Not long ago, a pastor at a large evangelical church in Florida shared a story with me that I can’t shake from my mind. Each Sunday, this church invites individuals to come forward who would like to pray with a pastor for any reason. One particular man came forward to this pastor and shared that he was in trouble: he was trying desperately to fix his legal status situation, but it seemed to be impossible, and he was now facing deportation. The pastor prayed for the young man, that God would provide some solution, and then told him how glad they were to have him at the church.
The undocumented man’s response stuck with the pastor—and with me. “If people in this church knew I was ‘illegal,’” the man said, “they would hate me.”
The pastor assured him that the church loved him, but he confided to me later that it forced him to ask: do people in our church hate immigrants? Few people would make that statement explicitly—it sounds so un-Christian—but if we look at how some of the folks within our local churches talk about immigrants, it might not be entirely unreasonable for an immigrant who does not have legal status to believe that most white evangelicals in the United States hate him.
If you watch TV news (particularly certain channels) you hear “illegal aliens”—already a dehumanizing term that does not suggest a lot of affection—referred to as “invaders.” Certain media personalities regularly equate immigrants with drug traffickers and other criminals, as if these terms were nearly synonymous. They blame immigrants for our economic crisis (because they allegedly steal jobs and use welfare without paying taxes), for terrorism, and even for global warming. And since a lot of the folks within our local churches consume this media extensively, these ideas are actually pretty common within white evangelical churches. White evangelicals—of all religious groups surveyed—were the only group of which a majority told the Pew Research Center that immigration “threatens traditional American customs and values.” Twice as many white evangelicals said that immigrants are “a burden on our country” than said that they “strengthen our country.” White evangelicals like me are known to vote for political candidates who mock any sort of compassion toward undocumented immigrants (such as letting those who came as children pay in-state college tuition rates) and who go so far as to suggest constructing lethal electric fences along the border. When evangelical Christians cheer for that sort of policy—and many did—it basically says to the immigrants in our church: we wish you would have been electrocuted and died rather than being here. So, not surprisingly, some immigrants believe that most white evangelicals hate them, and they are not necessarily jumping to illogical conclusions.
This leaves pastors in a tough position. As one prominent pastor told me recently, he’s realized that Fox News has his congregation seven nights a week, but he only gets them one morning a week. At least, though, he’s been willing to use his limited time to guide his congregation toward a biblical and missional—not merely a political or economic—view of immigrants. And the good news, in my experience, is that most white evangelicals really are open to embracing and loving immigrants—both in tangible interpersonal ways and by supporting just policies—once someone explains to them what the Scriptures say, corrects some of the misconceptions that they heard on the news, and facilitates relationships with immigrants who are also followers of Jesus. As far as we can measure, when we speak in local churches, about nine out of ten white evangelicals in the audience agree with our message on immigration.
That’s vitally important, because Scripture makes very clear not only that we are not supposed to hate immigrants, but that we are called to love them. Hospitality—in the biblical Greek, philoxenia, literally means “loving strangers,” and it’s a repeated biblical command (and even a requirement for church leadership). Ultimately, we must love immigrants, God says, because he does: “He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).
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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