My Unexpected Meeting with the President of the United States
It was past 10 on a Sunday night in Spokane. The wedding was over and I was sitting in the hallway of the hotel in my pajamas reading my email by iPhone while my grandson slept in our dark room.
I saw an email from White House sent by a woman named Julie inviting me to meet that Wednesday with President Barack Obama and his senior staff "to discuss the moral urgency of passing immigration reform ... Please RSVP to me by no later than noon Monday ... "
This was a joke. Why would I get an invitation? I emailed friends in the Evangelical Immigration Table, and by Monday morning they confirmed it was real. How could I say no?
I found out later on Monday as we were flying home from Spokane that this meeting was to be a small gathering with the president, his senior staff and a handful of faith leaders in the Oval Office. I laughed out loud.
Once in Washington last week, I met Ali Noorani, the director of the National Immigration Forum, for coffee across from the Old Executive Building. He briefed me on the latest developments around immigration. But I still didn’t know why I was invited and who else would be at the meeting.
In walked Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church in Florida. We walked to the White House and joined the others, including Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Jim Wallis from Sojourners.
All of these leaders had national positions of power and influence within the evangelical wing of the church. They didn’t all agree on politics, but they all agreed on the six principles of the Evangelical Immigration Table, including a pathway to earned citizenship, not amnesty, and securing our borders. I was impressed by their unity, shared urgency, and mutual respect for each other.
We entered the Roosevelt Room, were briefed by Cecilia Muñoz, Melissa Rogers, and Valerie Jarrett, and after 20 minutes the conference door opened into a hall. At the door to the Oval Office was the president, welcoming each of us with a wide smile and large handshake. He knew virtually everyone by name, commenting on something personal about each one.
Inside was the vice president who shook my hand and said, “Great hair, Mike. Mr. President, if I had Mike’s hair I’d have been re-elected!”
We all took our places. I sat down directly across from the president. It was surreal. What am I doing here?
The president’s sole agenda: to pass immigration reform soon than later. “It will pass in a year or six months, but if it passes sooner there will be fewer who are hurt by our broken immigration system.”
We spent the next hour or so sharing our urgency to get this done. Each person spoke with passion on behalf of the millions each was mobilizing for this effort, from Catholic bishops to Southern Baptists.
I didn’t have the same influence or power, so I sat quietly, listening and learning from others. Yet everyone who encouraged me to make the trip told me to tell our story.
So with 15 minutes left, I raised my hand to the president. He pointed to me, and I began to share.
“This is very personal because of the relationships we have formed in the church, which are covenant, family relationships which means those children are not just their children, but they are our children.”
I described our engagement with the Hispanic community in North County San Diego over the past 25 years. We have had an Hispanic fellowship within our church and tutoring now for 180 children by 150 tutors through Casa de Amistad. We helped start Reality Changers, sending first-generation Hispanic students to four-year colleges (the secretary of education Arnie Duncan has visited several times).
We added English as a second language for adults, a citizenship class, and most recently the North County Immigration and Citizenship Center with two Department of Justice trained representatives to help our neighbors navigate legal citizenship.
I told the president how my board laughed the previous night when I told them I had a morning meeting in the Oval Office. But my elders and pastors prayed for me, and committed to praying for the president and our meeting.
“This is also a biblical issue for me. I’ve learned so much about the Hebrew word ‘ger’ or foreigner mentioned 92 times in the Old Testament.”
I shared about Abraham, Joseph, Moses (he named his son Gershom which means foreigner in a foreign land), and how Old Testament law says to love the foreigner in your midst because you were once a foreigner in Egypt. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were refugees in Egypt; Jesus tells us when we welcome the stranger, we welcome him; and Paul tells us as Gentiles we were once foreigners and strangers to the blessings of Israel, but we have been brought near to God through Christ. We are no longer strangers or enemies of God, but we are friends.
"And Mr. President, I just happen to be preaching this Sunday on the great story of Ruth. She was a refugee from Moab and attached herself to her mother-in-law Naomi. She was labeled with every vulnerability which scripture tells us God’s heart breaks for: the poor, the widow, the orphan, and foreigner. When Boaz buys the land and marries Ruth, his kindness gives her life back. He redeems her life. No longer defined by those terms, she becomes the grandmother of Jesse, David’s father, and the root of Jesus’ lineage in Matthew.
“And we are seeing children, students, and adults get their life back as we tutor, teach English, and help them gain legal citizenship. That’s why I’m compelled to be here this morning — to be a voice for those who have no voice in this issue.”
I finished, realizing I had taken the floor for five or six minutes. No one interrupted so I kept talking. This wasn’t about my golden ticket into the White House, this was about having the opportunity to tell our story to the president of the United States. I shared the story of what God is doing through the praying, serving, and giving, through saying yes in big and small ways toward our Hispanic neighbors.
The president said he had to go. Then he said, “Let’s close with a prayer. Russell, would you pray for us?” And the president reached out his hands to form a circle. The staffers joined in, as if they had done this before, and we all prayed together for the issue of immigration and those who are affected by it, for the president and for the Senate and the House as they debate and decide on this issue.
We left the meeting with handshakes, promising to continue our work and to pray for the president. “I can use all the prayers I can get,” he said.
I wondered why more of us don’t pray for the president and his staff. Scripture is pretty clear: “Pray for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:2) It doesn’t say pray for those you agree with or those you vote for, or to grumble and complain. Is it possible that we don’t live in peace because we don’t pray?
As we left I was still puzzled why I had been asked to the White House for this very personal, strategic meeting with the president.
I remembered too that I had one more task: get my assistant a box of White House M&Ms.
Julie, who sent me the invite, took me upstairs to get a couple boxes from her office. She is the one who sent me the invite from the White House and asked me, “How did you get involved in this issue as a pastor?”
“Immigration is new for me,” I told her. “What compelled me to lead in this issue was the day a young man told his story to our congregation.
“He came to our country when he as a young boy. He graduated college, became a leader in our Hispanic Fellowship and went on to a master’s in marriage and family therapy. He couldn’t get his degree with his papers so he was encouraged by our immigration center to apply for his DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).
“He received temporary legal status, got his degree, and now is working on his master's of divinity so that he can serve as an army chaplain. When he told his story our congregation broke out in applause. I knew that although we may have different opinions about immigration reform, our hearts are with Pedro.”
Julie said, “I read his story in your op-ed in the Union Tribune.”
Incredulous, I said, “You read my op-ed?”
“Yes.” and Julie began to tear up. “That’s why I wanted you in this meeting.”
Rev. Dr. Michael J. McClenahan is senior pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church in San Diego, Calif., and his passion is to lead the church to be an transformative community making a tangible difference in the world in Jesus’ name. Mike and his wife, Amy, have twin married sons and two grandsons.