By Rev. Michael S. Mattar, Sr.
Church Planter/ Founder and Lead Pastor of Hope Fellowship Church
I recently had the opportunity to attend a 40-Hour Intensive Basic Immigration Law Training class in Orlando, Florida sponsored by World Relief. As MBA Language Missionary to our ethnic churches, I, along with our office staff, have received numerous calls wondering how immigrants could get assistance with immigration issues. I have spoken with many of our pastors and have found they are not knowledgeable about this topic and are unable to assist the immigrant population in their churches and communities. Due to the lack of knowledge and resources, MBA is in the process of compiling materials/contacts to assist pastors and their members with these immigration issues.
The major intent of this article is to initiate a Christ like and civil conversation in our churches that will challenge our Pastors to be intentional servant evangelists and be connected to the changing communities around us. Immigration is one of the most controversial topics we face in our society today. The immigration crisis is tearing the social fabric of our nation in ways that are far easier to rend than they are to mend.
I don’t have all the answers to the topic of immigration. In fact, I’m quite certain no one has all the answers to this topic, not even our Federal government.
When Pastors and their leadership are intentional in engaging in Christ like and civil conversations about immigration, they can gain a better understanding regarding immigration issues. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 says, if we do not have love at the core of our thoughts, words and deeds, then we are nothing and we’re accomplishing nothing. However passionate you feel about any issue, the primary passion we ought to feel and be guided by is love. Without that, whatever you have to say about an issue is merely noise—a clanging gong and crashing cymbal.
We are a nation of immigrants — whether our ancestors came early or late. As Americans, we should always have room in our country for those who are willing to embrace the American dream and the ideals that both inspired that dream and define it. The time to forge a fair, just and compassionate consensus on this issue is now. Not having all the answers is certainly true for our topic for today—immigration. The research I’ve been able to locate on the topic of immigration has revealed some of my ignorance on the issue and heightened my awareness of the complexity of the issue.
In approaching this topic, there has been along the way an ongoing sense that in some ways and to various degrees of application there are political or governmental related issues and church related issues.
In other words, the government has a certain role and responsibility regarding the issue and the Church has a different role and responsibility. That may be nowhere more true than in the topic of immigration. There are things to review from a government perspective, and things to review from a Church perspective.
Generally, I would say this regarding the topic of immigration:
1) All of us can agree that something must be done. What we’re doing now about immigration isn’t working. Something different must be done.
2) Government is limited on what it can do. Even the very best of government has its focus on what it must do and its limitations on what it can do.
3) The void that is created by that limitation is the place where the Church has an important role. It is, if you will, a separation of Church and State not along ideological lines, but practical ones. The government can only do so much. The gap that exists is a place for the Church to move. So, let me separate those out for a moment.
First, some brief thoughts about the political or civic side of the issue. To begin with, we have to admit we are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are Native American, you are the product of immigration. And while it is true the issues and impact of immigration are not universally applicable to all times and places in our history, it is instructive to remind ourselves of some of that history. For example, if you are of German descent, you might be interested to know how many looked at and felt about immigrants back when Germans first came to the United States. In his day, Benjamin Franklin was no different from how many feel today about immigration. Franklin worried about the impact of German immigrants on his beloved Pennsylvania and wrote about it:
“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them?” Franklin worried about their language and even questioned their intelligence toward learning English and becoming good citizens. Sound familiar? Familiar also to us are the attitudes and treatment of Irish immigrants in the 1800’s and, later, Italian immigrants in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s. Again, the issues related to that time and place are not totally applicable to today, but are worth noting. At the very least, we ought to keep that in mind as we talk about immigration today.
One issue that seems universally applicable to immigration regardless of time and place are the compelling reasons leading to someone seeking to immigrate: poverty, famine and persecution. It was famine that drove the tribe of Jacob to Egypt. Persecution drove Joseph and Mary to bundle up their newborn baby, Jesus, and head also to Egypt. Religious persecution brought thousands to risk the hazardous journey across the ocean and seek a new life in the new world known as America. The potato famine in Ireland in the early 1800’s brought about the great Irish immigration to America. Issues of poverty in Italy similarly brought the Italian immigrants to America in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The issues of poverty, famine and persecution remain the primary issues today causing someone to seek to immigrate to the United States.
The question, of course, and major controversy concerns illegal immigration to the United States. While illegal immigration has always been a concern within the entirety of immigration history, it has become a particular boiling point today. Romans 13:1-7, makes it abundantly clear that God expects us to obey the laws of the government. The only exception to this is when a law of the government forces you to disobey a command of God (Acts 5:29). Illegal immigration is the breaking of a governmental law. There is nothing in Scripture that contradicts a nation having immigration laws. Let me remind you though, that not all illegal immigrants entered this country illegally. Some immigrants became illegal when their ‘status’ expired. Many found in this situation try to find ways to either renew their status or change status to become legal again.
Now, regardless of how you feel about the immigration issue, particularly illegal immigration, I think we can all feel some anguish for people who find themselves in the desperate situation of poverty and famine, sensing no alternative but to cross the border into America in hope of finding work and bringing their families with them, only to be discovered and separated from them.
There is much, much, much, more to be discussed about the issue of immigration. I hope you’ll take the next step in the conversation by attending the upcoming forums scheduled for Spring of 2013 and participating in the conversation.
What I’ve been talking about up until now, is primarily related to civic issues and government. Our government must evaluate and explore solutions to this problem. What I want to emphasize concerns the response of the Church—which in some ways is unrelated to the Government Issue.
There are compelling Scriptures regarding the treatment of the alien or foreigner in our midst. Leviticus 19:33, 34 for example. Among the whole series of laws contained within Leviticus, there is this: “When foreigners reside among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Psalm 146, in listing all whom the LORD loves and cares for includes these words: The LORD watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow” (146:9a).
And the classic and familiar words of Jesus in the 25th chapter of Matthew ought to give us pause as Jesus describes his welcome of the righteous into his heavenly kingdom because they fed him when he was hungry, clothed him when he was naked, gave him water to drink when he was thirsty, and when the righteous ask when exactly they did that because they don’t remember seeing Jesus that way, Jesus responds “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”
After all, as people of faith, we are called upon to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39) and do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12). We are instructed as Christians to meet the needs of those who are suffering (Matthew 25:31-36) and to give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name (Matthew 10:42). The story of the Good Samaritan informs our spiritual obligation to reach out to those in need of assistance (Luke 10:30-37) and to treat the weak and vulnerable with kindness (Micah 6:8; Malachi 3:5-6).
I want to suggest to you that however you feel about the issue of illegal immigration, we can agree on these things.
1) An unprecedented opportunity for the church to be intentional in reaching the most vulnerable. Great opportunity to intentionally reach immigrants with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It’s time to think ahead…what might your church be called to do? Are there large numbers of immigrants in your church, or your community? Immigrant churches are the fastest growing segment of the growing Evangelical church in the U.S. Serving immigrants is a wonderful way to minister and spread God’s kingdom. What might your church be called to do?
2) Ask, encourage, and demand our government determine a just and humane way to address immigration. I’m not sure what that looks like and we may not agree on the solution worth trying, but I believe we can agree, as brothers and sisters in Christ, that the solution must not only protect the interests of the United States and its citizens—which is the role of government—but also be just and humane.
3) Let’s continue our English as a second language to immigrants, provide civic training to those with green cards (Permanent Residence) to help pave the way to citizenship and establish immigration legal aid in your church to help this growing population in our communities.
4) That the Church fulfill its role as God’s servant in the world and seek to love and care for the foreigner in our midst; providing water when we discover them thirsty, clothing when naked, food when hungry, shelter when they are exposed and vulnerable. Advocate in a civil way for an appropriate and humane civil response, and in the meantime love the foreigner in your midst, the least of these, for that is what God calls us to do.
Let’s continue this heart-to-heart conversation on Immigration by calling me with any questions.
Rev. Michael S. Mattar, Sr.
Church Planter/ Founder and Lead Pastor of Hope Fellowship Church
Montgomery Baptist Association