By Alan Bean
While politicians apportion blame for the thousands of unaccompanied Central American children arriving at our border, the faith community looks for ways to help.
I over-simplify, of course. We confront a complex tangle of rhetoric and response, and there are plenty of exceptions on both sides of the politician/people divide.
Not all politicians want to send these unaccompanied children back to the chaotic violence that brought them to our border.
A few weeks ago, I heard Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins announce that we would be welcoming at least 2,000 “border children” to our community. Jenkins told the crowd that 85 percent of these children would be released into the safe keeping of family members as soon as they were processed by immigration officials, but the remaining 15 percent needed a safe place where they could receive food, shelter and basic services. Last week, I attended a religious gathering hosted by a prominent Baptist megachurch at which Jenkins repeated his message to a room dominated by evangelical Christians.
On both occasions, the audience responded with a mixture of enthusiasm, surprise and relief. It felt so strange to hear a politician speaking from sheer conviction. Jenkins knew his initiative would be controversial, but when his own children asked him what he was going to do about the kids being warehoused at the border, his faith forced the issue. He knew what Jesus would do, and didn’t dare take the opposite position.
And then there’s Texas state representative David Simpson, a telegenic Tea Party conservative with a cowboy hat and a smile. Simpson outraged his constituency last week by urging a compassionate response to the border children. “I don’t believe in treating people who’ve crossed the border as a murderer,” Simpson told a town hall gathering dominated by anti-immigrant activists. “I do think there should be a path, a legal path, for naturalization or citizenship. We’re a nation of immigrants.”
Like Clay Jenkins, David Simpson is taking his cue from his religion. He quoted Proverbs 20:28, Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and Leviticus 19:33, passages that call for compassionate treatment of resident aliens, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Unfortunately, Jenkins and Simpson are bucking the political consensus. The prevailing view is that we should send the children back to their homes without delay even if we have to rescind the 2008 William Wilberforce Act to do it.
The Wilberforce Act passed in the dying days of the George W. Bush administration, thanks to the tireless efforts of an unlikely coalition of conservative and liberal organizations. President Bush welcomed the legislation and it enjoyed the enthusiastic support of evangelical Christians. Immigrant children from Central America were being targeted by human traffickers and backers of the Wilberforce Act wanted the abuse to stop.
Six years later, Washington is on the verge of scrapping the bill. No one anticipated tens of thousands of children fleeing north to escape violent drug gangs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Why should we care whether the children huddled in our detention centers are being forced into sexual slavery or into the drug trade? Children are children; pain is pain.
Prominent politicians on both sides of the ideological divide are holding their hands over their ears to block the elegant logic of compassion. These kids fled their homes because they feared for their lives and only in America can they be protected. But Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Boehner and both Democratic and Republican candidates for Texas governor want to toss the children back into the fire.
But the tide is turning. You can feel it. Last week, rallies were organized across the nation to protest the compassionate treatment of the border children. In some localities only a handful of protesters showed up at these events, and in many cities proponents of compassionate immigration reform outnumbered anti-immigration people two or three to one.
And the surprises just keep coming. Glenn Beck, the conservative firebrand, organized a caravan of provisions for the border children a few days ago. Beck feared his followers wouldn’t like the idea (they didn’t), but his heart forced his hand.
And then there’s the conservative curmudgeon George Will, telling the Sunday talk shows that America should welcome the border children with open arms.
“We ought to say to these children, ‘Welcome to America, you’re going to go to school and get a job and become Americans. We have 3,141 counties in this country. That would be 20 [children] per county. The idea that we can’t assimilate these 8-year-old ‘criminals’ with their teddy bears is preposterous.” Sure, Will is taking a lot of flak for his outspoken views, but I suspect he is buoyed by a tangible shift in the public mood.
Much of the credit for changing hearts and minds on this issue goes to conservative Christians. Recently, a contingent of Southern Baptist leaders and Roman Catholic bishops toured the overcrowded immigration facilities at the border. Speaking at Parkhills Baptist Church in San Antonio, Russell Moore, the outspoken president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, pared the issue back to its theological core:
“As a follower of Jesus Christ, I recognize the answer to this question is going to be very complex politically and very complex socially. But what is not complex is the truth and reality that every one of these children are created in the image of God, and every one are beloved by God and they matter to God. That means they matter to us.”
The tidal wave of compassion is building deep in the heart of Texas. Cindy Noble Cole, a Dallas nurse, saw televised pictures of frightened children housed in what appeared to be dog kennels. So she filled 50 hygiene boxes for the kids and delivered them to Catholic Charities of Fort Worth. What began as a simple “this is what I’m doing” post on Facebook, quickly blossomed into Operation Matthew 25, a movement that has already sent 500 boxes of hygienic supplies, blankets, activity boxes and school supplies to the border.
I first became aware of Operation Matthew 25 when scores of Facebook friends replaced the usual glamour shot on their homepage with a little picture that reads, “I stand with refugee children: they are children.”
The folks highlighted above are all over the map politically and theologically, but they understand the elegant logic of Matthew 25: “Inasmuch as you did it unto these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.”
The growing people/politician divide on this issue is driven by a simple fact: politicians are running on fear; most people, when they’re sane and centered, are running on faith.
Compassion for the stranger and the alien is central to Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious teaching. Jesus opened his public ministry with a quotation from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to preach good news to the poor,” and he closed out his public ministry with the parable of the sheep and the goats. In the kingdom of God, Jesus says, many who are first will be last and the last will be first.
Distracted by politics and our ubiquitous culture war, Christians frequently lose sight of this teaching. But then we have all these children on our doorstep, and the words of Jesus come flooding back to us. And when that happens, we do what must be done.