September 11, 2007
One pastor’s perspective on the immigration debate—and immigration opportunity.
We are putting the finishing touches on the next issue of Leadership built around the theme of ministering to people on the margins. Isaac Canales, pastor of Mission Ebenezer Family Church in Carson, California, has sent us this provocative article about ministry among immigrants. We're posting it here first to hear your responses. Some of your comments may be republished with Canales' article in the October issue of Leadership.
I am a Harvard graduate and the son of immigrants. My story is not unique. In California, where I live, immigration has been an issue for decades. We've lived with it every day of our lives, long before it became a divisive political issue. In California, even our governor is an immigrant. But most immigrants here are not from Austria. Most, like my parents, came from Mexico.
Today's debate over "illegal aliens" is not new, but perhaps a bit of historical perspective will be helpful.
My mother was kidnapped by her father when she was four. He told his mother-in-law that he was taking his daughter to the market to buy her shoes. He never returned. Instead he brought my mother to Bakersfield, California, where he supported her by picking grapes, cotton, and fruit. Eventually, he became a naturalized American citizen and was proud of it. He bought a house with white columns and a wide porch. That is where mama grew up.
My father came across the Rio Grande and was an orphan by age eleven. He wandered from family to family, boarding house to boarding house. Freight train cars were his home for many years. At age 27 Papa experienced a powerful conversion and later attended the Latin American Bible Institute in Southern California. But before entering the school, he received a call from Uncle Sam.
Despite being an immigrant, completely undocumented and without naturalization papers, he was sent to fight in World War II. The Bible school sent Papa his first year's books to study while overseas. I still have them. My father glued them all together with egg whites into one big volume as he carried it to England, France, Belgium, North Africa, and then back home. Toward the end of the war, my father became an American citizen with hundreds of other soldiers in a massive swearing-in ceremony. He was always proud of his service in the army.
My father and mother entered the gospel ministry together. When I was a child, they founded two churches including the one I pastor today in Carson, California - Mission Ebenezer Family Church. Many of our members are immigrants. In the beginning they were largely Mexican. Now we see 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th generation El Salvadorian, Guatemalan, Columbian, Peruvian, and other nationalities represented.
My heart is thrilled as they share their testimonies of how God brought them to the United States in a car trunk, under a truck chassis, walking, swimming, or through tunnels. Many risked death walking through the desert. But they all came with God's help and with ours. I do not believe we are being politically defiant by helping them to the land of promise. This is our religious experience. The stories of faith they share make God real, and our mercy right.
In 1983, I was recently ordained, and our church was very small - just 23 people meeting in a tavern. One of our members, Sister Benny, would often disappear for a weekend to perform a secret ministry.
Benny was a Christian Coyote. A coyote usually charges immigrants a fee to bring them over the border and avoid immigration agents, but Benny did not charge. It was her way of serving the Lord. And she only transported babies that had been separated from their families in California.
Benny also had a practical reason for only transporting infants. She was a large woman, at least 380 pounds and only 5 feet tall. She always wore very large comfortable Hawaiian muumuus - red with white hibiscus, or pink with green palm trees and pineapples. Border agents never noticed the baby moving underneath. She brought many children across this way, under her dress or between her legs.
Benny, with the help of her husband Julio, reunited one family that was staying in my garage. The parents, Paz and Jorge, paid a coyote $2,000 to bring them and their older son across the border, but they had to leave their baby behind with his grandparents. So Benny retrieved their two-year-old from Mexico.
Of course, her ministry was not an officially recognized program of the church, but we were excited when she brought back Paz and Jorge's little boy. They pulled up to our house around 1:00 a.m. We woke our three boys. Paz and Jorge were waiting with us curbside. It was a wonderful time of prayer and thanksgiving to the Lord for bringing this family back together.
Nico and Chayo came to America from Oaxaca, Mexico. The elderly couple invited us over for dinner. They lived in a small one-room apartment divided by a wire draped with sheets clipped together with clothespins. This provided some privacy, parents on one side of the sheets, kids on the other. Ten people lived in one room. They were so excited to have us in their home.
We sat on their only two chairs. They stood as they proudly served us. They had a hot plate with two small burners. One had a little pot of coffee. The other burner had some corn tortillas. Little black blisters showed that the tortillas were ready. The dinner was very simple and served humbly and with love.
Nico took his sweaty work hat off and asked me if I would like to say grace. I said no. I wanted to hear him try a prayer since he had just recently given his heart to Christ. He prayed thoughtfully, carefully, and sincerely. Then they served us a small plate of the most wonderful beans, fried in bacon fat, and crispy hot corn tortillas with a cup of steaming coffee. That was all.
I remember thinking to myself, "Is this why you trained at Harvard?" The answer was a resounding, "Yes."
I remembered what Jesus said, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst." Jesus wasn't on the tortilla. But he was there in that sheet-draped apartment.
Nico and Chayo were illiterate. They signed the membership rolls at the church, proudly, with an X. I bought Chayo a New Testament on cassette, in Spanish. She memorized many passages. It was thrilling to watch her stand up during our testimony time and see her wince with bashfulness, smile shyly, close her eyes, and say a Bible verse. Chayo and Nico were faithful to the end. They're both in heaven now.
My years of ministry to immigrants has taught me many things, and has given me insight into many biblical lessons. The Old Testament teaches us a theology of welcome. From the very beginning, in the Torah, God says, "For the Lord your God is the God of gods . . . who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends . . . the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt" (Deut.10:17-19).
Paul carries this lesson into the New Testament. He reminds us in Romans that Israel had forgotten to embrace foreign cultures with the love of God. The worship of the living God had lost much of its evangelistic fervor in their hands. The mandate the church receives is to accept others as Christ has accepted us.
In other words God loves the immigrants among us, and we are called to love them as well. However unsettling this may be, it is the American church's mandate to embrace God's theology of welcome in Christ Jesus. Our task as a church is not to judge immigrants but to love them, to become the arms of Christ, not the hands of tyranny. This is our prophetic and Christian duty.
As we look around our diverse country we need to remember that God's intent is for all cultures and tongues worship in his house. We tell our friends that the kingdom of God is a big party with a pi?ata where all are welcome. But what kind of fiesta is it, really?
Is the kingdom for the documented only? At this fiesta are Asians in one room and blacks in another? Are the Pentecostals all crammed into the afterglow room, whites in the living room, and immigrants in the back?
Throughout our history there have been times when non-Christians see through our hypocrisy. They recognize that not everyone is truly welcome in our churches. These are times when we've worried about being politically right when we should be focused on being biblically correct.
The root of American evangelical hypocrisy is smugness; a historical inability to understand God's unfailing mercies for the immigrant, his unfailing love for the poor among us. If our sense of worth is measured by privatized religion and political culture - from our color, to our work ethic, to the neighborhoods we live and worship in - we remain independent of God and self-sufficiently smug. Christ cannot help us. We are not being his church.
So the question I ask myself, and pose to every pastor, is: Shall I build a church that isolates us from immigrants, or should I embrace God's story of welcome?
It is easy to raise a church with one culture, one language, one worldview. Anyone can raise up a large that is one culture. But building a church that includes the alien, the immigrant poor, can only be done with Christ. That is our biblical challenge and our biblical mandate.
Isaac Canales is pastor of Mission Ebenezer Family Church in Carson, California.