Last Wednesday, hundreds of pastors and lay leaders from evangelical churches and campuses all over the United States gathered in our nation’s capital for a national Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform. Several months ago, national Christian leaders drafted a letter to President Obama and to both the Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress, inviting them to meet to discuss immigration and to introduce immigration reform legislation consistent with biblical principles within the first 92 days of the new Congress. (We gave them 92 days because 92 it is the number of instances that the word ger—an immigrant, in Hebrew—is mentioned in the Old Testament).
As we came near to that deadline, we gathered in Washington to give our legislators the chance to meet us—national leaders, local pastors, and lay people, including a good number of Christian college students—in person and hear our concerns. But we also wanted to take seriously the opportunity to come together before God—who is sovereign over the politicians—in prayer. We dubbed the event the Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform. The timing for the event—which we began planning months ago—was providential. In the earliest hours of that morning the bipartisan “Gang of 8” Senators formally introduced the first serious immigration reform bill to be considered in more than five years: the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.”
As we began the morning, following reflections on Scripture by pastors and church leaders from throughout the country and a timely word on prayer from pastor Bill Hybels, National Latino Evangelical Coalition president Gabriel Salguero challenged us with the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action.” For the Christian, both prayer and action are essential. If we have just one without the other, our faith is anemic.
The rest of the day was filled with plenty of action. I crisscrossed Capitol Hill multiple times, enough to end the day exhausted and sunburnt, but newly energized by our congressional lobbying visits. Together, we collectively met with more than eighty different Senators, Representatives, or their staffers from about twenty-five different states. I got to join a delegation of pastors from Colorado to meet with Representative Mike Coffman, then with a group of suburban Chicago pastors to meet with Representative Bill Foster, whose district includes the house that my wife and I recently purchased in Aurora, Illinois. In each location we urged the legislator to support immigration reforms consistent with biblical values, we asked to hear where they stood on the issue and how we could help encourage them, and we challenged them to join us in taking the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge, reading one Scripture passage related to immigration and praying each day for forty days.
One particular Hill visit had some unanticipated “action.” My friend Dustin, who pastors a church in Ohio, went with two other leaders for a pre-arranged meeting with a staffer for Speaker of the House John Boehner. While we were there a man came in to the office, decked out in buttons expressing his opposition to immigrants, and began harassing the congressman’s staff, dramatically stating his antagonism toward immigration reform. When he realized Dustin and his friends were pastors advocating for reform, he became very upset with them—so much so that the staff called the Capitol Police. Before he was taken away the man actually lunged at Dustin.
In the midst of all sorts of action, though, the day was also focused on prayer. In fact, Dustin had the opportunity to pray for the slightly frazzled congressional staffer who’d just been harangued by the anti-immigration activist. Even in less dramatic situations, we offered to pray for legislators, asking God to give them guidance to discern the policies they should support and then the courage to do so.
While others were inside the Congressional buildings meeting and sometimes praying with legislators, others were walking around the Capitol area on prayer walks. We’d stop at various landmarks, allowing the location to guide us into prayer. We prayed for legislators by name in front of each of the House and Senate Office Buildings. At the Library of Congress—which contains the record, both glorious and inglorious, of our nation’s treatment of immigrants—we repented of wrongs done to Native Americans, to slaves, and to immigrants. We looked out onto the National Mall, recalled Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” of a nation where people would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and prayed that it would be so. We looked out toward the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, mindful both that hunger is one of the major motivators of migration and of the vital role that immigrant farmworkers play in the American food system, prayed that God would provide food for the hungry and would ensure that farmworkers be treated justly. From the Peace Circle traffic circle, we prayed for peaceful resolutions to conflicts that force refugees to flee their homes; we looked from there down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House and prayed for the President and his administration, then to the Canadian Embassy, which reminded us to pray for our neighboring countries—for the economic, political, and spiritual situations in both Canada and Mexico—and for those tasked with guarding our national borders. Finally, we prayed in front of the Supreme Court that courts at all levels would rule justly on immigration legislation that might come before them; we prayed for God’s Kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
We closed the day as we had begun it: with worship, reflection on Scripture, and corporate prayer. I was struck by the unity across denominational, ethnic, and geographic lines that often divide us. We heard from African-Americans and Latinos; Native Americans, and Caucasians; Baptists, Pentecostals, non-denominational folks, Lutherans and Anglicans; from the West Coast to the East, the Midwest to the South. And yet the message was unified: our faith compels us to advocate with our immigrant brothers and sisters, pleading both before God, in prayer, and before our legislators, as we act for change, to bring about changes to our dysfunctional immigration system. We lifted before the Lord the immigrants within our communities—and particularly within our local churches—currently bearing the weight of divided family situations as a result of deportation policies. Finally, we prayed for the Church, that she might respond in unity and in faithfulness to Scripture to the realities of immigration. May it be so.
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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