One of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ pastors told her congregation on Sunday that she does not agree with the “zero-tolerance” immigration policies that led to family separations, but urged the United Methodist church in northern Virginia not to be torn apart by political differences.
“This week, we in the congregation have been surprised to find ourselves at the center of a firestorm over our nation’s immigration policy, more specifically the policy of separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents as they are apprehended after crossing the US-Mexico border,” said the Rev. Tracy McNeil Wines, pastor at Clarendon United Methodist Church.
“Some in our denomination are calling on us to distance ourselves from Sessions or to do what we can to get him to change,” she told her congregation during two Sunday sermons. “There has been an outcry about that.”
Wines said her inbox has been overflowing since Tuesday when more than 600 United Methodists from around the country issued a formal complaint against Sessions, a fellow church-member.
The complaint says that the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy on immigration, carried out in part by Sessions, violates church rules and may constitute child abuse. The complaint was addressed to Wines and Sessions’ pastor in Mobile, Alabama.
“I’ve heard from many concerned citizens this week. … Some speak with eloquence and others yell. It is possible to yell on an email,” Wines preached on Sunday. “And I’ve watched the public discourse and I’m concerned.”
Wines told CNN she had a “long and excellent” private conversation with Sessions earlier this week. The attorney general is technically a member of a United Methodist congregation in Mobile, Alabama, but has attended services at the church in Clarendon since his days as a senator. Wines called him a “very regular guest.”
Sessions’ wife, Mary, attended the 11 a.m., service on Sunday, sitting in the fifth row as Wines preached. Mary Sessions said the attorney general did not attend the service because he had to “catch an early flight.” The pastor and Mary Sessions greeted each other warmly after the service.
The policy of separating families crossing the US-Mexico border has sparked a fierce outcry from religious groups, especially after Sessions defended the policy by citing Romans 13, a Bible passage that urges Christians to obey secular authorities. As Wines noted, both national and local bodies in the United Methodist church have criticized the policy.
“This tension is not new in the United Methodist Church,” Wines preached on Sunday. “Remember we are the church, the denomination out of which both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton came. … As United Methodists, we don’t require one another to march in lockstep. We engage in passionate debate over issues that sometimes divide us.”
In her sermon on Sunday, Wines told her congregation that she “disagrees profoundly,” both “as a person and as a pastor” with the “policy our government has enacted,” meaning the separation of families at the border.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice had no comment when asked by CNN about Sunday’s sermon.
Wines preached that the “zero tolerance” policy has had “serious unintended consequences: the traumatization of some of the most vulnerable people in our hemisphere. The young children of poor, immigrant families, separating them from their parents and causing great trauma.”
The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics has said the practice of family separation is “nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse.” Administration officials deny that characterization.
Wines said that she doesn’t have easy answers to fix an immigration system. However, the pastor said, “my heart and spirit have been broken by the image and stories that have been seen and heard in recent weeks. I sense that everyone’s heart has been broken by it.”
At the same time, though, Wines said that she is also “deeply troubled by the divisions I see only growing in our culture, our nation and even our church.”
“I do have strong beliefs,” Wines said. “I will work to let our government know how I feel and I will preach the gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday and pretty much every night at the dinner table, if you ask my family. But I will not dehumanize those who are not in harmony with my deeply, passionately held beliefs. I will not write them off as objects or obstacles, but I will remember that they are flesh-and-blood humans … and I am committed to listen to them.”
The church complaint against Sessions charges the attorney general with violating the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline, its code of laws and social principles. The charges could lead to a church trial, though few expect that to happen to the attorney general, the country’s top lawman.
Instead, the 640 Methodists charging Sessions, who include both clergy and lay members, have asked for a “reconciling process that will help this longtime member … step back from his harmful actions and work to repair the damage he is currently causing to immigrants, particularly families and children.”
Wines said that she is not formally involved in the process because Sessions is still a member of his church in Alabama, which would have jurisdiction in this case. A spokesperson for the Alabama West-Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, which does have jurisdiction, declined to comment, saying it’s a confidential and private process.
CNN’s Adam Mintzer contributed to this report.