There are many reasons that evangelicals are, increasingly, recognizing a need to respond to the needs of undocumented immigrants in our communities. First and foremost, we’re bound by Jesus’ command to love our neighbor and by the specific command to love the foreigner. (Leviticus 19:18, 34). We also know that Jesus commands us to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), a task that is made all the easier by immigration, as God directs the movements of people (Acts 17:26-27). Others believe that immigration is an issue of justice, and that our faith compels us to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8); especially for those of us who are Caucasian evangelicals, we know that our predecessors mostly sat out on the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and we don’t want to make the same mistake with what African-American evangelical leader John Perkins has called “the great justice issue of our time.”
Those are all valid reasons—but there’s another reason that I think we need to be concerned with the situation of immigration. We need to care about immigration because, as National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson has said, “they are us.”
According to research by Todd Johnson of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, immigrant churches are already growing faster than any other segment of American evangelicalism, a reality that most major evangelical denominations have observed as well. It is precisely because of immigration—both of immigrants who are already Christians and of those who come to faith in Christ in this country—that evangelicalism is thriving, even in places where there are few white evangelicals left. As Dr. Soong-Chan Rah notes in his compelling book The Next Evangelicalism, the city of Boston is presumed by many white evangelicals to be a “spiritually dead” “post-Christian region” overtaken by secular humanism. In reality, though, it is one of the places where the church is growing fastest—thanks to immigrants. 98 new churches were planted in Boston between 2001 and 2006, about half of which worship in a language other than English (Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese are the most common languages).
This is important because, biblically, we who have trusted in Christ as Lord together form one Body—the Church—and each part of that body is dependent upon every other part (1 Corinthians 12:20-21). While, because most evangelical churches are still relatively ethnically homogeneous, we may not know a lot of immigrants within the church, they are there: they may meet in another church’s space on a Sunday evening, or be in a different part of town than you’re used to passing through, but they’re there, and Scripture tells us that they are our brothers and sisters. Furthermore, “If one part suffers, every part suffers” (1 Corinthians 12:26), so if our undocumented brothers and sisters are suffering, that has to affect us. It doesn’t solve the complex questions of how to respond to immigration policy, but it does mean we cannot simply dismiss the issue.
About two years ago, I was part of a small church plant team led by a good friend of mine, Jonathan Kindberg, in the apartment complex where I live. We did not intentionally try to reach out to undocumented immigrants, but simply to share the love and hope of Christ with our neighbors. As it turned out, though, many who became the most consistent folks to attend our Sunday evening services—and the first to give their life to Christ and be baptized—were undocumented immigrants (mostly from Mexico, but also some from East Africa).
That little church has grown too big to meet in an apartment, now, and meets in another church’s rented space. As I watch lives transformed by the power of a relationship with Jesus, I thank God for the immigrants—even those without legal status—whom he has brought to this country. But I also know the pain of families who have been separated by a traffic-ticket-turned-deportation, and of children left without their fathers. As their brother, I cannot stand by silently and pretend there is no problem. If there really is Church—one Body with many members—then we need to figure out how to stand alongside our brothers and sisters.