Two weekends ago, I had the privilege of participating in the Cumbre Global de Liderazgo, the Spanish language version of the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit. While I was there to lead a session explaining the Department of Homeland Security’s new “Deferred Action” policy for the many leaders in Spanish-speaking churches who have questions about the new policy, I also had the privilege of participating in the rest of the Summit.
The opening session, in particular, struck me. Bill Hybels (with translation, because Bill unfortunately does not speak Spanish) introduced a dubbed video of a talk he gave in English a few years ago entitled “Holy Discontent,” which later was adapted into a book. Casting a compelling vision is obviously vital to strong leadership, but Bill asks the question of where such vision comes from. He looks to Moses, whose interaction with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3) catalyzes his own move into leadership to free the Hebrew people from oppression in Egypt. That vision, though, did not start at the burning bush; it starts a chapter earlier, when Moses sees one of his people being abused by an Egyptian and erupts with frustration: he can’t take the injustice any longer. At the burning bush, Moses finds that his discontent intersects with the heart of God, who tells Moses, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Exodus 3:7). God calls Moses to lead their liberation.
As I interacted with various leaders throughout the weekend—primarily pastors of Spanish-speaking churches—my sense was that there is a corporate feeling of discontent with the status of our immigration system in the United States. Latino evangelical pastors are not necessarily an activist-y group; they tend to focus on evangelism, worship, discipleship, and the immediate needs of their congregations and are not usually looking for structural injustices to fight.
But they have had enough. They have heard too many stories of people in their church who are not being paid their full promised wage by unscrupulous employers who exploit their undocumented workers’ fear of reporting wage fraud. They have seen too many people within their congregations repeatedly be victims of crime yet afraid to call the police, worried that any interaction with law enforcement could trigger questions about their legal status. With the unprecedented rise of deportations over the past several years, pastors have seen too many families within their churches divided. Almost every Hispanic pastor I talk to tells me some version of the same story: the father of a family within their church was driving (without a license) to work, was pulled over, fingerprinted, turned over to the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency and detained (sometimes for months), and eventually deported (or is currently awaiting a deportation hearing), leaving behind a wife and children, who are usually U.S. citizens. These pastors and their congregations do their best to care for the family left behind, but they see marriages strained by distance and stress. They watch children struggle and rebel without their fathers; some make terrible choices with consequences that will reverberate throughout their lives. Amidst all this, these pastors have heard too many broken promises from politicians, on both sides of the partisan divide, pledging to fix the dysfunction of our national immigration laws. These pastors, who love and shepherd their flocks, just can’t stand it anymore.
I’m convinced that their frustration is indeed a “holy discontent,” resonating with the heart of God. Scripture is more than clear that immigrants—often mentioned alongside the fatherless and the widow—are a uniquely vulnerable group of people whose wellbeing God zealously guards, and whose oppressors he will judge:
The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. (Psalm 146:9)
“I will be quick to testify… against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:5)
Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)
You have brought your judgment days near and have come to your years of punishment [because] the foreign resident is exploited within you. The fatherless and widow are oppressed in you. (Ezekiel 22:4, 7)
“Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”
He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:41-45)
These leaders are filled with a holy discontent, a conviction that our current immigration system is not for the flourishing of their communities, for the common good of the nation, or—because many within the American church think of immigrants through a political narrative that paints them as a threat, and thus miss out on seeing the missional opportunities presented by immigration—for the advancement of the gospel. They can’t stand it anymore, and they will not sit by idly. They’re pleading with their non-Hispanic brothers and sisters to join them—because the Church is designed to function as one body (1 Corinthians 12:12-26)—in calling on our elected officials to put aside partisanship and political posturing to reform our nation’s immigration laws, including creating some process by which undocumented immigrants could come forward and get right with the law. Gratefully, more and more non-Hispanic evangelical leaders are heading their call.
At a governmental level, though, there does not seem to be much reason for hope. It has been a discouraging decade for those clamoring for immigration reform: both Republican and Democratic presidents have tried to reform the system but been stymied by Congress. Meanwhile, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the situation has gotten harder for undocumented members of Spanish-speaking churches. The blessed hope of following a vision driven by holy discontent, though, is that we follow a God for whom “all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). As his church mobilizes and fervently prays, God “will see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 3:8).
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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