Caring for the Stranger: Immigration Reform in the Pews

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- While Washington engages in a high-profile fight on immigration, Christian leaders in key states are quietly engaging their grass roots.

They're part of the newly formed Evangelical Immigration Table that unabashedly supports reform, and they're talking to people in the pews about what the Bible says about immigration. It's an effort that could help fuel momentum back in Washington.

Although evangelicals aren't generally known for supporting immigration reform, the EIT believes it makes sense to target this politically influential group because often they're already connected with immigrants in ministry settings.

Also, the EIT hopes an emphasis on biblical teaching will convince evangelicals that strong theological reasons exist to support immigrant care.

Engaging the Immigrant

At First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, 100 or so immigrants pour into the church each week. They're refugees, newly arrived in the United States and eager to learn English. Church members who tutor them say their stories are inspiring.

"Most of them take the bus and transfer two or three times to get to class," volunteer Nancy Gagner said. "They're just so diligent about showing up every day."

"It's just amazing to me the courage that it takes for them to come here," Shelley McBride, another volunteer tutor, said.  "Often it's their best option but it still takes a tremendous amount of courage to start over."

This direct engagement with immigrants has heightened awareness of the national debate on immigration reform, Michelle Swanson, associate for Local Missions at First Presbyterian, said.

"It certainly has raised the awareness of neighbors on our doorstep from around the world," she said. "Once you have names and faces to put with it it no longer is this issue that you just read about in the newspaper."

Applying Biblical Principles

Not all churches in Colorado are so actively involved. For years, many have simply been unaware of immigrant communities right in their midst.

It's one reason why the EIT is organizing in states like Colorado, Texas, and Florida where the immigrant population has exploded.

"I think that when you don't know immigrants and you don't interact with them it's just not on your radar," Michelle Warren, who works for the EIT in Colorado, explained.

The EIT's strategy for such churches: begin to explain biblical principles for caring for immigrants.

The coalition began just last summer and already its membership includes prominent evangelical names and organizations, including Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family; Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College. 

The EIT's platform calls for respecting the God-given dignity of individuals, protecting the unity of the immediate family, respecting the law, guaranteeing secure borders, ensuring fairness to taxpayers, and establishing a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and wish it.

'I Was a Stranger'

The EIT also wants to encourage churches to minister to immigrant communities in their midst. Its new 40-day "I was a Stranger" campaign leads individuals and churches on such a path with a 40-day study on immigrant passages in the Bible. 

New Life Church in Colorado Springs is one church that's already on board with EIT principles.

"I'm a law-abiding person. I believe in the rule of law," Senior Pastor Brady Boyd said. "But at the end of the day I'm a Christ-follower first, a citizen second. As a Christ-follower I think we're compelled by Scripture to welcome anyone among us that needs help."

New Life has broadened its understanding of the issue with the creation of a women's health clinic that has attracted immigrants, both legal and undocumented.

Pastor Matthew Ayers said the ministry has helped the congregation begin to understand some of the hardships that many immigrants experience, like separation from family and limited resources.

"It's really stirred up a lot of compassion and empathy in our hearts," he explained. "And I think we're paying attention to the issue of immigration more now."

Rina Thompson translates for patients and learns their heart-breaking stories. She said many women come here alone and send money back to family.

"I can't imagine having my kids in another country and probably never seeing them again," she said.

Compassion vs. Justice

Of course, not all evangelicals line up theologically with the EIT. At the Center for Immigration Studies, Dr. James Edwards, Jr. notes that the Bible calls individuals to acts of kindness and that governments must serve as agents of justice, carrying out both judgment and punishment.

He concludes that a sovereign government has the right to expel foreigners who do not abide by immigration laws.

Which view prevails could well unfold over the next few months. The fight is on for evangelicals who have the numbers to make a difference. However, many haven't thought through the issue and how it relates to their faith.

A September 2010 Pew Forum survey found that just 7 percent of adults who take a position on immigration say that religion is the most important influence on their views on the issue. That compares with 35 percent of adults who say religion is the top influence on their thinking on same-sex marriage.

Warren's hope right now is to educate significant numbers on the ground and ultimately to influence power brokers in Washington to pass comprehensive reform.

"My end goal is to see the church be a part of that process and not to bury their head in the sand or be a part of that anti-immigrant rhetoric," she said. "Anti-immigrant sentiment should not be in our pews."

Changing Attitudes

In the meantime, church leaders in Colorado say attitudes are already changing. For Elder Pam Vanderpool at Denver Community Church, the process started several years ago when she began reading her Bible more carefully and looking at what Jesus said.

"He talks about the widow, the orphan, the stranger in the land -- these vulnerable groups," she said. "I have to respond to that or I'm just pretending Christianity."

"We don't start with the issue," Senior Pastor Michael Hidalgo explained. "What we do is recognize that these are men and women who have a special place in God's heart and to live in imitation of that."

Sometimes the changes are not just internal but external. Outside of Beth-El Mennonite Church in Colorado Springs is one such reminder: a sign for the Peruvian immigrant congregation El Centro that shares the church sanctuary with the founding Anglo congregation.

"They are around 200. We are 30, 40 people but they said, 'You are the church, you are our brothers, and you need to use the same sanctuary we are using," El Centro pastor Jaime Lazaro explained

"I think God is using this issue to teach our pastors to love each other," he added.

Across the state, pastors like Lazaro are meeting with other Anglo and Hispanic pastors to pray for immigrants in their communities.

They're not political meetings but who knows? Such prayers could influence not only hearts in Colorado but those in Washington as well.

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

Heather Sells enjoys reporting on a variety of issues for CBN News. Some of her recent stories have focused on religious liberties, technology, AIDS, overseas missions, domestic trafficking, and politics.  Follow Heather on Twitter @SellsHeather and "like" her at Facebook.com/HeatherSellsCBNNews.