Crossing Borders in the Church: On Embracing Undocumented Immigrants

 Note: This is the 3rd part in an ongoing series called Beyond Multiethnic, in which we’re talking about ways that we can honor the image of God in diverse people. Please see part 1 for context.

This week I’m excited to address the issue of honoring the image of God in our undocumented brothers and sisters. I’m grateful for Matthew Soerens’ thoughtful and persistent leadership in this area and am so pleased that he  agreed to share his insight with us.

Matthew Soerens is the Field Director for the Evangelical Immigration Table, the US Church Training Specialist with World Relief, and the co-author, with Jenny Hwang Yang, of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).  


immigration-9Several months ago, I was invited to speak at a large, conservative Southern Baptist church that is, in some ways, a microcosm of American evangelicalism as a whole.  The crowd of several thousand at the first Sunday service was distinctly older and almost entirely white, but at the morning’s second service, the senior pastor removed his tie and delivered exactly the same sermon to an audience that was much more ethnically diverse.  Later that day, under the same roof, the church hosted worship services and Bible studies in Creole, Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese.  Within that one local church—as is true of the Church as a whole in the United States—coexist native-born U.S. citizens, naturalized citizens, lawfully-present immigrants, and undocumented immigrants, and with them a broad range of views on immigration policy. 

One of the church’s pastors related to me that, the previous week, a young Hispanic man had come forward at the end of the service seeking prayer. He shared, hesitantly, that he was facing deportation. He’d talked to lawyers and tried everything he could to resolve his situation, but it seemed inevitable that he would be separated from his family.  The pastor prayed for God’s provision and, then, as the man turned to leave, added, “We just want you to know how welcome you are at our church.”

“With all due respect,” the man replied, “if people at this church knew I was ‘illegal,’ they would hate me.” 

The pastor assured him that their church—which, to their credit, had done far more than the average congregation to embrace immigrant communities—loved him.  But he went home, he told me, shaken by the man’s comment: what was it about his church that had conveyed to this man that people would despise him if they knew he lacked legal status?


However, if we consider the rhetoric that some in our society, including some Christians, have used to discuss the topic of illegal immigration, the young immigrant’s conclusion that many of his native-born Christian brothers and sisters might hate him seems quite logical.  When presidential primary candidates compete to see who can be harsher on undocumented immigrants and the TV pundits say they’re doing so to win the “evangelical vote” in the Iowa Caucus, the undocumented within our churches notice. When the church’s parking lot is marked with bumper stickers for a candidate who proposes—to wild applause—the construction of an electrified fence that would kill those who attempt to unlawfully enter the United States, the unintentional message is: “I’d rather you’d be dead than sitting next to me at church.”   Whenever those associated with Christianity blame the undocumented for the country’s economic trouble (despite nearly unanimous economic data to the contrary), imply that most are criminals or terrorists, or compare them to rats, cockroaches, or any other animal, the message conveyed to the undocumented within our congregations—even if very few would convey such a message directly—is that “God loves you…but we loathe you.”  (This, incidentally, is a pretty lousy evangelism strategy).


The reality is that, according to various polls, both most evangelicals (of all ethnicities) and most white evangelicals, specifically, actually support the sorts of immigration reforms advocated by most immigrants’ rights groups, including a process by which most of the undocumented could eventually earn citizenship.  But that’s not necessarily because they have heard thought about the immigrants in their community from a distinctly biblical perspective: according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, just 16% of white evangelicals and 20% of all Protestant Christians say they have ever heard the topic of immigration discussed by their pastor, which is likely why only 12% of white evangelicals and 9% of all Protestants think of this topic primarily from the perspective of their Christian faith.  For the most part, the Church in the U.S. has ignored this topic, allowing politicians and pundits to define our thinking, rather than God’s word.


The irony is that—beyond the biblical reality that each undocumented immigrant is, like all human beings, made in God’s image with inherent dignity (Genesis 1:27)—most are also our Christian brothers and sisters.  Though many native-born Christians probably do not realize it, immigrant congregations account for the fastest growth in the American Church today.  Missiologist Tim Tennent estimates that “86% of the immigrants in North America are likely to either be Christians or become Christians,” which, he notes, is far above the national average and means that “the immigrant population actually presents the greatest hope for Christian renewal in North America.”

That reality is a surprise to many native-born believers, because meaningful interaction between native-born and undocumented believers is actually pretty limited: immigrants often worship in separate congregations, out of sight of their native-born brethren. Even when worshiping in the same building alongside non-immigrant believers, they too often feel unsafe discussing the legal status issues that are a challenge for about one-third of immigrants.  It’s worth noting that these challenges are not only a Latino concern, either: more than 20% of Korean immigrants in the U.S. are undocumented, for example, as are about 15% of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino immigrants.  At a primarily Nigerian church where I worshipped recently, the pastor estimated that half of the congregation might be undocumented.  And yet, many American Christians do not actually personally know—or realize that they know—an undocumented immigrant.


The good news is that where the church is pressing into the unity to which Christ calls us, relationships form and attitudes change.  Political scientist Ruth Melkonian-Hoover finds that white evangelicals who worship alongside immigrants are far less likely to view immigrants as a threat (19.6%) than white evangelicals as a whole (50.7%).  Those who have heard a positive message about immigration from their pastor—presumably, one that highlights the scores of biblical commands related to how immigrants ought to be treated—are only about half as likely to think of immigrants as a threat and are also much more likely (81.5%) than white evangelicals as a whole (54%) to support immigration reform policies including an earned path to citizenship for the undocumented. 

Christian leaders across denominations and ethnic backgrounds—including many associated with the Evangelical Immigration Table, which I have the privilege of helping to lead—are also leading very effectively, challenging those “in the pews” to carefully consider what Scripture says, to faithfully pray for legislators as they debate immigration policy changes, and to stand with their undocumented sisters and brothers in advocating for immigration reforms consistent with biblical values.

While not everyone will agree on public policies, the Church must provide a biblical framework for thinking about and responding to immigrants, lest we leave that area of discipleship to political commentators on either side of the aisle.  We need to facilitate safe spaces for believers of vastly different backgrounds and experiences to hear one another’s stories, a process which tends to challenge media-driven stereotypes.  Only then, with genuine, mutual relationships, can we possibly live into the unity that Christ calls his Church to as one Body in which “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

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