Rev. Chuck Bentjen of Beatrice knows faith and immigration law are weighty issues that are often difficult to tackle on their own — much less in tandem. So he’ll work hard to do just that at the First United Methodist Church’s annual Peacemaking Conference on Jan. 16. The church has tackled social issues from an ecumenical perspective for 30 years. And perhaps no news story is bigger in Nebraska than this year’s conference topic — immigration. The City of Fremont is still battling in court over its voter-approved ordinance penalizing employers and landlords from hiring or housing undocumented immigrants. State Sens. Charlie Janssen, of Fremont, and Tony Fulton, of Lincoln, have promised to introduce new Arizona-style immigration laws as Nebraska’s 2011 legislative session begins this week. Over the past year, the state has become a frontline in the national debate. Bentjen, pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran Church and director of the Manna and Mercy Center for Faith in the Public Life, says this isn’t the Nebraska he knew growing up on a farm near Pender. “I’ve always known it as a place that’s been very caring and helpful to its neighbors,” he says. “What I hear Nebraskans saying now is ‘We don’t want you. You’re bad. And we don’t care what you’re situation is.’ That bothers me a great deal.” Bentjen is one of four featured speakers at the day-long conference, which includes Rev. Frederick McCullough of Omaha’s St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, civil rights attorney Mora James and State Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha. The conference concludes with a screening of 9500 Liberty, a documentary detailing the economic toll and social unrest behind a 2007 immigration law battle in Prince William County, Va. The goal, Bentjen says, is to help educate the public and encourage them to enter the new year with an open mind. “My hope is that people will look at immigration from a new perspective,” he says. “If they were in a desperate situation with their family, what would they do? “We hope that after the conference people will call on their legislators to say ‘This isn’t reflective of our values,’ and urge our congressional delegation to represent comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level.” The 2011 Peacemakers Conference starts at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16 at Lincoln’s First United Methodist Church, 2723 N. 50th St. The event is FREE and open to the public.

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