to refugees and immigrants.
“It is life-and-death emergency care work that is being done,” said Joe Phelps, the pastor at Highland Baptist.
While Phelps did not go on the most recent trip, he and other members of the congregation have been to Morocco to see the condition of immigrants there. “They can’t go forward and they can’t go back and they can’t be where they are,” he said.
Witnessing that instills a sense of urgency to take action. Highland and CBF pooled funds to hire a worker to directly oversee aid distribution to refugees in about eight cities where the problems are most pressing.
“It has made us more keenly aware of how privileged we are,” Phelps said. “We are less likely to take a hot shower for granted.”
‘A global issue’
Those who did make the trip said they returned with a deeper understanding of the immigration reform debate in the U.S. and a determination to speak out about it.
“There are women in Morocco and, I am sure, there are women in the United States, and they are locked in rooms and they can’t come out and they are refugees stuck there with no one to listen,” said Caswell-Speight said. “The problem is so big, and no one is willing to listen to these women’s voices.”
Dempsey, who is not from Kentucky, joined the group in order to meet with Karen Thomas Smith, an American chaplain who lives and works in Morocco and who is a partner with the Alliance, KBF and CBF.
She came back committed to finding Alliance churches and ministries willing to provide people, funds and materials to help immigrants who are in limbo in Morocco. She’s also committed to continuing similar efforts for undocumented workers at home.
“It’s a global issue the church is called to address,” Dempsey said.