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2013-07-01 issue:

Group meets with sheriff Arpaio

by Everett J. Thomas

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Two Ohio youth groups and their leaders, while attending Mennonite Church USA's July 1-5 convention in Phoenix, met with Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio on July 2. Afterward, they were unaware that Arpaio's public relations staff had immediately posted five photos of the visit on the sheriff's Facebook page showing the smiling group gathered around the sheriff. The photo album quickly went viral, and convention staff began hearing complaints about the group’s meeting with Arpaio and the hurt it was causing.

Roger Horst, left, is a youth group sponsor for the Martins Mennonite Church in Orville, Ohio. Craig Strasbaugh, youth pastor at the Kidron (Ohio) Mennonite Church.

On July 5, the pastors of the two congregations offered an apology for the visit.

On May 24, a federal judge ruled that Arpaio, self-described as "America's toughest sheriff," was guilty of racial profiling Latinos through his department’s immigration patrols. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Murray Snow also ruled that Arpaio's deputies unreasonably prolonged the detentions of people who were pulled over. The 81-year old sheriff apparently will face no jail time or fines as a result of the ruling.

The Mennonite group met with Arpaio on July 2 to learn about immigration issues. Instead, they mostly talked about Arpaio’s national notoriety and not much about immigration issues. Seven members of the contingent agreed to be interviewed on July 3 about the visit.

"We went to find out whether Sheriff Joe was everything we've heard," said Roger Horst, a youth group sponsor for the Martins Mennonite Church. "We found out he’s everything he’s made out to be. But he still is a creation of God."

Horst initiated the meeting with Arpaio. Craig Strasbaugh, youth pastor at the Kidron (Ohio) Mennonite Church, also joined the group with youth from his church.

"[Arpaio] gave a general story of his background," Strasbaugh said on July 3, "and the controversies that built up around him. Some of the hard things about his job and how politicized every little decision gets politicized.  … There was a lot that felt like PR."

Strasbaugh said he "didn't grow so much as a person [through the conversation but learned] to have hard conversations with people I don't agree with."

Mark Yoder, a youth from Dalton, Ohio, described similar reasons for wanting to meet the sheriff.

"We aren't condoning what he does," said Yoder. "I wanted to hear both sides."

Horst said that the ring tone on Arpaio's phone is Frank Sinatra's "I Did It My Way."

"He said, 'I do it my way,'" Horst said, "but that did not connect with how things are God's way."

Horst also said he could not integrate what he hears from the church and what he hears from Arpaio.

"There's not much meeting point or integration," Horst said. "I came away feeling like … a messenger [between] two people who ought to be talking to each other. The church would be well-served by talking with him … Sometimes the church views him with disdain in spite of asking us to accept all people."

Within a day after Arpaio's staff posted the album of photos of the Mennonite group, Executive Board staff members began getting complaints. Iris deLeon Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking, said it was apparent the group was oblivious to the hurt the visit and subsequent photos was causing Mennonite Hispanics who had elected not to attend the Phoenix convention.

Horst and Strasbaugh met with Glen Guyton on July 4 for further conversation. Guyton is director of finance and convention planning for Mennonite Church USA. 

"The group is sincerely remorseful," Guyton said. "I did not get the sense they were 'pro sheriff Joe.' As people of privilege, they were thinking they could simply meet with Sheriff Joe and that would be the end of it. Sheriff Joe is shrewd, cunning and obviously took advantage of the naivete of this group to further his personal and political agenda."

During the first delegate session on July 5, moderator-elect Elizabeth Soto Albrecht mentioned that she talked to people on her trek to Phoenix who were hurt by the news of the youth group's visit. Immediately after the session, the pastors of the two congregations, Randy Murray, Martins Mennonite Church, and Carl Wiebe, Kidron Mennonite Church, met with Soto Albrecht and read an apology that addressed their group's.

"In anticipation of the immigration agenda at the Phoenix convention, the youth group leaders … were encouraged to help their youth collect information on the topic. Through those conversations, the idea of meeting with Sheriff Arpaio was formed and ultimately arranged. The meeting was for the purpose of information and not for affirmation. Though unintentional, we are now profoundly aware of how this meeting was perceived. We express our deep regret and ask forgiveness for how this meeting has greatly offended many persons, especially our Hispanic brothers and sisters. We open ourselves up to further conversation as this may be helpful to those we have offended."

Reader Comments

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  • Posted by Malinda Berry at Friday, July 05, 2013 at 05:19 PM

    As a person of color, I think it's important to give these youth groups some kudos! It's an important discipline to seek out people you disagree with for conversation. It's my sense that these youth groups were responding to the controversy about Phoenix in a tangible and pro-active way. Why do they need to apologize for that? How are people hurt by their choice to talk with Arpaio? Trying to place responsibility on the youth and their pastors for how other feel strikes me as unfair and stemming from unchecked assumptions about their visit.... What am I missing?

  • Posted by LeroyKauffman at Saturday, July 06, 2013 at 10:53 AM

    Thank you Malinda Berry for asking these great questions. Too often we tend to react without thinking through the base causes. Perhaps you questions will spark some further discussion. Your questions are very thought provoking.

  • Posted by Phil Good-Elliott at Saturday, July 06, 2013 at 02:32 PM

    The youth group and their leaders were easily manipulated by Arpaio and his staff, that is clear. How we respond to their naive attempt will speak more to our own integrity than theirs. Helping them learn and gain wisdom from this experience, instead of shaming or shunning them, will be far more healing for all of us. Blaming the group is tantamount to blaming someone for getting assaulted because they happened to be doing missional work. It is Arpaio and his staff who were responsible for taking advantage of their attempt to do good works. Taking the time to live as allies with those less/other privileged than ourselves is a great opportunity to become wiser stewards of God's creation - including ourselves.

  • Posted by Sharon at Sunday, July 07, 2013 at 02:04 AM

    This is a prime example of why I had to walk away from the Mennonite church. Not only was the visit to Arpaio just plain naïve, it borders on downright stupid. What was the purpose of the visit? What were these two "youth leaders" thinking? As a matter of fact, did anyone think at all before giving Sheriff Joe some really interesting publicity involving Mennonites who have been beating their breasts about immigration for the last week in his own backyard? I bet he laughed all the way to his Facebook page. Strasbaugh's comment, " . . . how politicized . . . every little decision gets politicized. There was a lot that felt like PR." Really? Here's some advice: You want to meet someone like Sheriff Joe? Go on your own time and your own dime and don't drag the Mennonite church into your personal adventure.

    The reactions of Guyton, Hartshorn and Albrecht aren't much higher on the think-before-speaking scale. My goodness. We've got "complaints" and "hurt" and "meetings" and "remorse" and "statements" and "regret" and "offense" and an "apology." Unbelievable.

  • Posted by tmadmin at Monday, July 08, 2013 at 05:16 PM

    (Posted by editor) From Al & Mary Bontrager: How many people came to know Christ at Phoenix? Don't scoff at this question. It's the heart of the Gospel and the reason for coming together. I feel alienated from the Mennonite Church. I pray Christ was in that place. My hope is with the youth of the church. Our church is a place where simple living and loving is at the heart. Good can come from the visit the youth made to see the infamous sheriff. We don't need to jump all over them. Practice patience, goodness, kindness to everyone, especially the youth.

  • Posted by mflinner at Tuesday, July 09, 2013 at 11:44 AM

    I thought that loving your enemies meant understanding them and putting a human face on them. Was it wrong when a Mennonite delegation met with the Iranian President? Be careful of the lesson we are teaching our kids: love your enemies, pray for them but just don't get to know them because they may take advantage of you. Those kids now have a face to put to their prayers as they pray for their enemies and those who persecute them. Or do we not believe that part of the Bible any more?

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