“And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. ”
— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I’m a white southerner, ordained Baptist, and have built a career over the past decade working on a broad spectrum of projects in the civic sector. In that time I’ve been blessed to lead and work on some of the most prominent issues of social change throughout the globe. Whether it was working on funding for our veterans, organs for kids who need transplants, better schools and public transit, justice for Trayvon Martin, freedom for the Wilmington 10, or on political campaigns — I’ve had the opportunity to help grow and lead some of our nation’s largest and most vital organizations. Now, inspired by those in our generation who choose to dream instead of choosing despair, I’ve stepped out on faith to join the immigration reform movement. I hope you’ll pledge to join it as well.
I first learned about the challenges immigrant communities face as lead organizer for the faith-based organization, CHANGE, in Winston-Salem, N.C. In my work with immigrants there, I learned from a dear friend that his wife and child had been killed in a car accident. He searched for two weeks before he found them, all because they had no identification. I heard from fellow ministers about “random” police checkpoints outside predominantly Hispanic churches on Sunday morning. It was dangerous for my undocumented brothers and sisters just to go to worship, a right so many of us take for granted or neglect in favor of sleeping in. These are just a few examples of why so many immigrants in the community desperately need IDs, and, of course, immigration reform.
We know the biblical stories well. Jacob flees famine and Pharaoh welcomes his immigrant family. The Israelites find their way to the Promised Land after exodus from oppression. Joseph and Mary escape to Egypt with their newborn son, Jesus, because the paranoid and jealous King Herod wanted to kill the infant. Yet, there are contemporary narratives equally as rich that we should come to know. These are the stories of those whose pilgrimage leads them to become a stranger in our land. As Christians, we should stand with our immigrant neighbors and pledge our support for them as they pledge their allegiance to our nation and it’s future. In how we are to treat one another, through community and the policies our community adopt, there is a clear biblical imperative.
In Dr. King’s sermon “A Time to Break the Silence” at the famed Riverside church, he proclaimed, “Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy.” Opposing our government’s current immigration policy may not come easily. But, our country is at a critical crossroads, and the very spirit of our nation is on trial. Yet again, we’re faced with “the fierce urgency of now.”
The very spirit that drives our country is carried most prominently throughout history by those who come to our land seeking freedom, and an opportunity to help build a “city on a hill.” I am an American — not because I was born here, or because my ancestors came in the mid 1700s to this land (none of whom had legal papers), but because I believe in what our nation can be as a light for liberty in the world. We haven’t always shone that light brightly, yet through the darkness of colonization, slavery, and now an immoral immigration system in policy and practice, the light for liberty has marched, sometimes painfully, onward. Now, we’ve got an opportunity to let that light shine even brighter in our day.
I left the broad-based organizing space and roles in some of the largest and most comfortably supported organizations in the nation because white, southern, patriotic, people of faith like me must join this movement alongside those who have worked for freedom for many years. I joined this movement because it’s time that we Define American, in words, values, and action. Now you can join the movement too. This week, as we seek to honor the life and ministry of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us embrace the fierce urgency of now yet again.
Rev. Ryan M. Eller is the Campaign Director for Define American. Eller lives with his wife Rev. Laura Barclay in Louisville, Ky.