The Common Good

G92, Immigration Reform, and a Letter from a Birmingham Jail

1962. Photo by Ernst Haas/Getty Images.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., surrounded by supporters at a rally in Birmingham, 1962. Photo by Ernst Haas/Getty Images.

February was Black History Month. I ended it pressing for Immigration Reform in the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement.

When I landed in Birmingham, Alabama two weeks ago, it struck me that I was on my way to Samford University — the flagship University of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). It struck me that the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest evangelical denomination in the country and among the most conservative. It struck me that Alabama used to boast that it had the harshest Jim Crow laws and law enforcement during the Civil Rights era. Now it boasts the harshest anti-immigrant law in the nation.

Passed into law on June 9, 2011, HB56 criminalizes Alabamans’ daily associations with immigrants who cannot prove their legal status. Giving an undocumented immigrant a ride can result in criminal arrest. The legislation also prohibits all businesses (including schools, the water company, and the telephone company among others) from conducting business transactions on any level with anyone who cannot prove their legal status. Tens of thousands of Latino families fled Alabama within weeks of the law’s passage. Businesses closed, schools lost huge percentages of their students, and vegetables were left to rot in the fields.

I was in Birmingham to speak at the G92 South Conference, a one-day conference for students and pastors hosted on Samford’s sprawling campus. G92 is a reference to the 92 times the Hebrew word Ger is used in the Bible. Ger means stranger or sojourner. The conference began last autumn at Cedarville University in Ohio. It is now being replicated on Christian college campuses across the country. Samford University was the second campus to agree to host the conference.

The night before the conference convocation, several of us conference planners and speakers went to a nearby Mexican restaurant for dinner. Our blonde waiter took our dinner orders as we downed chips, salsa and guacamole. As we walked away from the table, it hit me — all of the waiters in this Mexican restaurant were white — with blonde hair. I wasn’t the only one to notice. We looked back toward the kitchen and saw that all the cooks were white too. We scanned the restaurant. There was only one Latino couple in the entire restaurant. HB56 happened here.

Over the course of G92 South, Southern Baptist students and pastors and other attendees were challenged by the example of immigrants in the Bible like Abram, Joseph, Moses, Jesus, and Paul, among others. They were challenged by the commands of God concerning immigrants, such as Leviticus 19: “When a sojourner resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the sojourner. The sojourner who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the sojourner as yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” In light of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13, which call for obedience to governing authorities, and Romans 12 which calls believers not to be conformed to the ways of this world, students were called to ask the first and most important question about laws: “Is it a good law?” “Does this law conform to world or does it conform to the mandate of God to love God and love your neighbor as yourself?” Students dialogued with two student immigrants; one documented, one undocumented and, as a result, were exposed to details about our broken immigration system that set some back on their heels.

For example, many did not know that the reason so many Mexicans have flowed across our southern border since 1985 is because of policies put in place by President Reagan and exacerbated by President Clinton’s NAFTA agreement, which increased trade between the U.S. and Mexico. Increased trade would have been good, but America’s highly subsidized corn put corn farmers in Mexico out of business. They couldn’t compete with America’s artificially low prices. Thousands of farmers and their families lost everything, moved to the cities where there was an already weak safety net. The bottom fell out and people could no long afford to eat. Our government policies are a large part of the reason Mexico’s economy has tanked over the past 30 years.

I was the last speaker in the Student Track. My session was titled “What Next? Mobilizing for Immigration Reform.” By the end of the training, students’ heads were bowed and their first act toward social change was personal repentance. Students and faculty prayed prayers of repentance for seeing immigrants as people created to serve them. They repented for satisfaction with apathetic hearts. They repented for not reaching out to see how they could serve their immigrant neighbors in this great time of need. It was beautiful.

Five-hundred Samford Students experienced G92 that week. They witnessed the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Dr. Richard Land, as he read through the Southern Baptists' resolution to call for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently reside in the U.S. They heard him compare the current HB56 law to similar proposals made in congress in 2007, during the Bush Administration's push for reform. They heard Dr. Land compare the 2007 proposals to the Fugitive Slave Laws of the antebellum south.

And as a result of it all, the students and faculty of Samford University are now mobilizing for Immigration Reform. They are planning to bring me back to conduct a longer training for their students and possibly to speak in chapel.

I am flashing back, once again. I recall the days of the Civil Rights movement. How amazing would it have been if Samford’s Southern Baptist students had joined the little black children who filled the Birmingham jails back in 1963? How beautiful would it have been if Samford’s faculty and students answered Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail and it’s apology for why the Black community can’t wait for justice any longer, with the resolute reply: “We can’t wait either!”

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Perhaps then the Samford students and faculty and those from other Christian colleges across the country who will host G92 between now and then will finally be able to answer King’s call. Perhaps after a year of local trainings and community-based mobilizing, they will be able to join their voices with the chorus of immigrants, who used to be their neighbors. And perhaps they will offer this resolute reply: “We can’t wait for comprehensive immigration reform either!”

Let it be so.

Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.

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