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Border crisis had politician leading, tweeting

By Sam Hodges
Aug 1, 2014 | DALLAS (UMNS)

It’s a rare politician who, during an immigration crisis, tweets a quotation often attributed to John Wesley.

But Clay Jenkins, who leads the Dallas County commission, did so on July 26, sharing these words associated with Methodism’s founder:

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Although scholars say there is no evidence Wesley actually uttered or wrote those words, the sentiment helped Jenkins make his case that Dallas County should provide shelter for unaccompanied minors coming into the United States from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

“It’s a faith value and also an American value that we don’t turn our back on children,” Jenkins, a United Methodist, said in a recent interview.

Support and protests

On June 28, Jenkins – who carries the title “judge” as commission leader — made news and created controversy locally by extending the offer to help shelter some of the surge of children and youths coming across the U.S.-Mexico border

This past Thursday, July 31, he called a press conference to announce that federal officials had told him Dallas County would not be needed, given a significant drop in the number of minors crossing.  

But throughout July, Jenkins found himself defending his offer, as well as meeting with President Obama and Texas Gov. Rick Perry and local faith leaders on July 9, when the crisis was at its peak.

Jenkins’ offer sparked protests, including one outside his home.    

He also found considerable support, not least from faith leaders who worked with him to plan the local response.

“The first impression I had of Judge Jenkins was a man of passion who is very sincere about his desire to be there for the children, regardless of politics or anything else,” said Randy Daniels, a vice president for Buckner International, a Dallas-based charity founded by Baptists.

United Methodist Bishop Michael McKee, leader of the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference, praised Jenkins for “living out his faith.”

McKee too has been in meetings with Jenkins, about the border crisis and other social issues.

“It’s amazing the wealth of information he’s had,” McKee said. “He’s not shooting from the hip when he talks.”

Becoming United Methodist

Jenkins, 50, grew up in Dallas County and in Waxahachie, a town just south of the Dallas suburbs. He was 7 when his father died. He recalled that his mother, working two jobs, did not take the family to church.

But as a youth, he got a ride from a friend to a Baptist church, and he rattles off Aug. 13, 1977, as the date he accepted Jesus as savior.

Jenkins would go on to Baylor University, earning undergraduate and law degrees. He worked for Democratic politicians and clerked for the Texas Supreme Court before settling into a highly successful law practice, specializing in personal injury suits. He also is co-owner of a dental services company.

Along the way, Jenkins said, he attended Baptist churches and helped a Bible church grow from small to large. But seven years ago, he and his wife moved with their toddler daughter to Highland Park, a wealthy area of Dallas County, and visited nearby Highland Park United Methodist Church.

The longtime pastor of the church, the Rev Mark Craig now retired gave a sermon focused on the church’s outreach in the community.

“That spoke to me,” Jenkins said

His family joined Highland Park United Methodist, a church attended by former President George W. Bush and wife Laura Bush. Jenkins taught Sunday school at the church before getting elected Dallas County judge as a Democrat in 2010.

Since then, he’s accepted a lot of invitations to visit other faith communities.

“My wife and daughter are (at Highland Park United Methodist) every week, and I’d say I’m there every other week,” Jenkins said.

A young daughter’s counsel

The border crisis hit the news in a big way in June, and Jenkins recalls weighing whether he should offer for Dallas County to help. He said his family prays together about current events, and the crisis became one of the subjects.

“I was praying for the children, and my 8-year-old daughter asked me about the situation, and why the children were being held in detention cells,” Jenkins said. “I explained to her that when people come into our country without papers they’re held at the border. And she replied to me, `Daddy, these aren’t people; these are children.’

“At that moment, it kind of became clear to me that if I failed to empower our community to help these children it would be solely due to a lack of will on my part.”

At the time, the federal government did seem in need of extra space, with even temporary sites at military bases threatened with overcrowding.

Jenkins agreed that three Dallas County sites would be equipped with beds for up to 2,000 children, with the federal government picking up the tab. But he recalls putting down a condition.

“We made it a point with the administration that if we did this, we wanted our faith community to be involved in actually interfacing with the children,” Jenkins said. “What children crave is love and reassurance.”

But Jenkins’ offer prompted not only demonstrations but packed public meetings, with many expressing opposition based on the cost and on possible threats to public health and safety.

Jenkins found himself embroiled in the highly emotional immigration debate, though he maintains he wasn’t trying to address immigration policy, but rather to provide humanitarian relief.

“Certainly the Bible speaks to us in a very loud and clear way about our responsibility to feed and clothe and shelter the least of these,” he said.

`Outlier for compassion'

With the need for shelter now off the table, Jenkins is still under fire. Wade Emmert, chairman of the Republican Party, told Dallas Morning News’ columnist James Ragland that the Jenkins-led effort lacked forethought and coordination.

“The whole thing was kind of botched,” he said.

But Jenkins asserts that the effort galvanized the faith community in North Texas, leading to training sessions for lawyers volunteering to represent the minors in immigration court, as well as to donations of clothing and more for nonprofits relief agencies along the border.

Jenkins also maintains that the offer he made for Dallas County sent a positive signal. He notes that his office is in the former book depository from which Lee Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

“Dallas became known as a city of hate,” Jenkins said. “Now, 50 years later, our faith community has stepped up as an outlier for compassion and love at a time when our country has given in to some hysteria and fear and anger.”

Matthew Wilson, who teaches political science at Dallas' Southern Methiodist University, said Jenkins's move to offer shelter wasn't so risky politically, given that Dallas County leans Democratic and Hispanics are the fastest-growing voting group. He added that Jenkins was smart to involve faith leaders, since their support bolsters the assertion that this was a humanitarian move, not a statement about immigration policy.

But Wlison suspects Jenkins is glad the federal government ultimately rejected the shelter offer.

"All it would take is one story about one of these kids committing a serious crime to provide endless fodder for his political opponents," Wilson said.

Two tweets

Jenkins said he appreciated a call of support he received from the Rev. Paul Rasmussen, current pastor of Highland Park United Methodist Church, during the thick of the controversy, as well as Rasmussen’s discussion of the border crisis during a recent sermon.

As for the "Do all the good you can" quotation, Jenkins had to spread it over two tweets, due to space limitations. He encountered the reputed Wesley saying in a pastoral letter on the border crisis written by McKee and other United Methodist bishops of Texas.

Whoever said it, Jenkins likes it.

“It’s a cool quote,” he said.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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