Love Thy (Illegal) Neighbor
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:33-34)1
Last time, I covered approaching the topic of illegal immigration (specifically the recent surge of unaccompanied minors across the U.S.-Mexico border) with compassion rather than fear. Today I will discuss turning that compassion into action and what that looks like on a local level.
Fortunately for us and the general state of our democracy, churches are not required to check the IDs or passports of anyone that walks through the door. However, knowingly ministering or providing aid to illegal immigrants may or may not violate local, state, or federal laws, and any local church engaging in such a ministry should at least be aware of applicable regulations. That said, I’d like to put in a quick word on compliance.
We are all of us citizens of another place,2 ultimately subject to the one who is placed above all things. It is to his commands that we Christians are duty-bound in the end. Though we are subjects to and participants in the rule of this earthly nation, that is only a secondary citizenship; first and foremost we are citizens of heaven, and the laws of heaven supercede those of Earth when one contradicts the other. As John Piper notes, “Every time we say yes to any law, it should be a yes to Jesus.”3 We must be prepared, like the apostles in Jerusalem, to obey the Lord in heaven before any other:
“And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’” (Acts 5:27-29)
As I stated in my last piece, I don’t advocate flouting the law or anarchy or anything of the sort. However, I do believe that the question “Are your papers in order?” should remain at the very bottom of things we ask anyone who walks through the doors of our homes and churches. Questions such as “Are you safe?”, “Are you hungry?”, and “Have you heard about Jesus?”, in contrast, are Christian imperatives. As we’ll see below, Christians don’t need to always turn a blind eye to legal status, but there are other and more foundational matters to first attend. Let us ask the most important questions first.
So what does it look like to serve illegal immigrants? The answer for most churches is more than likely “just keep doing what you’re doing.” This is nothing radical. Many churches or connected parachurch organizations already provide food, shelter, job and life skills training, Bibles studies, and more as part of their charity mission. If your church supports these efforts (and it should), then be neither alarmed nor surprised that your church already ministers to illegal immigrants. By their very nature, mercy ministries draw in the needy who cannot or will not turn to state-run organizations. Addicts, alcoholics, petty criminals, the poor, the abused, and the illegal will show up. Your tithe already funds some of this. Consider donating additional time, money, or materials. In any case, be prepared to approach the ministries with a servant’s heart.
To learn more on the topic, I sat down with Edgar, the pastor of the Spanish-speaking congregation at my church, and asked him what he thought of ministering to illegal immigrants. He agreed that Christians should serve first and ask questions later (if ever), but added that, while he will not outright ask about congregants about their legal status, he is obligated to inform authorities in situations where the truth comes to light. For their part, he said, the sheriff department didn’t seem too concerned.4
He then told me of the time a pastor from Mexico visited the church and delivered a surprising admonishment to the Hispanic congregation. “Guys,” said the visitor in Spanish. “If you’re here illegally, you need to go back.”5 I was stunned. Edgar admitted he wouldn’t have delivered such a sermon himself.6 I didn’t expect a Mexican pastor based in Mexico to preach returning across the border. Our visitor had a point, however; when our feet are firmly planted in the Gospel, we must face these challenging questions, even when they threaten our comfort and stability.
For the largely comfortable middle-class American church, that means a readiness to embrace and serve the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. It means we have no legitimate excuse not to sacrifice our life of comfort for the sake of the less fortunate. For the Christian whose lifestyle takes him beyond the boundaries of law, it means prayerfully considering whether or not such a life is acceptable to God. I have no right to answer that question for my brothers and sisters, but I believe the trained believer will decide on the right answer with the help of the Holy Spirit.
What should the church do in the face of a surge in illegal immigration? The same thing she has always done. First, love God; second, love her neighbor; third, serve. In the natural course of ministering to those in need, God will raise new believers, and in turn these men and women will offer their lives up in worship. These Christians, no longer foreigners but brethren, will decide the proper course of action. As a church, we must equip them for that day.[hr] View Sources
2. Philippians 3:20.
3. John Piper. The Limits of Submission to Man (Minneapolis: Desiring God), Accessed August 16, 2014. http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/the-limits-of-submission-to-man
4. Edgar G. Interview by Chris Casberg. Madras Free Methodist Church, Madras, OR. August 10, 2014.
Photo by Cristian Franco under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.