National evangelical leaders are coming together in an expansive grassroots effort to pass bipartisan immigration reform, including an easier path to citizenship. These leaders hope to change many evangelicals’ minds about immigration through theology.
The most recent push is this glossy video of nationally recognized evangelical leaders urging and challenging their communities to read selected Bible verses about immigration and reconsider any hostility towards immigrants. In the video, the leaders read Matthew 25, the cornerstone passage of the movement.
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in.
— Matthew 25:35.
The video is an effort by the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of diverse evangelical leaders with members from the left-leaning Sojourners to the conservative Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. They began meeting a year and a half ago to strategize on their campaign.
The “I was a Stranger” video campaign asks churches to spend 40 days studying Scripture related to immigration, centered on the Matthew 25 exhortation to clothe and feed the stranger. It is expected to reach 100,000 churches nationally.
“I can tell you with great assurance. It’s historic. It’s unprecedented. It is a shift from the posture that the evangelical church has taken,” said Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
Leaders behind the movement argue that immigration reform is not a political issue, but a moral one. Instead of focusing on the political language used by each party, the group looked at immigration laws as Christians. They found an inconsistency in how immigrants are currently being treated and how they should be treated according to the Bible from which they preach.
In an open letter to President Obama, the group called for a bipartisan approach to immigration reform that “respects the God-given dignity of every person, the rule of law, and establishes a path towards legal status/citizenship for those who qualify and wish to become permanent residents.”
It’s a marked shift in attitude for some evangelicals. Consider Jesse Oxford of Chicago. He’s Christian, white and grew up going to church with people who look, act, sound, and dress just like him.
“Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America each week. When we worship, it’s not with people who are different from us,” said Oxford, who runs his own film production company.
A Pew Research poll conducted about six years ago found a majority of white evangelicals found immigrants to be a threat to American culture and a burden on the economy. White evangelicals remain at least 25 percent of the electorate in 2012, according to a Pew Forum analysis.
Oxford’s perspective on social issues was sculpted by words preached from the pulpit and Sunday lessons. But when it came to the topic of undocumented immigrants, he was torn.
“I am a Christian and I believe what Jesus is saying about loving one’s neighbor. I also thought they have broken the law and so we shouldn’t let them off the hook,” he said. As he educated himself on immigration he kept coming back to the lessons Jesus outlines in Matthew: “How you treat the least of them is how you treat me.”
“There are an estimated 12 million undocumented people who fall into the biblical characteristic of a stranger and how you treat them is how you treat Jesus. That’s powerful,” Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners and a leader of the coalition, told PBS NewsHour.
The NewsHour asked Stephen Bauman, president and CEO of World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, if lawbreaking defied what he follows from Biblical verse.
“We have to look at law in light of scripture and morality first. We are not in any way saying not to fulfill the law; we are looking for better laws. We do not want amnesty. We want better border protection and better, just laws,” Bauman said.
Spiritual conviction is not the only reason for the change — leaders also view the openness as “an act of self-preservation,” Rodriguez said. Hispanics and other minorities make up the majority of the rapid growth that evangelical churches have seen over recent years.
Leaders of the Evangelical Immigration Table say they understand that it will be a long, hard road to immigration reform but that their hope for better immigration laws rests on faith, not politics.
Ellen Rolfes contributed to this report.
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