A Call to Talk about Immigration

This year the Covenant Church takes time to explore a complex and polarizing issue

Liz VerHage is pastor of global and local ministries at Quest Church, a Covenant congregation in Seattle.

John Tanagho, a lawyer and member of Sojourner Covenant Church in Evanston, Illinois, left Egypt with his family when he was just a year old. They didn’t want to leave their home, but John’s father had been imprisoned for his Christian faith and they felt that they had no other options. His mother and father were both physicians, yet they left behind their profession, their church, family, and friends, and they came to the United States to find a new life.

Steven Larson, pastor of Redeemer Covenant Church in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, reports that 123 people in his congregation of more than 300 are either foreign born or have a foreign born family member. The church’s ministry team routinely works through issues of immigration with families, though he admits that it often feels like an uphill struggle. “Even though we have celebrated with many who have received their full citizenship, we have several who are currently caught in a bureaucratic nightmare. This is an important place that the church becomes a powerful advocate on behalf of our sisters and brothers,” he says.

Crying statue-wRecent North Park Theological Seminary graduate Evelmyn Ivens was born in Mexico and grew up in California where she attended a first-generation Hispanic congregation. She says that many people close to her experienced being undocumented for a season and wrestled with feeling invisible and not knowing where to turn. They lived in constant fear of being separated from their families.

These three stories only begin to scratch the surface of the complexities of immigration issues and their effect on individuals, families, and communities throughout the country.

As a pastor, parent, and chair of the Covenant’s Christian Action Commission, I am learning about the people, the facts, and the Scriptures that are part of the ongoing discussion of immigration reform in the United States. These issues affect millions of people, many of whom are brothers and sisters in Christ who are already within or connected to our churches.

I am learning about economic drivers that compel people to cross borders in order to feed their children. I’m learning about religious and ethnic factors that are often hidden from the headlines. I have heard stories of children on Chicago’s north side who came home from school to find their parents gone. They had been whisked away by officials, and the children were left alone without help or support or even a way to contact their parents.

I have learned that the idea that people should just get in line and come to the United States legally is a false concept. Those so-called lines don’t exist for many suffering, struggling, hungry, and persecuted people outside of the United States. If there were actually such a line, many immigrants would in fact gladly queue up, pay their fees, and do the paperwork, or work within the system for a reasonable hope of being able to come. But the current immigration system is so outdated that a huge swath of leaders in the United States – from CEOs of agribusiness to faith leaders, from the president of the Southern Baptist denomination to John Perkins, founder of the Christian Community Development Association – agree that we need to reform our laws.

Many folks agree that current immigration policy is creating a host of economic, emotional, and physical costs – but most of us do not know how to talk about this topic without feeling anxious about how controversial, emotional, and sometimes divisive such conversations can become. At our best, we in the church provide a unique place to listen well, learn alongside each other, and even change the conversation. When we study Scripture, soften our hearts to listen to each other, and humbly and honestly work toward being a witness on controversial issues, we serve not only the church but the world at large.

The Covenant Church has an opportunity to learn, listen, and act faithfully together, and the resolution on immigration is one tool aimed at helping the church do that well.

The commission introduced a draft resolution on immigration this past June at the Covenant Annual Meeting. The title “Toward a Resolution on Immigration – A Covenant Conversation” is meant to reflect the commission’s intent to open up dialogue and provide a place to talk, learn, and better understand this complex and sometimes emotionally charged issue. The world around us is talking about this topic – and we who are followers of Christ have to work hard, and be intentional, if we hope to have a conversation that starts differently and is shaped by different questions from those outside the church. Many faithful leaders and denominations from across the spectrum – from both stereotypically conservative and liberal groups, both evangelicals and mainline – are in agreement that our faith compels us to be involved in the topic of immigration and to engage it differently from the way the world does.

In the Covenant we begin with Scripture, so in addressing any ethical question we first ask, “Where is it written?” The first section of the resolution lays a biblical foundation for thinking about immigration. We look at texts that remind us to extend compassion and justice to the foreigner or strangers among us, remembering how the Jews were foreigners in Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:18) and that welcoming the stranger is like welcoming Jesus (Matthew 25:35).

The resolution then moves to a section that addresses the current context of immigration in the United States by examining the goals of obeying the law and protecting national security while also recognizing that the current system for legal immigration and preserving family unity is very difficult. The resolution then issues a call to the church “to be salt and light to the national discourse on immigration by asking distinctly different questions than those within the divisive secular debates.” We must listen to our brothers and sisters who are being affected by this issue. The conversation is different when we move from statistics to faces and names.

Our witness both within the church and in the world depends on our listening to Scripture and to our neighbors so that we can learn together, pray together, extend compassion and hospitality to others, and, finally, advocate and act on behalf of some of the most marginalized and unheard voices in our society today. This conversation will take work, but this work has the potential to bear much fruit and to be a place where the church can uniquely impact the conversation around immigration going on in the world for the good of our neighbor and for the glory of God.

Please read and respond to the 2013 Draft of the Covenant Resolution on Immigration here

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