Matthew Soerens: Look for ways to get involved

Loving one’s neighbor means understanding -- and even advocating on behalf of -- immigrants, says a training specialist with World Relief.

Many Christians support immigrants by welcoming them to church or donating to charitable groups, yet they stop short of advocating for change in U.S. immigration laws.

For Matthew Soerens, that’s an incomplete approach to an issue that he sees as among Christianity’s core tenets: loving one’s neighbor.

Soerens is co-author, with Jenny Hwang, of “Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate.” He also serves as the U.S. church training specialist for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. He helps evangelical churches understand immigration and form responses that reflect biblical values.

While Soerens acknowledges that “advocating” is another word for political action, which makes many Christians uncomfortable, he suggests a simpler way to think about the issue: “If we love our neighbors as Scripture calls us to do, we have to speak out against structures that are harming them.”

Soerens spoke with Faith & Leadership about immigration and the issues facing American Christians. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Why did you write a book about immigration for Christians?

Our goal for the book is to help Christians understand how immigration works -- to both understand the realities of what’s happening with immigration in the United States today and then be able to process that through a biblical framework.

Q: What do you see as the core Christian theology that’s pertinent to this issue?

God has a lot to say to his people, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, about how they are to treat immigrants. In many, many circumstances, he tells his people that they are to love immigrants and that they are to seek justice for immigrants.

One reason is because the people of Israel were foreigners in Egypt for centuries, and God reminds his people of that repeatedly.

In Deuteronomy 10, God says, “I love those who are aliens” -- or “sojourners” or “foreigners,” depending upon your translation into English -- “and you are also to love them.” So that’s a command.

Another reason we are called biblically to care for immigrants is because immigrants account for the fastest growth in the American church today -- and sometimes, frankly, the only growth.

This means that a significant number of these immigrants are our brothers and sisters in the Christian faith. We’re told in 1 Corinthians 12 that if one part of the body suffers, every part suffers. That means we don’t have the option to say that this is not our problem.

For whatever reason, God has made it our problem.

And there’s also Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The nations are showing up at our doorstep, and that’s a two-way street. Many of them come with a vibrant Christian faith and breathe new life into churches in this country. Others come without a faith in Jesus Christ, and that’s an opportunity to share the hope of the gospel with the nations, right in our own backyards.

Q: How do you navigate the tension between illegal and legal immigration?

For a lot of Christians, the conversation around immigration starts and then stops with Romans 13 -- that we should be subject to the governing authorities. And that gets condensed to, “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?”

It is important to note that most immigrants in this country have legal status, so you can’t use that verse to dismiss all the many passages about caring for immigrants.

But about a third of the immigrants living in the United States don’t have legal status, and Christians feel tension over how to reconcile the commands to love our neighbor with the command to obey the law of the state.

But there’s very little that I can do in relationship to my immigrant neighbor that is unlawful. If I hired them, if I employed them, that would be unlawful.

But it’s not against the law for me to teach them English. It’s not against the law for me to help their kids with homework. It’s not against the law for me to share the gospel with them, or for them to share the gospel with me.

And it’s not against the law to advocate to change a law; in fact, we do that in a democracy all the time.

For the immigrants themselves, it’s a harder question. I have friends who are undocumented who are strong believers and who say they are called to obey the law but also called to provide for their families.

First Timothy 5 verse 8 says that if anyone does not provide for his family, he is worse than an unbeliever, which is pretty strong language. A lot of undocumented Christians are really stuck in that tension.

They want to obey the Bible’s teaching to provide for their families, and many of them say that they could not do so if they go back to their country of origin.

I’m not totally sure of the right answer to that. What I am sure of is that we need a better system that doesn’t force people to choose between following the law and providing for their families, and that’s where advocacy comes in.

Q: What do you think the church should do?

First and foremost, we need to listen to what God’s word has to say about this, and we need to listen to the voices of the immigrants, including the undocumented immigrants, in our communities and in our local churches.

A lot of people have very strong opinions about immigration but don’t know any immigrants. So the first step is listening, which goes hand in hand with prayer, asking God to guide our thinking.

But the most important role may be education. Pastors and leaders who understand the issue need to have the courage to speak up about this to their congregations -- not necessarily in a political way but in a way that highlights what Scripture actually says about this topic.

I was doing a presentation a few weeks ago, and the woman who introduced me said, “I’ve been in church for 60 years, and I’ve never heard a sermon about immigration.”

That’s in some ways odd, because there’s so much content in the Scriptures that speaks to how God’s people are to treat immigrants. Ephesians 2 presents the idea of naturalization, of becoming a citizen, as one of the central metaphors of what it is to become a Christian, at least for Gentiles. So it’s odd to me that we don’t hear more about this topic in church.

I also would hope the churches would get to the point of advocating, saying our current system is broken and there are ways that we can encourage our legislators to fix the system. We think there are some pretty common-sense ways to do that -- neither mass deportation nor total amnesty, but moderate approaches.

One suggestion is having people who are here unlawfully come forward and pay a fine -- which is why it’s not amnesty, because amnesty does not involve penalties. Then a probationary legal status could be awarded, along with the opportunity to earn permanent legal status if they meet certain qualifications.

That only works if you pair it with some other features, like making it harder to enter this country illegally and easier to enter it legally. A lot of people don’t understand how incredibly dysfunctional our legal immigration system is.

The problem is our employment-based immigration system allows at maximum 5,000 permanent immigrant visas per year for employer-sponsored immigrants who are anything other than highly skilled. So if you are coming here without a master’s degree, you’re competing for a maximum of 5,000 visas per year, which even in a time of a down economy is woefully inadequate.

Q: What’s a more realistic number?

Our economy is very dynamic, so the number varies year to year.

Our 1965 immigration reform was a pretty good law, except that it puts a quota into place. That quota might have made sense in 1965, but by 2012, it doesn’t make sense.

Jason Riley, who writes for the Wall Street Journal, says our current immigration system resembles a Soviet-style exercise in central planning: “Here’s the number, and we’re just going to enforce the law,” instead of adjusting the law.

My preference would be for floating numbers of high-skill and low-skill workers based on a year-to-year assessment by economists and others on a bipartisan and independent commission.

Q: What kind of recommendations would you have for a church or denominational leader?

Find a pastor in your community who pastors to primarily immigrant congregations and take them out for lunch. Ask them what the people in their congregation are going through.

Most of them have had situations where someone was picked up by immigration and customs enforcement and was deported. And the church is wrestling with how to support the family members who are left behind.

Start within your own community and then look for good resources to understand how your individual circumstances relate to the larger picture, and to find out appropriate ways to respond.

The Faith Communities Today survey from Hartford Seminary that came out last year found that only one in 10 churches in the United States has any sort of ministry to immigrants. I think that’s a lost opportunity.

Look for ways to get involved. Maybe it’s an ESL class. Maybe it’s legal services. Maybe it’s just as simple as being a friend to someone who’s recently arrived in this country -- not with an agenda to fix their problems but just to be their friend, to learn from them, to listen to them and to help them adjust to this culture.

As those relationships develop, people will begin thinking about the larger structural issues and may look into advocacy.

We are not loving our immigrant neighbors well if we merely teach them English and share the gospel with them but are not willing to also say to our congressperson or our senator, “This immigration system that we have is dysfunctional, and it’s harming these families in our church, and it is also not good for our society as a whole.”

If we love our neighbors as Scripture calls us to do, we have to speak out against structures that are harming them.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., speaking on the story of the Good Samaritan: If you come upon a person beat up on the side of the road to Jericho, of course you are going to help your neighbor. But if you come upon another person who is beat up on the side of the road to Jericho, and then another person, you have to ask, “What’s wrong with this road?”

That’s what I think we need to challenge our church leaders to do as well.