Last week, I was in Memphis, Tennessee for a series of events coordinated by my friends Lisa Rodriguez-Watson and Mike Studdard, who jointly founded CMIRA (the Christian Memphians for Immigration Reform Association) a few years ago when God placed on their heart that they had to do something to awaken, engage, and equip the church to respond to the quickly-growing immigrant community there in Memphis. My first event in Memphis was a lunch with pastors from throughout the city and suburbs, hosted by Second Presbyterian Church, a large Evangelical Presbyterian Church congregation.
The event was actually remarkably similar to an event that I did in the very same room at the same church about a year and a half ago, the first time that CMIRA invited me to Memphis. At that time, though, probably only a dozen or so leaders showed up. This time, the room was full, with ninety-five church leaders from both Second Pres and various other evangelical churches in Memphis, and the response I got from pastors afterwards was uniformly positive. There is no doubt in my mind that God’s Spirit is awakening the Church in the U.S. to pay attention to this topic of immigration and to allow Scripture to inform our response.
That awakening is overdue. Research suggests that, by our own admission (at least as of 2010, when the Pew Research Center asked the question), only a small percentage—12%—of white, American evangelical Christians like me are thinking about the topic of immigration primarily from the perspective of our faith. For evangelical Christians who hold as a core doctrine that Scripture is to be our ultimate authority, the lens through which we view every issue, this reality is, as Second Pres’ Senior Pastor Sandy Willson pronounced, “a disaster:” not just for our response to immigration, but for what it says about our views on biblical authority.
As I often do as I introduce the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge—our bookmark listing forty Scripture passages related to immigration, which congregations like Second Presbyterian and thousands of others around the country have used to encourage their members to ground their thinking about immigration in the Bible—I asked the crowd how many of them had ever heard a sermon on the topic of immigration. Very few hands, perhaps four or five, went up. Their response, I told them, was consistent with an additional finding from the Pew survey: that just 16% of white evangelicals report having ever heard about the topic of immigration from their pastor.
When Pastor Sandy got up to respond to my talk shortly after, though, he made a further observation that I realized might not be unique to this group: a good many of the folks in the room were staff and lay leaders at his church, and, he reminded them, he had preached on this topic (how could he forget, he said, with all the upset emails he got afterwards?). But, apparently, not everyone heard it. While only 16% of white evangelicals tell Pew that they’ve not heard their pastor discuss immigration, this does not necessarily mean that only 16% of pastors have preached or taught on the topic. The problem might be with the hearers, not the preachers.
And that, of course, is an age old problem. Jesus challenged his disciples: “he who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15), but time after time they forgot what he had told them. He told his disciples explicitly what was about to happen to him as he went to Jerusalem: that he would be arrested and crucified, but then rise again on the third day (Matthew 16:21). But after the crucifixion, the gospels give no hint that it occurred to any of the disciples that Jesus would rise from the dead three days later, just as he’d told them. That teaching, like so many others, seems to have gone in one ear and out the other.
I’m encouraged because more and more pastors tell me they are preaching on the topic of immigration. They are highlighting the biblical heroes of the faith who were themselves immigrants, even some who violated the law, like Abram misrepresenting a material fact at the border to be able to enter Egypt during a time of famine (Genesis 12:10-20), or Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus defying Herod’s genocidal order and fleeing as refugees (Matthew 2:13-15). They’re applying to our contemporary American situation God’s repeated commands to the Israelites to remember their history as foreigners in Egypt and to allow that experience to inform the ways that they treated immigrants who came after them; they are highlighting the scores of commandments to love, welcome, and seek justice for immigrants and arguing that we can do so—as individuals, as churches, and as a nation—in ways that are also consistent with a biblically-mandated respect for the rule of law. But as they teach and preach, I wonder if we are listening? Do we have ears to hear?
Even hearing, though, is not quite enough. Biblical knowledge is of very limited value if we do not apply it. “Do not merely listen to the word,” James writes to the early Christians, “and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22). Of course, applying the biblical teaching to our current realities requires discernment and extrapolation: the Bible will not tell you to go pick up a newly arriving refugee family at 9 PM at the airport, though that might be an appropriate application of the many biblical injunctions to hospitality (and one with which your local World Relief office may be able to help you). Scripture does not include language for precisely how to reform immigration policy, nor will it tell you the phone numbers for your Senators and Representative, though figuring that out and calling might be a fair application of Proverbs 31:8’s command to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”
Toward that end, I want to highlight four particular opportunities to respond to Scripture’s teachings, particularly as they relate to advocating for just policies, which is uniquely urgent now as we expect an immigration reform bill to be introduced in the Senate within just a few weeks. The first is remarkably easy, and then they progressively require a little bit more commitment of time and energy:
1) Email your legislators. If you check out World Relief’s Advocacy website, you can put in your name and address and send an email to your Representative and your two Senators in about thirty seconds.
2) Call them, too. A telephone call takes slightly longer than clicking “send’ on a pre-written email—and legislators know that, which is why they give a lot more weight to the telephone call. World Relief’s website will give you the telephone number to call for each legislator. When you dial, the phone will probably be answered either by an answering machine or by a college student intern: no need to be intimidated. Simply say something like “My name is… My address is… (they are interested in knowing that you really are a constituent) and I would like to ask the Senator (or Congressperson) to please support bipartisan immigration policy solutions that are consistent with biblical values of compassion, hospitality, preserving unified families, and restoring the rule of law.” It’s that easy: you don’t need to be a policy expert, because they are not going to ask you lots of specific policy questions. This sort of a generic message in itself is very valuable, because it affirms to legislators that the messages that evangelical leaders are telling them in D.C. really are echoed by the folks at home, “in the pews,” whose votes elected officials are very interested in earning for both primary and general elections.
3) Organize others to call through the “Speak Up Initiative.” For Christian college students in particular, we have a unique challenge beginning next week, and it’s not too late to join in. We’re asking Christian student leaders on college campuses throughout the country to be as creative as they can to get as many of their classmates as possible to place phone calls to their legislators. As an incentive, we’re also turning this into a competition: we’ll be comparing the number of calls from each campus, and then the leadership team at the campus that generates the most calls during a one week period will win five free tickets to The Justice Conference.
4) Join G92 in D.C. on April 17. Next week Wednesday, Christian leaders from throughout the country will be traveling to our nation’s capital for the National Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform. We’ll gather at a church just off of Capitol Hill at 11:00 AM to hear from prominent Christian leaders from throughout the country, to worship (with worship led by Sandra Van Opstal, the worship leader for InterVarsity’s Urbana Student Missions Conference), and to pray together. Then, we’ll walk over to the Capitol Building, where we can help you to set up meetings with your legislators or their staffers. When you’re not meeting with a congressperson, we also will have prayer walks around the Capitol area, praying for legislators by name as well as for the immigrants in our communities and for our local churches. And then we’ll close the day with a worship and prayer service back at the church at 6:00 PM. We only have a few seats left for the worship services, so if you’d like to come, we’d encourage you to register now: www.evangelicalimmigrationtable.com/april-17.
If it has been your intention to move from awareness to action, now is the time. If you wait another six months to be a part of reforming our immigration laws, it will likely be too late. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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