Welcoming the Stranger: Immigration and G92

By Matthew Soerens 2-08-2012
Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/Washington Post via Getty Images.
Immigrant families are fleeing Alabama in the wake of the new law. Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/Washington Post via Getty Images.

Whenever possible, I plan my Saturday errands such that I’ll be able catch part of “This American Life” on public radio as I drive and I’ve often found myself sitting in the grocery store parking lot to hear the end of a story. 

One recent Saturday, the show’s theme — which ties together each of its non-fiction stories — was the biblical truism that “you reap what you sow” (Galatians 6:7), and most of the program was dedicated to examining the consequences — intended and otherwise — of Alabama’s controversial, toughest-in-the-nation immigration law, HB 56, which passed last June. 

Whether what is happening in Alabama as a result of this law — and, as the program reveals, a great deal is happening, even if most of us outside of the state aren’t paying attention — was the intention of the bill’s authors and supporters is not entirely clear. What is clear, from a Christian perspective, is that the effects are devastating. 

What most saddened me in the program was the statement of a young undocumented woman named Gabriella that, since the passage of HB 56, she finds herself unwelcome everywhere. “Even in the church,” she says, “you find people that… don't want to talk at you. And they don't want to give the peace to you.” (At the point in her Sunday worship service where the pastor invites the congregation to greet one another and offer a sign of Christ’s peace, Gabriella has found that some refuse to even shake her hand.)

My mind went to the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus appoints seventy-two disciples and sends them out in pairs to prepare the way for Jesus, healing and preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God (Luke 10:1-16). Jesus instructs them to go as strangers to each town and look for a person of peace who will welcome them in and offer hospitality. 

There’s no question where Jesus stands: “he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me,” he tells the disciples as he sends them out (Luke 10:16). Even Republican legislator Gerald Dial, who voted for and helped to rally others to vote for HB 56, admits that the bill does not align with Christian values. When asked, on “This American Life,” if he thought Jesus would vote for the bill, he says:

Gosh, you've asked me a tough question. I would hope that he would understand. I would say that, would he vote for the bill? Probably not. Probably not. If you just laid it all the way down, probably not.

Jesus makes his position on how to respond to strangers clear — when we welcome “the least of these,” he says, “you have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40) — but it remains to be fully seen how his Church in Alabama will respond. While leaders within some Christian traditions have been vocal in their opposition to the bill — the Methodist, Episcopalian, and Catholic bishops sued the state over the bill, with a particular concern over elements of the bill that they believe would criminalize their ministry—others, including many evangelicals, have been conspicuously silent. 

Tragically, some folks within the church, such as the fellow congregants Gabrielle has encountered, have made their disdain for these immigrants made in God’s image abundantly clear. 

There are signs of hope, though: evangelical leaders from throughout the state are gathering in a few weeks at Samford University, a Baptist institution in Birmingham, to consider how to respond to the issue of immigration — and, more importantly, to immigrants themselves — in ways consistent with biblical values.  Last October, more than a thousand students gathered at Cedarville University in Ohio for the G92 Conference, which takes its name from the 92 to references to the immigrant (in Hebrew, the ger) in the Old Testament.

The G92 Conference is now headed south to Alabama, bringing together evangelical leaders from across the political spectrum — from staunch conservatives like Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Republican Mayor of Uvalda, Georgia Paul Bridges to more progressive evangelicals like Sojourners’ own Lisa Sharon Harper — to gather with local pastors and students to think, pray, and inform a biblically-guided response. 

Please consider joining us on February 23: free registration is online at www.g92conference.com

Matthew Soerens is the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief and the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press). He blogs regularly at UnDocumented.tv, and he’ll be speaking at the G92 South conference in Alabama on February 23, 2012. 

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