Politics & Policy

The Accidental Activists

Evangelical Immigration Table news conference, June, 2012
How Evangelical Christians are altering the spirit of the immigration debate.

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.

#ad#“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.

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Abraham didn’t ask for papers, or proof of citizenship, from the three men; he ran to meet them, and ran because he didn’t want to miss an opportunity to serve them. Abraham is rewarded for his hospitality; the strangers turn out to be messengers from God, who deliver to him and Sarah the child they’ve always wanted. His offspring, he is promised, will also be rewarded.

But Abraham had no thought of reward when he ran to greet those strangers. He acted out of instinct. It was his nature to be generous — especially to those he did not know. Indeed, many rabbis regard hospitality as the most sacred of callings.

Not everyone, however, is thrilled that religious leaders are using the Bible as a resource in this hot political debate. Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, a Republican opposed to legalization, warned pro-legalization believers that they should be cautious about using scripture.

“The Bible contains numerous passages that do not necessarily support amnesty and instead support the rule of law,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “The Scriptures clearly indicate that God charges civil authorities with preserving order, protecting citizens and punishing wrongdoers.”

One thing is certain: The Evangelical coalition has a way to go with its campaign to change the hearts and minds of congregants. A recent Brookings Institution poll indicated that white Evangelical Protestants were the least likely of all the religious groups surveyed to support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants; 56 percent were in favor of such an approach. Support was much stronger among Hispanic Catholics (74 percent), black Protestants (71 percent), and American Jews (67 percent).

But the pastor of First Baptist Orlando, the Reverend David Uth, knows the direction his church is heading in. In recent years, the historically white church has become home to immigrants speaking 32 different languages, with simultaneous translation of Sunday services into Spanish and Portuguese.

“The stories out there in the pews are stories of people from all over the world who have made friends and who have become close with people here,” Mr. Uth told the Wall Street Journal. “I think that’s why there’s movement in this church, there’s momentum, there’s an openness to try to do something to address their needs.”

The changing demography had a profound impact on at least one member of Uth’s congregation, Stewart Hall. A member of First Baptist for over 30 years, the 70-year-old began to change his views when he changed seats in his church. Something stirred him to sit in the pews near the back, where immigrants chose to gather each Sunday.

Like most human beings, people who regularly attend religious services are creatures of habit; even a seat change can be a big deal. It was a very big deal for Hall.

“Take me back 10 years ago, and I had this really hard outer shell about illegal immigration,” Mr. Hall told the Wall Street Journal. “Line ’em up and shoot ’em, and by that I really meant pack them up and get them out of here.”

The simple act of changing his seat worked miracles on his heart. “My walk with Christ has softened my view,” he added.

Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican leading the push for an immigration overhaul, welcomes the Evangelical activism. “Faith-based leaders help remind us that we are dealing with real human beings here with God-given dignity,” he said.

Does all this activism mean that being a good Christian or Jew means being in favor of a path to citizenship? Of course not. And will moving forward on a path to citizenship ensure conservatives political victories in the future? Certainly not.

But one thing is certain: If we who believe in free enterprise, the free exercise of religion, and limited government don’t get to know the large and growing Latino population in our country, they will never get to know us.

And the La Razas of this world — and the big government crowd — will own their hearts and minds permanently.

— Lee Habeeb is vice president of content at Salem Radio Network. Mike Leven is the president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Sands and a member of the Job Creators Alliance.

Lee Habeeb — Lee Habeeb is an American talk-radio executive and producer. He has written columns for USA Today and the Washington Examiner, and is a columnist for Townhall.com and National Review.

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