Group meets with sheriff Arpaioby Everett J. Thomas
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."
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