This morning, our friends and colleagues with the various organizations that make up the Evangelical Immigration Table are launching an exciting new initiative called the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge.
The “Challenge” is simply this: we’re asking evangelical Christians who claim that the Bible is their ultimate authority to allow biblical teaching to inform their thinking on immigrants and immigration policy. We’ve prepared a simple bookmark (which folks can either order pre-printed or download and print themselves) that lists forty Scripture passages that in one way relate to the topic of immigration, including God’s instructions to the Israelites of how to treat immigrants, passages about God’s particular concern for the vulnerable (including immigrants), mentions of the migration stories of key biblical figures, reminders of our Christian identity as “aliens and strangers” on earth with a heavenly citizenship, and guidance on how we should relate to the civil authorities. We’re challenging individuals, churches, campuses, and even lawmakers (most of whom profess to be Bible-believing Christians) to commit to reading one passage each day for forty days, and also to pray, asking that God would give us his heart for immigrants, such that, particularly as we think about the topic of immigration, we would “not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed” by the Holy Spirit’s renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2).
To ask Christians to read the Bible and pray are hardly controversial asks, but we think such a challenge is needed around this topic in particular. A 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that, by their own admission, only 12% of white evangelicals think about immigration primarily from the perspective of their Christian faith. Many evangelical leaders are realizing that we’ve generally done an inadequate job of discipleship around this particular question: despite a plethora of specific instructions on the topic in the Bible, few pastors have ever preached a sermon on the topic; it’s not often been the subject of small group study, and the forty verses on our bookmark do not tend to be the ones that we commit to memory. In fact, just 16% of white evangelicals said in 2010 that they had ever heard immigration mentioned by their pastors. For me and for many others, the Bible’s teachings about immigrants have been a blind spot; I certainly can resonate with Willow Creek Community Church pastor Bill Hybels, who describes when he first began to realize, just in the past few years, all that the Bible has to say on the topic: “I read verse after verse about how God desired his followers to treat the foreigners in their midst,” he writes. “How had I not noticed all these passages before? The single thought that kept swirling in my mind was, ‘Immigrants matter to God.’”
The good news is that, when evangelical Christians are exposed to what the Scriptures say, their attitudes change. According to analysis by Gordon College’s Ruth Melkonian-Hoover, those who did hear a positive message about immigrants from their leaders were far less likely to think of immigrants as a threat (26.1%, compared to 50.7% of all white evangelicals) and far more likely to support the sort of compassionate public policies that many evangelical leaders advocate (81.5%, compared to 54% of all white evangelicals surveyed). We see that shift happening as pastors across the country are challenging their congregations to think about immigration first and foremost from a biblical perspective. As Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention says, “Our primary concern is, ‘What does God’s word say?’… If you allow your authority to be a politician or a political ideology or talk radio or news media when it comes to any issue in life over the word of God, you are outside of the will of God.” The “I Was a Stranger” Challenge is a practical way for pastors to disciple their congregations toward knowing and obeying what God’s word says.
Beyond the local church context, we’re also hopeful that Christian college campuses and Christian fellowships on other campuses will take up this Challenge. Whether working with a student group, the chaplain’s office, or even the college administration, who could help challenge the entire campus to participate, our vision at G92 is for young people to help the larger church respond to the realities of immigration in ways consistent with biblical values.
We also hope that pastors, lay leaders, and student leaders will join together to ask their legislators to participate in this Challenge as well, signing onto letters and requesting meetings with Representatives and Senators and then personally giving them a bookmark and asking them to commit to reading Scripture for forty days and to praying. Even if they’re not persuaded by political expediency—as some likely will be, particularly given the rapid growth of the Latino vote—legislators who are genuine believers and are open to the nudging of the Holy Spirit might just surprise a lot of pundits by voting for just and compassionate immigration reform. I hope I’m not entirely naïve, but I expect that there are some Members of Congress who, if they believe after meditating on the Bible that God would have them to vote a certain way, will do so even if it means defying their party or risking a possible primary election challenge.
To help launch this challenge, we’ve enlisted a number of nationally prominent evangelical leaders (all individuals who have also signed onto the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform—folks like Max Lucado, Bill Hybels, Phil Ryken, Richard Mouw, John Perkins, and Richard Land, among many others) to read the words of Matthew 25, the passage from which we’ve taken the phrase “I Was a Stranger.” Few passages of Scripture speak so powerfully to the Christian call to hospitality—literally, the love of strangers.
A quick aside: some scholars argue that this passage, in context, refers not to caring for the hungry, poor, and vulnerable generally, but only for those who are part of the Christian family (“the least of these my brothers,” in verse 40) and caution against a misuse of this text. I’ll let the scholars argue that point—there are probably a range of opinions on that question just among the leaders in the video. I would note that
(a) Many, if not most, immigrants who arrive as “strangers” in the U.S. are Christians, including some who are fleeing persecution for their faith.
(b) If we do not welcome (or at least get to know) “strangers,” we cannot possibly know if they are believers and thus, even by the more conservative interpretation, we risk snubbing our Lord.
(c) Jesus was quite literally a “stranger” in Egypt as a small child, when Joseph and Mary followed the divine instructions given to Joseph and fled from the threat of King Herod’s genocide (Matthew 2:14); not unlike many undocumented young people in the United States today, young Jesus had little say in the decision to migrate.
(d) Even those who have raised concerns about the use of this passage in ways that they believe are unfaithful to the text would generally be quick to affirm that Scripture (elsewhere) unquestionably calls us to extend hospitality and to love our immigrant neighbors, regardless of whether they are or are not (yet) followers of Jesus.
(e) Our goal with asking folks to read the Matthew 25 passage (and each of the other thirty-nine passages) is not to tell them how to interpret the text or how to apply it to the current realities of immigration—we’ve intentionally not attached any commentary to either the reading challenge or the video, just the words of Scripture—but to ask that they simply read the text and to pray that the Holy Spirit would grant us the wisdom to know how to rightly apply it to our current realities and the courage to do so.
It’s no secret that I believe very strongly that our country should enact significant reforms to our nation’s immigration laws, including an eventual earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and a modernization of our archaic visa system, and I think that reading Scripture will help encourage even more evangelicals to advocate for this position. Even more important to me than passing legislation, though, is that the Church—especially the evangelical corner of the Church with which I identify—ground our public policy positions in Scripture, even if your reading of Scripture leads you to a different place than mine has led me. As I’ve spent time in God’s word, I am convinced that my role is to stand for justice, in unity with our immigrant brothers and sisters. Beyond policy changes, my prayer is that our response to immigrants more broadly be transformed from a politically-driven narrative that sees immigrants as a threat to a biblically-driven, factually-informed view that recognizes immigration as an opportunity and a blessing, both for our country and for the Church. My hope and prayer is that the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge will help move us further in that direction, and that you will mobilize as many as you can to join in.
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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