Jose Antonio Vargas, holding sign, in a scene from Documented. (Define American photo)
Jose Antonio Vargas, holding sign, in a scene from Documented. (Define American photo)

Diverse faith coalition — including Baptists — advocates immigration reform

Immigration reform advocates say they’re impressed with a broad-based religious coalition forming around the issue, but say there also needs to be more involvement from people in the pews.

By Jeff Brumley

Advocates of the rapidly growing immigration reform movement say they’re heartened by the expanding involvement of religious groups, which they say is key if Congress is to ever act decisively on the issue.

“The coalition is getting bigger and I think our goal ... is to get allies to stand up and come out with their support,” said Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented immigrant whose immigration struggles are portrayed in the recently released documentary Documented.

But Vargas, who is from the Philippines, said it’s time that visible support from faith leaders needs to be matched by the laity.

“I just don’t know what’s happening in the pews,” said Vargas, who’s Catholic. “How do we instill this issue with a sense of moral urgency that it kind of lacks right now?”

A central belief

Some Baptist leaders involved in the movement say the answer is for them to get members of their congregations talking about how immigration affects all Americans — documented or otherwise.  

That requires pastors to demonstrate to their congregations how the subject is a matter of faith.

“The whole issue of immigration is a central theological and justice-related topic that churches need to be on the forefront of,” said Joe Phelps, pastor at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. “It speaks to some of our central belief that all people are of equal worth in God’s eyes.”

Starting the conversation

Highland Baptist sought to drive that home Thursday night with the first-ever church screening of Documented before its wider opening in theaters today.

The event included a panel discussion led by Vargas, who came out as an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 New York Times story and founded Define American, a secular immigration reform advocacy group.

JoePhelpsMUG“This screening is one of Highland’s first efforts to start that conversation” within the congregation and among Baptist and other churches in the Louisville area, Phelps said.

But advocates say great progress has been made already in building a coalition of religious groups.

Coalition growing

In just the past year, denominations and other groups from around the theological spectrum have stood up to urge federal lawmakers to pass legislation to transform the nation’s broken immigration system. Even Baptist and other leaders usually opposed on other political issues agree there is a biblical imperative for change.

And they have been busy lately.

On April 22 a group of faith, business and law enforcement leaders met to discuss immigration issues with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Among them were representatives of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and the National Association of Evangelicals.

The Evangelical Immigration Table on the same day announced a group of Texas pastors, including several Baptists, will visit Washington on Monday for a “Pray for Reform” visit with members of Congress. The Texas pastors held a telephone press conference April 22 expressing a sense of urgency for legislation to bring change to the nation’s policies.

“We’re asking today for a better law,” said Chuck Padilla, a church planter and member of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “I have been able to minister to people that were deported and their children were left with neighbors — we need the immigrant here.”

The topic was also the subject of an April 15 White House meeting between President Obama and a small number of religious leaders, including Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter and ERLC President Russell Moore.

suzii paynterThe general superintendent of the Wesleyan Church and a high-ranking official with the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints also participated in the Oval Office meeting.

‘The Christian thing to do’

In a CBF press release, Paynter said it’s time Congress takes decisive action on immigration reform. “Congress has the tools to act and, as people of conviction, people of faith in the U.S. are in agreement that common sense measures can be taken.”

Those working full-time in immigration reform advocacy say it’s heartening to see the buy-in among religious groups — especially by those at opposite ends of the theological and political spectrum.

“Just last week you had Suzii Paynter in the White House sitting right next to a leader of the Mormon Church,” said Ryan Eller, a Baptist, Wake Forest divinity school graduate and campaign director for Define American. “In the 1980s that would never have happened, and yet both agree [immigration reform] is the Christian, moral thing to do.”

Fear of delay

The religious diversity is matched on the secular level as well, as business and law enforcement officials are joining the coalition for immigration reform.

And efforts are ramping up now that the end of the current congressional session is in sight, Eller said.

“The fear among those of us speaking out because of our faith is that if it doesn’t pass this year, we’re looking at probably another two years or more” due to the upcoming presidential election cycle.

Recent increases in deportations also are driving a lot of recent action on the topic, he said.

‘This fascinating thing’

Baptists of all kinds are making a strong showing in the movement, too, especially in showing the connection between immigration reform and the biblical requirement of welcoming the stranger.

“But we could be doing more,” Eller said.

And that would be by raising the level of interest and passion among rank-and-file Baptists to match that of their pastors, he added.

That was the idea behind showing Documented at Highland Baptist Church.

“If it takes a film to get everyone in the same room talking about this, then let’s show that film,” he said.

It comes down to helping more Americans see that immigration reform is not just about foreign-born people, he added.

“It’s this fascinating thing where people recognize the power of relationships and the importance of our nation as an immigrant nation.”