Matthew Soerens: How pastors can help their congregations address the issue of immigration

Immigration is such a hot-button issue that many pastors are unwilling to broach it with their congregations. Bigstock/RodrickBeiler

Drawing on his own experiences, a World Relief official offers three tips on how pastors can help their churches address immigration in a way consistent with their Christian faith.

For much of my life as a Christian, I thought about immigration primarily as a political, cultural, economic and security matter -- and rarely if ever as a biblical or missiological concern. My views on the subject mostly reflected those of my preferred cable news commentators; it never occurred to me that my faith might be relevant to the issue.

I’m not unique in that regard. Among evangelical Christians like me, for example, a 2015 LifeWay Research poll found that just 12 percent identify the Bible as the primary influence on their beliefs about immigration. In another 2015 survey, white evangelical and mainline Protestant Christians were the most likely religious subgroups to regard immigrants as a threat to American values. And while most Americans believe that the United States has a responsibility to admit refugees, most white Protestants do not.

But in my experience, those views are not shared by most pastors. In a 2016 LifeWay Research poll, 86 percent of Protestant senior pastors agreed that Christians should “care sacrificially for refugees and foreigners.” Though pastors may be troubled by the hostility that some of their members feel toward immigrants, many steer clear of the issue, fearing that it could splinter their congregations, pushing some members to withhold tithes and offerings or even to leave.

For those pastors -- especially in a time of declining church attendance and budgets -- the easiest path is to avoid the subject of immigration altogether. But that only perpetuates a deficit of discipleship, leaving formation on this critical issue to Fox News, MSNBC and social media.

A dozen years ago, my own perspective on immigration changed dramatically after I began work for World Relief, identifying local churches to host naturalization workshops. Before long, I had three distinct experiences that changed my views on immigration:

  • I discovered my own “biblical blind spot” about immigrants.
  • I learned the facts about immigration.
  • I became friends with several immigrants.

As my role has evolved at World Relief, I’ve repeatedly seen those same three experiences transform the views of clergy -- and ultimately, their congregations -- on immigration. Together, they offer a worthy guide for how pastors can help their churches address immigration in a way that is consistent with their Christian faith.

First, pastors can address the many ways that Scripture speaks to the theme of immigration. For me, that biblical foundation began being laid in earnest when I volunteered to teach an adult education class about immigration for a United Methodist church in my area. As I prepared for the class, I began to research what, if anything, the Bible has to say on the topic of immigration -- and discovered much more than I’d imagined.

Many of the most prominent heroes of our faith -- Abraham, Joseph, Ruth, David, even Jesus -- crossed borders into another country at some point. Furthermore, the Hebrew word that most closely describes immigrants (ger, in the singular form) appears 92 times in the Old Testament, often mentioned alongside orphans and widows as uniquely vulnerable groups whom God expressly loves and commands his people to love as well (see, for example, Deuteronomy 10:17-19, Deuteronomy 24:19, Psalm 146:9, Zechariah 7:9-10). In the New Testament, hospitality -- from the Greek philoxenia (literally, “the love of strangers”) -- is mandated for Christ followers.

While some students in that first class responded graciously, a few made clear that they did not appreciate my message. But in a dynamic that I’ve since observed many times, their criticism wasn’t about disagreements over scriptural perspectives on immigration. Rather, most pushback tends to be about extrabiblical concerns such as assimilation, legal status, economics and safety.

That’s why in addition to understanding the biblical perspective on immigration, pastors and their congregations also need to know the facts. In an era of “fake news,” it’s vital that we provide accurate information from unbiased, nonpartisan sources.

For me, it helped immensely to learn how our immigration legal system works today. Before, I always presumed that people seeking citizenship could go to a governmental office somewhere, wait in line, pass through a turnstile, fill out a form, pay a fee and leave with legal status -- and that anyone in the country unlawfully had no excuse for not undertaking this process.

But as I became exposed to U.S. immigration law, I learned that the current U.S. process is dramatically different from what it was when my ancestors came from Holland in the mid-1800s, a time with very few immigration restrictions.

Today, immigrant visas are strictly limited to four categories:

  1. Individuals sponsored by close family (a spouse, parent, child or sibling who is a U.S. citizen, or a spouse or parent who is a “lawful permanent resident”)
  2. Individuals sponsored by employers (with a requirement in almost all cases that the immigrant be highly skilled, with a graduate degree or “exceptional ability”)
  3. Individuals motivated by a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin (with an annual cap on admissions -- only a fraction of 1 percent of the world’s refugees)
  4. Individuals fortunate enough to win an online lottery (which people from Mexico, India and several other countries are ineligible even to enter)

To some people, it seems only intuitive -- and fair -- to tell would-be immigrants to simply come “the legal way” or, for those already here illegally, to go back home and then come “the legal way.” In fact, many well-intentioned pastors have given this very advice to undocumented parishioners. But I suspect that most Americans do not realize (as I did not) that our legal system generally makes legal immigration impossible for anyone who does not fit any of the four visa categories.

Christians can debate whether or not breaking U.S. immigration law is biblically justified by particular circumstances, such as fleeing violence or extreme poverty. But knowing the facts about immigration at least helps us understand why so many people decide to immigrate or to overstay a visa illegally. So often, their choice is not between immigrating legally or illegally but between immigrating illegally or staying put in challenging, even brutal, circumstances that none of us would willingly endure.

These are only the most basic facts about immigration. Many resources -- including statistics, suggested books and a church leader’s guide to immigration -- are readily available online and can be invaluable in helping church members understand the fuller story. I know that the more I learned, the faster my misconceptions melted away.

Finally, while the Bible and the facts are important, it usually takes a relationship to convert someone from xenophobia to philoxenia. For me, it was friendship with two families in my neighborhood (one a mixed-status Mexican family, the other a refugee family from Rwanda) who shared their food and their stories with me and demonstrated with their lives the falsehood of the stereotypes I’d previously believed. Local churches can help facilitate these mutually transformative relationships by connecting congregants to volunteer opportunities such as refugee resettlement programs or English as a second language classes.

For church leaders to engage such a politically fraught issue is not easy or without risk. But if they do so strategically -- guided by Scripture, equipped with the facts and informed by relationships with immigrants -- the immigration issue can be transformative for a church and its people. It can spur congregations to grow not only in discipleship but also in numbers. The witness of a local church that extends hospitality can be a beacon for immigrants and native-born U.S. citizens alike, for anyone and everyone attracted to a community of radical, Christlike welcome.