The Accidental Activists
How Evangelical Christians are altering the spirit of the immigration debate.

Evangelical Immigration Table news conference, June, 2012


Lee Habeeb

It happened by chance. Jay Crenshaw didn’t plan on changing his views on illegal immigration. His experience with an illegal immigrant changed him. It happened when a Colombian friend was arrested for driving without a license. That friend was a white-collar professional who’d lived in Florida for years. He was an active member of Crenshaw’s Orlando church and was supporting his mother and brother. He also happened to be living in the country illegally.

Deportation loomed. Crenshaw, an attorney and self-described conservative Evangelical Christian, found himself knee-deep in a friend’s personal crisis, not a national-policy debate. Torn between the rule of law and compassion, he chose the latter. He accompanied his friend to court, where the matter was taken care of without getting immigration authorities involved.

“Once you’ve walked with someone and put a face and family behind the immigration issue, it very much personalizes it,” Crenshaw told a New York Times reporter.

Stories like Crenshaw’s are happening all across America, as more Evangelicals come in contact with the human dimension of illegal immigration.

It happened to John Hornburg, a real-estate developer and self-described conservative who is a member of the Mariners Church in Irvine, Calif. What he thought he knew about illegal immigration didn’t square with what he experienced volunteering as an English teacher at a local church center.

“As I learned their stories,” he told the Wall Street Journal recently, “I started to look at these folks through a prism of humanity and my heart just opened up.” Many members of the Mariners congregation live in upscale Newport Beach, where per capita incomes hover around $80,000. But nearby sits Santa Ana, where the church runs volunteer programs; per capita incomes there are below $17,000.

Stephen Hueber, a 30-year-old white Evangelical who attends Mariners, told the Wall Street Journal that his experience teaching English in Santa Ana “put a whole new face on the immigration issue.”

It isn’t just happening to church members, this intersection of faith and public policy. It’s happening to church leaders, too. Consider Richard Land, who heads up the powerful Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Evangelical denomination in the U.S. Land is no stranger to a good public-policy debate, and no one confuses him with some of his more socially liberal Christian peers.

Latino Evangelicals — Evangélicos — are one of the fastest-growing segments of America’s Evangelical churches. Two-thirds of the 52-plus million Latinos in America call themselves Catholics, but at current rates of defection, that number will soon decline to one-half. Many will join the ranks of Evangelical Protestants.

Land, it turns out, saw this coming years ago, and challenged fellow Evangelical leaders to pay attention to what was about to happen in American pews.

“If you left Washington, D.C., and drove all the way to L.A., and you took the southern route, there wouldn’t be one town you’d pass that doesn’t have a Baptist church with an iglesia bautista attached to it,” he told Time magazine, which dedicated a cover story to the subject.

Land shared a statistic with Time’s reporters: Nearly 40 percent of Latino Southern Baptists are illegal immigrants. And Land, like more and more religious leaders, doesn’t think the answer to illegal immigration is a one-way ticket back home. “They came here to work, we’re evangelistic, we shared the gospel with them, they became Baptist,” Land explained.

Which is why Land recently added his name to a coalition called the Evangelical Immigration Table, which includes some of the most influential Evangelical pastors in America, representing two dozen Evangelical denominations. Over 20 heads of Christian colleges and seminaries have also joined the group, which has as its goal an overhaul of immigration that takes into account border security, human dignity, family unity, and fairness to taxpayers. Included is a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally.

The coalition began a national campaign to encourage congregations to participate in a 40-day Bible challenge, a daily reading of a passage related to immigrants or aliens. Included in the campaign is an emphasis on prayer.

“Set aside some time each day to pray as well, asking God to help you to see immigrants as he does, and also praying for elected officials, who have the responsibility of crafting public policies that dramatically impact the lives of immigrants,” suggests the website.

One passage is from Matthew 25:

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.

It isn’t just Evangelicals who find in the Bible a call to welcome strangers. For Jews, the notion of hospitality as an imperative from God grows out of the story about Abraham, the first Jew, in Genesis 18.

Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said: My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves before you continue on.