Evangelical groups are planning a major campaign to sell congregants on immigration reform, arguing that the Bible offers theological support for aiding the undocumented population.
The Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical churches and organizations, say the new “I Was A Stranger” program will ask pastors to educate their flock about the Old and New Testament’s calls to aid outsiders, especially Jesus’ own sermons on the topic. Leaders say that Scripture’s recurring concept of the “stranger” in need is synonymous with undocumented immigrants today.
“It’s not just about being nice to immigrants or respecting them, though we should,” Dave Gibbons, pastor of California’s Newsong Church, told reporters on a conference call Monday. “When we do this, we’re actually serving Jesus himself.”
According to organizers, the EIT’s member groups encompass over 100,000 evangelical churches around the country, giving them a wide audience for their message.
“We believe this is going to have a significant impact,” Noel Castellanos, CEO of the Christian Community Development Association, told reporters on the same conference call. “It’s the largest such campaign ever taken by evangelicals around immigration.”
While evangelicals and their representative organizations typically swing conservative on issues like abortion and gay rights, immigration is an exception and Democrats are counting on their help to pass a bill providing legal status for undocumented immigrants. Pastors told reporters on Monday that the evangelical community’s increasing emphasis on immigration reflected the same demographic trends driving politicians, labor groups, and business towards reform. Simply put, their churches have a lot more immigrants in their fold. A significant and growing minority of Latinos in America now identify as evangelical.
“Our churches in the last five or six years have become much more ethnically diverse,” Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent of the Wesleyan Church, said. “This is a conversation we probably would not have had ten years ago.”
Lyon recounted how her congregants, many of them undocumented immigrants, wept after she told them the church was a “sanctuary of God” that did not care how they entered the country. Other pastors described becoming more interested in reform as they discovered congregants’ personal economic and family struggles were often complicated by their immigration status.
Evangelical churches aren’t the only ones reaching these conclusions. Mormon leaders have broadly endorsed reforming immigration as well, in part due to the rapid growth of Latino LDS members. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has also backed calls for reform.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.