May 13, 2010
Segregated Churches and Immigration
The immigration debate is an opportunity we can’t afford to waste.
The national debate (or is it an argument?) about immigration has provided a huge opportunity for churches to proclaim and demonstrate the Gospel to an anxious country. However, rather than responding with courage and grace, many of us have either kept silent or responded in fear, nervous about an unknown future. Three recent stories reveal the weight of this cultural moment and show why churches need to engage the issue with increased wisdom, mercy, and justice.
On April 23, Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed into law the broadest anti-illegal immigration legislation in the country. The legislation has been celebrated by some and strongly opposed by others, because it instructs police to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.
Also in April, Alabama gubernatorial candidate Tim James released a television ad that quickly propelled him from YouTube sensation to a guest on The O’Reilly Factor. The ad promises to administer driver’s license exams only in English. “This is Alabama, we speak English,” the candidate says. “If you want to live here, learn it.” James claims his ad is not about immigration, but many are wondering who the “you” in the ad is if not non-English speaking immigrants.
Finally, on May Day, thousands of people—50,000 in LA, 25,000 in Dallas, and 10,000 in Chicago—gathered for rallies and marches calling for comprehensive immigration reform. Protestors carried signs like, “Fight Ignorance, Not Immigrants,” “I am not an alien,” and “Reform Not Raids.” Many of these protestors know well the hazards of even appearing to be an undocumented immigrant in America these days.
As the percentage of non-white people in America continues to grow, stories like these will only become more common. Many people accustomed to life in the majority are looking for ways to protect their “values” and “way of life.” Their reactions have been exceedingly painful and personal for many immigrants.
In a recent Time article, “The White Anxiety Crisis,” Gregory Rodriquez traces this current fearful upheaval to America’s history of privileging some and oppressing others based on race and ethnicity.
As much as Americans pride themselves on the notion that their national identity is premised on a set of ideals rather than a single race, ethnicity or religion, we all know that for most of our history, white supremacy was the law of the land. In every naturalization act from 1790 to 1952, Congress included language stating that the aspiring citizen should be a “white person.” And not surprisingly, despite the extraordinary progress of the past 50 years, the sense of white proprietorship—“this is our country and our culture”—still has not been completely eradicated.It is this “anxiety crisis” that I believe is causing many majority-culture churches to miss the opportunity to proclaim and demonstrate the Gospel at this unique historical moment. Unfortunately, much of American Christianity shares the nation’s history of privilege and segregation. So while the nation is in the throes of an ethnic identity crisis, most churches are silent at the very moment when our Gospel witness could be unmistakably heard.
Too harsh? Perhaps, but consider the missed opportunities to represent God’s boundary-breaking love to immigrants, whether or not they entered America legally. The undeniable need for comprehensive immigration reform does not cancel God’s repeated command to care for and protect the “aliens living among you.” Consider what might happen if majority-culture churches lavishly expressed the love we receive from Christ to our immigrant neighbors.
And it’s not just our recently arrived neighbors who would notice this kind of proactive compassion. Imagine the response from an increasingly cynical and post-Christian culture. During a recent interview on our local public radio station, the host was pleasantly surprised to learn that our church was advocating for immigration reform. This clearly wasn’t his expectation of evangelically-minded churches and his intrigue—“You believe the Bible is true and care about immigrants?”—was almost comical. Situations like these provide opportunities to explain our Gospel-motivation.
Thankfully, there are signs that fewer of these opportunities will be missed in coming days. Welcoming the Stranger (InterVarsity Press, 2009) by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang is stirring up productive conversations in churches around the country about practical ways for majority-culture Christians to wisely engage this issue. Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels recently interviewed Soerens on his Defining Moments broadcast, demonstrating the significance of this cultural moment to thousands of pastors around the country. And earlier this year the National Association of Evangelicals issued a position paper calling for the reform of the current immigration system, including the challenge that, “immigrants be treated with respect and mercy by churches.”
There is no question that we live during a time of instability and change, and it is understandable that those used to living within the majority culture will respond with anxiety. But anxiety is a poor substitute for the sacrificial love, humility, and courage available to the follower of Jesus. I hope we will look back on these days as the time when the fear-defying Gospel of Jesus was exhibited to immigrants and skeptics alike.