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By Bekah McNeel 7-22-2018

The feast-and-famine nature of national media attention paints an inaccurate picture of the role of immigration in South Texas. In cities like McAllen, Laredo, El Paso, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and Houston, an often unseen rivulet of migrants trickles constantly, passing between detention centers, respite shelters, bus stations, airports, and neighborhoods in between.

For many faith communities, immigration assistance and activism are part of their regular ministry. The Catholic Church’s Archdiocese of San Antonio has become a vocal advocate for immigrants throughout the community, and many mainline denominations facilitate donations and volunteer efforts for asylum seekers. San Antonio Mennonite Church, pastored by John Garland, made headlines in 2016 when it took in 500 women and children after a chaotic release from nearby detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas. While rarely that dramatic, the church regularly shelters immigrants who have been released from detention without a bus or plane ticket in hand.

Travis Park United Methodist Church in downtown San Antonio has a history of social and political activism. On a recent Tuesday night, Pastor Eric Vogt hosted a screening of the film The Genesis of Exodus produced by the Presbyterian Church (USA). The rudimentary documentary follows the path of migration through the voices of the migrants themselves.

“We’ve been reflecting on migration and exile in the Bible and in our lives on Tuesday nights, seeking to mobilize our people to respond to the current crisis with the kind of welcome we believe God has given us,” Vogt said. “This film helped us, by listening to the stories of refugees and aid workers, to grow, as someone in the film said, our sensitivity and solidarity.”

On the far north side of the city, Covenant Baptist Church of Garden Ridge Pastor Natalie Webb agreed to take in two mothers waiting to be reunited with their children. Four hundred family reunifications were slated to take place in San Antonio, but parents were not told which day or time. They needed places to wait in the meantime. For the past couple of years, Webb’s congregation had been volunteering with a local interfaith ministry that arrives at the bus station and airport to welcome immigrants released from detention, and the congregation regularly prays for immigrant families.

After the mothers were reunited with their children, the congregation “roasted the fatted calf” in celebration, Webb wrote in a pastoral reflection on Facebook.

“There were no prodigals,” Webb wrote to her congregation, “but I couldn’t help but think of that story as I walked through this week with these mothers – grieving the absence of their children, facing hurdle after hurdle, disappointment after disappointment, then finally embracing their lost children and not wanting to ever let go.”

Hearing these stories, one might think the entire city of San Antonio was united in its response to immigration. Of course, it is not, and as the family separation crisis flared, many pulpits remained silent.

Chad Belew, pastor of The Arsenal, a non-denominational church south of downtown San Antonio, understands the pressure to keep a low profile on political issues or run the risk of alienating his congregation. But he also believes that silence is deadly, spiritually speaking. He quotes a paraphrase from one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

When the family separation crisis caught Belew's attention, he rallied a team of church members to drive to the border to see how churches there were responding, and to see if his church could help. In San Antonio, he joined a coalition of faith leaders in opposition to the family separation practice, and in support of relief efforts.

That level of engagement is relatively new to Belew, who grew up in what he calls a “very church-going, white, conservative family.” While his time in the military gave him an appreciation for diverse views and cultures, he went on to serve in churches in areas of town that looked and sounded a lot like his own family. That changed in 2017 when he was called to pastor The Arsenal, a rebirth of a suburban evangelical church that dissolved a few years ago. The original congregation was a stark contrast to the people in the neighborhoods surrounding the school gymnasium where they now meet.

As The Arsenal began to mix with the more racially, economically, and politically diverse neighborhood it served, Belew realized God might be calling him to get more involved in the cares and concerns of the people around him — whether they ever came to his church.

As his convictions have deepened, he has found himself more and more compelled to action.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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Chad Belew, pastor of The Arsenal in San Antonio

Bekah McNeel, Sojourners: Tell me about your journey and how you think about the church’s relationship to current events and humanitarian issues.

Chad Belew: Now that my eyes have been opened [to the concerns of the people around me], I read Jesus’ words and Paul's writing, and it's kind of hard not to see the humanitarian issues. It's hard to look at humanitarian issues and not see that the first part of that word says “human,” and see other people as exactly that— humans.

Sojourners: Have you felt a tension between what's expected of you and the way your conviction is telling you to pastor?

CB: I have personal convictions, but I also can't push my personal convictions onto other people just because I have a job title of “pastor.” So the navigating of it is very, very tough at times, because there are convictions and things that I firmly believe, and even times when the gospel dictates what our lives should look like. But those convictions are not a driving force for people to do more or to work more. I’m calling on who they are now as new creations.

I do think we have to be involved [in the world], but it's not to prove anything to anybody. It’s not to get, you know, any more blessings, or any more “jewels in our crowns.” It’s just because I believe that Christ’s love, through us, brings kindness to the people around us.

Sojourners: Why do you think evangelical leaders in particular hesitate to bring up certain topics, even if they themselves might feel pangs of compassion?

CB: As an evangelical pastor in the U.S., I think we've been told this line of staying out of politics, of separating church and state. We use it to protect ourselves.

You know, we might say that we want to be about the gospel, we want to be about Jesus, and everything else will kind of play out. I mean, if we’re being honest, you know, a pastor makes their living essentially from the people they get to come to the church … which is a whole other thing that we could talk about. But, I mean, there's a fear there. What might happen if I make a statement where half my congregation doesn't agree?

Many Americans treat church as a consumer-driven industry, and that does make it tough to make statements that could turn people away. And we're in San Antonio, Texas. There's a church on every street corner. It's very easy for a consumer who doesn't like what you're bringing to the table to go next door to another church that may provide them with what they're looking for.

But the risk of being silent is that there are people inside and outside our church who, I believe, look to the church to offer a moral standard. I don't believe that Christianity is [essentially] a moral law that we live under, but I do believe that as people look at the church, they are looking for an answer to their questions about morality. So the risk of being silent is you're not giving an answer to a question that is being asked. If you're not giving the answer, somebody else has to answer the question. And they may not answer it in the way that you would you would want them to.

Sojourners: You mean when people look to politicians to tell them right from wrong?

CB: (shrugs and laughs)

Sojourners: Can you give an example of how you have pastored your congregation through a tricky political issue?

CB: So, I mean, we can talk immigration. Immigration is one that's happening right now. If you polled my community, we would have both conservative and liberal and everything in between. And people who don't know who they are. I mean, it runs the gamut. But as I focus on topics like immigration, I focus on the human factor. I'm not asking you to pick a political side, but I want you to look at this from a people perspective. I'm just talking about loving people. So if somebody has come to our country — however you want to describe it, legally or illegally — while they're here, I'm going to love them. You know? If somebody comes into my home and is hurting, I'm going to take care of that person. All I ask is that when we have these conversations, we’re looking for how we can love people.

Sojourners: Do you think seeing issues through a “human” lens can change people’s politics?

CB: I think it can. It's never my hope, I mean, I'm not here to change your politics. I’m just here to introduce you to Jesus. As you get to know who he is more, you get to find out who you are.

I heard a friend one time say that Jesus would be too liberal for my conservative friends, and too conservative for my liberal friends. When you really start understanding the gospel, you realize that it's not a partisan gospel. It's all-inclusive, and it’s about God loving us. So it can change your politics. Especially on issues that deal with people. Absolutely.

Bekah McNeel is a freelance journalist living in San Antonio, Texas. She reports on education, immigration, and inequity. In addition to local beat reporting, her work has been published with The Christian Science Monitor, The Texas Tribune, The Hechinger Report, and the 74 Million. She can be found on Twitter at @BekahMcneel and on her blog at www.bekahmcneel.com.

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