The Committee on Church Cooperation is happy to offer assistance to Morgan County's neediest residents, as long as they are not undocumented immigrants.
The restriction came as a surprise to the pastors of many churches who support the not-for-profit organization on First Avenue Southeast in Decatur.
Gayle Monk, CCC executive director, said the organization has had to take extra steps to make sure undocumented immigrants do not obtain food, clothing and other assistance, much of which is donated to the agency by Morgan County churches.
"We thoroughly check everybody out," Monk said. "We've even got wind that a lot of them have illegal Social Security cards. So I've tried to educate my staff on what to look for."
As a condition of receiving assistance, Monk said, applicants must present government-issued photo identification showing residence in Morgan County. They also must provide a Social Security card for every member of the household, as well as documentation of income.
"The majority of the Hispanics, No. 1, can't speak English when they come in here and, No. 2, have a Social Security card that is fake," Monk said. "The majority of them that come in here don't have everything they need, and they don't come back. We even have problems with some of our (non-Hispanic) clients because they get mad because we require so much information."
CCC does not discriminate, "regardless of color, race or creed," she said.
Monk said the extra attention paid to documentation has been effective.
"It used to be about 10 percent (Hispanics) that we served," Monk said. "Since cracking down, I haven't seen anybody, especially in the last month.
"I think word kind of got around. We really had to crack down because they would come in, and they wouldn't have any documents."
She said CCC always has required the documentation, but "I don't think it's always been strictly enforced."
Monk, who has been director for two months, said the renewed focus on documentation was not advertised, but word got around.
"People talk among themselves," Monk said. "They knew they couldn't get by with finagling, so they stopped coming here. It's been a while since I've seen any Hispanics walk through our door."
John Rutland, pastor of Ninth Street United Methodist Church, said he had not been aware of the policy. His church is an active sponsor of CCC, often providing and serving meals.
"I am concerned about that," Rutland said. "I think we need to serve all people who need to be served, no matter who they are."
Rutland — who said CCC does an excellent job — said he could not speak for his entire congregation, but he saw inconsistencies in the organization's policy against serving undocumented immigrants and his understanding of Christianity.
"We want to be involved with the poor, the needy, the oppressed, with the strangers in our midst. We have a long record of that, and that is a part of who we are," Rutland said.
Bishop Will Willimon of the 750-church North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church said he was surprised by the restriction.
"I can't imagine what biblical basis would cause them to take such a stance," Willimon said.
"Most churches that I've been associated with, if someone needs help, they try to respond by giving help. They don't do a background check on the person."
He said he could understand governments deciding not to help undocumented immigrants in need, but saw no rationale for Christian organizations.
"That's just ludicrous," he said. "That's embarrassing as a Christian. Our Lord was an undocumented immigrant to Egypt as a baby. He was taken to Egypt the same way most kids are brought to America, without having a say in the matter."
State Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, who voted in favor of the recently passed state immigration law, said she thought it was up to CCC.
"If they have citizenship as one of their requirements, I certainly would not oppose that," Collins said. "I would not have an opinion on whether that would be right or wrong."
Different standards, she said, apply to individuals offering assistance.
"As an individual and someone who's ministering to people, there's no reason to ask citizenship questions usually," Collins said. "If there's a need right before you as an individual, you address that need."
The pastor of Decatur Baptist Church said his congregation has supported CCC for at least 30 years, but he had not realized the organization required citizenship as a condition of assistance.
"I would not want to comment on that," Ripley said. "If they're doing that, they must have a reason."
The pastor of another church that actively supports CCC, Trinity United Methodist Church, also said he had not realized the organization required documentation.
"I was unaware of that," said Roy Bryant. "I don't know enough about it to comment."
Bill Hurt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Decatur, was unaware of CCC's documentation requirements. He said the need in Morgan County is so overwhelming that not everybody can be served, but he was uncomfortable with citizenship being the criterion used to exclude those who need help.
"I'm not so sure that it is (a good reason for withholding aid)," Hurt said. "I'm sure not going to criticize someone who says it is a legitimate concern. If the CCC has made that their criteria, I'm not blasting them for that."
Formed by area churches in 1973, CCC became a not-for-profit corporation in 1975.
Monk said her enforcement of the requirement that CCC clients document their citizenship was not her choice.
"I'm not saying I care or I don't care about that," Monk said. "I'm just doing what we're required to do here. We have a board we answer to."
Monk refused to name members of the CCC board or executive board.
Willimon said the effort to determine who among the poor deserve Christian support was unfortunate, but not uncommon.
"I can't decide whether somebody's deserving or undeserving. I have no criteria in the Bible for doing that," Willimon said.
"All I know is Jesus said poor people are closer to God's kingdom than rich people. I don't like that Jesus said that, but unfortunately he did. I know what I'm deserving of, and thank God he does not deal with me according to my desserts. To me, this is another absurd intrusion of political ideology into Christian work."
Monk said CCC has no connection to the controversy over undocumented immigrants because it receives no governmental funding.
"We operate strictly off of donations given to us out of the kindness of an individual's heart," Monk said.
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