Enough of the “Nice Age”: Why Faith Communities Ought to Be at the Forefront of Advocacy for Immigrants

I love my faith community. But, in a lot of ways, we’re too safe. Granted, we are not unlike any number of faith communities populated by kind, caring people who genuinely desire to worship their Ultimate Concern and to live a life consistent with that Ultimate Concern. However, our “safe-ness” means the endangerment of others. When we become “safe,” we stop being a safe place for those who need sanctuary from cruelty.

The kind of safety that I believe faith communities in the United States (most often, the ones in which the majority of congregants hail from the middle class) are oftentimes guilty of adopting is a failure to speak out and take action on political and humanitarian issues. We support the economic empowerment of women in the Congo, but in doing so, we are not disrupting the status quo in our own world. We denounce human trafficking, but in doing so, are we really at risk of offending anyone who might contribute to our attendance or coffers? We stick to the “well-of-course!” subjects and do not touch the ones that would alienate potential members or cause our communities to acquire a reputation for having any particular alignment or stance on modern-day controversies.

I am guilty of this, too. As a progressive (“liberal,” depending on who you are asking) in a more conservative congregation, I understand that I am expected to respect the official teachings of my community and to refrain from explicitly stating my dissenting beliefs. This is the burden I carry as a representative and staff member of my worship community. However, I hide behind my fear of sanctions from my church (which, I must add, have never been as much as threatened, even though many in my congregation are aware of some of my dissenting opinions). I want to voice my opinions on Facebook and mobilize the youth I lead to lend their brave, strong voices to human rights debates and causes. But I, too, give in to the pressures to “be safe,” to protect myself and my own interests and comfort. This safety always comes at the expenses of others.

The issue I feel it incumbent upon me to write about today is that of the current debates, actions, and injustices concerning undocumented immigrants. I live in Texas. My church houses a Spanish-speaking congregation and has an explicit commitment to ethnic inclusiveness, and the youth program I facilitate has built a partnership with a neighboring apartment community with a large immigrant population. I have no doubt that we have welcomed undocumented immigrants into our building and probably count some amongst our membership. But without a formal statement of love and concern for the immigrants in our country, our churches devolve from the sanctuaries and resources for care and transformation they are intended to be to intimidating bastions of inscrutable intent.

At times, our faith communities focus on personal holiness and ignore the systemic issues that prove so polarizing in our society. We seek to be a place welcoming of everyone and alienating to no one. Those who advocate this stance might say that we need not explicitly articulate that our church stands and struggles with undocumented immigrants seeking asylum in our countries and opposes the current broken process for residency and citizenship, the present deportation actions, and the dehumanization and criminalization of immigrants. Instead, our actions of kindness, welcoming, and care for the undocumented immigrants whom we encounter in our midst speak louder than any statement we could make. I wish this were true. Unfortunately, this may prove true only for the brave immigrants who dare enter our church doors and reveal their status in this country. The Christian Church is still firmly encased in our own four walls, bound in by a world we are afraid of, protecting our own interests while those outside wait longingly for us to go to bat for them.

Our silence is voting for us, and it is voting in favor of the deportation of over 2 million men, women, and children. We are voting to maintain an inefficient and unjust system in which 11-12 million undocumented immigrants reside in the United States each year, but only 800,000 receive citizenship. Our silence supports a system in which these immigrants spend on average between 5-10 years (with those from Mexico taking the longest) in the United States navigating the citizenship process after becoming a legal resident. Our silence advocates that this system in which we can legally separate families and rip children from their homes is a faithful response to the edict to care for the widows and orphans, to bear one another’s burdens, and to love our neighbors. Currently, a young lady in the Dallas area is working on her husband’s behalf to secure for him citizenship. He was deported as a high-school student and is not permitted to enter the United States or progress in the decades-long citizenship process because the law has determined that the separation of a husband and wife does not indicate a great enough burden. She has said that they have been tempted to have children just so that they have a stronger argument in the eyes of the legal system. How can our faith communities remain silent in light of this? How can we look the human face of immigration in the eyes and not be moved to invite these desperate people into our communities, to share our resources, and to contribute to our lives as well?

Finally, I urge faith communities to reject the use of Scripture to support obedience to political figures and law makers simply because of their positions of authority. Instead, let us please follow in the footsteps of the likes of Moses, Rahab, Cornelius, and Jesus Christ, all of whom not only welcomed the stranger into their midst but openly rebelled against the laws and powers that ruled in their contexts. After all, an unjust law is no law at all.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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5 thoughts on “Enough of the “Nice Age”: Why Faith Communities Ought to Be at the Forefront of Advocacy for Immigrants

  1. Faith communities have, for too long, been the “finger in the dyke” of a national culture that’s lost its way. Great article calling us to work for greater systemic change.

    Law and policy needs to start with values that are so well understood by faith communities. It’s time to speak truth to power – starting with the question “how do we get all kids to bed safe, fed and warm?”

  2. The further down the path of spirituality I travel, the more total Truth and Righteousness challenges me in all I think, say and do. ‘Love one another’ cannot ever be redefined. How can we lucky and blessed westerners who own our shelter, choose what we eat, plan our holidays and don’t want to live happily with less say we are walking our spiritual talk? How do we live and be so that others may also have food, shelter freedom and the right to happiness?

  3. Joni,

    Thank you for your comment and affirmation of the article. I am encouraged to see that there are some faith communities who are engaging in public policy work and recognizing that apoliticism is not only inappropriate but is also and more essentially impossible. However, I worry that some of the attempts I’ve seen of late by faith communities to speak out with and for the marginalized in our society seem a bit…sensationalistic. For example, I’ve heard of certain groups getting arrested, which I’m not at all against – if what they are being arrested for is germane to their protest. But they are getting arrested for avoidable things and then claiming that their arrest is a courageous act of solidarity on their part. I worry that we as persons of faith, broadly speaking, can’t come up with ways to effectively engage in social and political activism.

    Then again, our pastor delivered a great sermon today about the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel. I do believe – I want to believe – that we are not dead in terms of faith-based social action but are just dry bones, in need of receiving a life-giving spirit to empower us and help us relinquish our egos and comfort zones.

  4. Pamela, excellent insights. I appreciate your words and challenging questions. That is the question, isn’t it? How can we cling so tightly to that which we have and withhold the same from others while simultaneously claiming to follow the Way of loving one another and laying down our lives for our neighbors? I’m baffled by the justification of such inconsistencies and contradictions. I would add one point to your very well-made ones: that which we “own” and cling so tightly to (at the neglect of others’ needs) may have been gained on the backs of the very ones we are excluding from these lifestyles of plenty. We individuals may not consciously participate in oppressive practices, but we are probably all guilty of having shopped at a big-box store that pays its employees less than a living wage or subjects them to poor working conditions, have purchased items manufactured and distributed under the Free Trade Agreement that permits the unjust payment and treatment of workers outside the U.S., or have failed to speak up for policy change affecting the Two-Thirds World or to vote for legislation in our own country that would redistribute wealth.

  5. Wonderful article, Haley! I wish this could reach not only the faith communities, or those who are interested in politics. The border crisis doesn’t just impact innocent immigrant children, border town American citizens, and politicians. This issue is a challenge that impacts us on a national level as well as on an individual level. Without a united invested interest and effort towards a comprehensive plan, we will all be affected in our financial well-being, economic future, political landscape, and access to current services, not to mention the moral debate that is at hand. If we can define the issue appropriately and accurately while using our available resources, we can have international implications to potentially set a world-wide model for immigration reform, and on an even greater level, a precedent for humanitarian care. Thank you for being brave enough to take a stance with this unpopular, but right, message. As I learned in my field of work years ago… It doesn’t matter where we live, what the laws are at the time, or who says what is allowed or not… Abuse is abuse is abuse.

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