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Immigration Reform Becomes
Personal for Evangelicals
BY ADELLE M. BANKS ©2013 Religion News Service
or Southern Baptist Pastor David Uth, immigration reform became a priority after a family in his Orlando, Florida, megachurch faced deportation.
Bishop Ricardo McClin says it was time to speak up when members of a Church of God congregation he oversaw stopped worshipping in Jacksonville, Florida, because they feared detention.
Religious leaders--and especially evangelicals--say personal encounters with the current system have prompted them to advocate for reform.
"We've sensed in our church this growing understanding that immigration has a face," said Uth, pastor of First Baptist Orlando. "It has a name. It has a story."
A recent poll shows white evangelicals are less supportive (at 56 percent) than other religious groups of allowing immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to become citizens. But leaders say there's been a sea change in the last couple of years as they hear about church members being detained or deported and the effects of those measures on their families.
The Evangelical Immigration Table has mounted a six-figure campaign that includes Christian radio ads, distribution of more than 100,000 bookmarks urging congregants and members of Congress to read Bible passages about "welcoming the stranger" and plans for an April 17 lobbying day in Washington.
McClin, a former district supervisor for the Tennessee-based Church of God, said a predominantly immigrant church in Jacksonville shut down after going through ups and downs in attendance by fearful worshippers.
"One Sunday there's a service, we had 80, 100 people," he recalled. "And the following Sunday there would be nobody."
"I can't pretend that everything is going to be OK because of faith," said McClin, now a pastor in Kissimmee, Florida. "Faith has to be put to work."
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, a longtime advocate for immigration reform, said personal experiences are what have driven many non-Hispanic clergy "off the fence."
"This is now a Christian issue," said Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "It's not a political issue. It became a Road to Damascus moment."
In January a broad network of churches -including mainline Protestant, historically black, Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical and Pentecostal leaders -- issued a statement calling on Congress and the president to improve the laws.
"Each day in our congregations and communities, we bear witness to the effects of a system that continues the separation of families and the exploitation, abuse, and deaths of migrants," declared Christian Churches Together in the USA.