Evangelical leaders rallied in Washington to gather political support for comprehensive immigration reform. Photo by Sarah McHaney/PBS NewsHour.
WASHINGTON — “We desperately need comprehensive immigration reform,” Richard Land, a prominent Southern Baptist leader, boomed to a packed church two blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
Hundreds of evangelical leaders recently gathered in the nation’s capital to take the message of comprehensive immigration reform from the pews in their churches to the politicians in the Capitol. The day was organized as the “Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform.”
“They know where our steeples are, but they don’t know where our hearts are — that is what we are here to change, ” David Uth, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla., told reporters at a press conference staged with the familiar dome as his backdrop.
The Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of diverse evangelical leaders, formed a couple of years ago to push immigration reform through a grassroots movement in churches across the country. In their mission statement they write, “Our national immigration laws have created a moral, economic and political crisis in America.”
In January they launched a 40-day challenge encouraging churches to read what the Bible has to say on immigration. Specific verses about “welcoming the stranger” were read by churches in all 50 states. A diverse group of pastors from states such as Florida, Ohio, Colorado and California came to Washington to say their congregations had an overwhelming response to the challenge.
Rich Nathan is the senior pastor at Vineyard in Columbus, Ohio, where at least 9,000 people gather to worship on Sundays. His congregation includes members from 120 different countries.
“I’ve had multiple conversations with members whose lives have been directly impacted by current immigration policies,” Nathan told PBS NewsHour. “Many of our people had gotten their information on immigration from the news and had not put it in a Biblical and moral context.”
In Washington, these leaders hope to sway conservative politicians who hold many of the same values as evangelicals to support the bill proposed by the “Gang of Eight” senators. The Evangelical Immigration Table is a strong advocate of a pathway to citizenship. In a letter explaining their position they wrote, “This call is rooted in our biblically informed commitment to human freedom and dignity.”
Nathan has tried to change his parishioners’ perspective over the past several years through forums, leading parts of his service in multiple languages, and recently bringing his church into the “I was a Stranger” challenge.
More importantly, Nathan said he has tried to communicate the complex plights of undocumented immigrants and show his congregation that they worship with people in these situations.
“A lot of folks didn’t realize the scope of the problem. They had a view that there were easy ways for people to get into the country legally … hearing people’s stories really helped. Folks started to get to know immigrants and their hearts began to change,” Nathan said.
Such stories about an immigrant’s plight are not new, nor are the Bible verses leaders are using to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform. Evangelicals could have stormed the Capitol in 2005, but they didn’t.
“It just wasn’t on our radar,” Barrett Duke, vice president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and other leaders told the NewsHour.
“Clearly there were millions of undocumented immigrants at the time, but evangelicals were not consciously aware they were crossing paths with them,” Duke continued.
The Pew Research Center found in 2010 that just 12 percent of white evangelicals said that their views on immigration are primarily informed by their Christian faith, and only 16 percent had even heard the topic of immigration discussed by their pastor or other clergy.
Although the Evangelical Immigration Table has seen recent support from all denominations, many individual evangelicals remain unconvinced.
A March Pew survey found 55 percent of white evangelicals still considered immigrants a burden on society.
Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a faith-based alliance of Christians, has been outspoken against using the Bible to advance immigration reform. In March, he wrote, “Jesus was not an illegal immigrant, ancient Hebrew laws about ‘sojourners’ and ‘strangers’ don’t relate directly to modern illegal immigrants, and caring for the ‘least of these’ can’t thoughtfully apply to every political push for expanding the federal leviathan.”
Back in Washington, the evangelical leaders said they think they are on God’s side, which happens to be favoring immigration reform.
Praying over the service before evangelical leaders headed to meetings with members of Congress, Willow Creek Community Church’s Bill Hybels, the senior pastor of the third largest congregation in America, told PBS NewsHour he was looking ahead: “We have to move from here to the future.”