By Alan Bean
An earlier post, Immigration and the Heart of God, was written for the event described in this article. The goal was to place the immigration issue on the agenda of the faith community. Friends of Justice has been part of this work for several months now and, in cooperation with like-minded groups and individuals, we plan to expand the scope of the Immigration and the People of God program described below. Lydia Bean’s comment captures the spirit of this work: “It is very clear this is something God cares about. Politicians always have their finger in the wind to see how it blows. Rather than trying to change the politicians, we’re trying to change the wind.”
By CINDY V. CULP
Local activists are encouraging Waco churches to join a nationwide effort that seeks to move the discussion about immigration policy from the political arena to church pews.
The effort kicked off this summer with a symposium that explored what the Bible says about immigrants and how Christians should respond. Held at First Spanish Assembly of God Church in Waco, it drew representatives from 27 organizations, most of them churches, organizer Manuel Sustaita said.
Now, the fledging group is encouraging pastors to follow through on pledges they made at the event, said Lydia Bean, another organizer.
Nine said they would preach sermons this fall related to God’s heart for immigrants. Others vowed to hold voter registration drives or host guest speakers to educate members about immigration issues, she said.
The group plans to meet later this month to talk about possibly hosting a broader community event, Bean said. But for now, the focus is on encouraging congregations to discuss immigration issues. That sort of grass-roots effort is the best bet for prompting meaningful immigration reform, she said.
“I think it is very clear this is something God cares about . . . Politicians always have their finger in the wind and see how it blows,” said Bean, an assistant sociology professor at Baylor University. “Rather than trying to change the politicians, we’re trying to change the wind.”
Bean and Sustaita — who is known to many in the community because of his role as founder of the Waco Vietnam Veterans Memorial — declined to publicly list the churches involved. They said they are sensitive to the fact that immigration policy is a politically touchy issue and want to let pastors approach it in their own time and own way.
But most of the churches involved are evangelical, they said.
The Catholic Church has long advocated immigration reform, Bean and Suistaita noted. So parishes here are already involved in the issue.
But the topic is only recently gaining traction in evangelical circles, Bean said.
In June, more than 150 such leaders signed a document calling for Congress to enact immigration reform that respects people’s dignity, protects family unity and provides a path toward legal status for immigrants, while still respecting the rule of law and securing the country’s borders.
Those signing the document included the heads of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, the General Council of the Assemblies of God, Focus on the Family and Prison Fellowship Ministries.
“Our national immigration laws have created a moral, economic and political crisis in America,” the document says. “Initiatives to remedy this crisis have led to polarization and name calling in which opponents have misrepresented each other’s positions as open borders and amnesty versus deportations of millions. This false choice has led to an unacceptable political stalemate at the federal level at tragic human cost.”
‘Welcome the stranger’
The local group is using materials from a Washington, D.C.-based organization called Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. It emphasizes Bible passages that exhort Christians to “welcome the stranger” and show compassion for all people, regardless of their country of origin.
The group is also getting help from an Arlington-based organization called Friends of Justice. Headed by Bean’s father, the Rev. Alan Bean, the group was formed in the wake of the 1999 Tulia drug sting debacle, in which dozens of people — mostly blacks — were falsely accused of buying drugs by an undercover police officer.
The organization now focuses on broader issues related to mass incarceration, including people locked up for immigration violations.
Pastor Frank Alvarado, whose church hosted the symposium this summer, said he is excited about exploring the issue with other local congregations.
Leaders of Hispanic churches have for years seen the heartache that comes from deportation and split families. But other churches here may not be as aware, he said.
“It’s something we can’t ignore,” said Alvarado, who in the early 1980s became the first Hispanic member of the Waco Independent School District board. “It’s a fact of life and it affects many people. I think, as church people, we’re to look beyond the political implications and see the social and moral needs of the family.”