Immigration a complex matter for border churches
They’ve seen the faces and speak the language of the people who slip across the border on a daily basis, said Miguel Zuniga, minister for the Hispanic congregation.
What’s more, they’ve visited churches in Mexico and have met the families illegal immigrants struggle to support. “It changes our viewpoint,” Zuniga said. “We are not less Christian, just more compassionate in this issue.”
In cities near the U.S.-Mexico border, Churches of Christ have members who are illegal immigrants and members who work for the U.S. Border Patrol.
But the immigration debate rarely receives mention from the pulpit.
“This is a not a church issue. It’s a state issue,” said Chuck Owen, minister for the Northside church in Laredo, who meets weekly with Zuniga for breakfast. The two recently discussed the meaning of Exodus 22:21: “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.” They debated whether or not the passage parallels the immigration debate.
Both ministers agree that Christians should support the laws of the land, but also “encourage our legislators to fix the problem,” Owen said.
Pending legislation in Congress and the recent deployment of National Guard troops to the border have heightened sensitivity to the issue in many congregations.
“The tension on both sides of the debate is much more tangible,” said Manuel Magos, minister and elder for the North County church in Escondido, Calif., about 50 miles from the border.
Magos, who helped a San Diego church launch a Hispanic outreach in 1987, said the controversy has created “more hope and yet more discouragement and confusion at the same time” for immigrant Christians.
“It is a challenge to be Christ’s representative in the middle of all this,” he said.
For some members of the Village Meadows church in Sierra Vista, Ariz., the immigration debate is a daily issue, minister Cecil Price said.
“There can be a ring or a knock at the door, and it’s someone trying to get some water, making the crossing,” he said. It’s a hard request to deny: In Matthew 10, Jesus himself urged his disciples to give those in need a “cup of cold water.” But the next step is tricky. Should a Christian set a place at the table or report an illegal immigrant to authorities?
“Our problem as Christians is trying to obey the law and yet show benevolence,” Price said. “These are people wanting the Lord, but these are people breaking the law.”
Like many other congregations near the border, the Central church in Yuma, Ariz., gives food and clothing to those in need — no questions asked.
“I want to conduct myself as a Christian,” said Lynada Hendrick, the church’s administrative assistant. But she acknowledges it’s upsetting to see her city’s hospitals and schools overcrowded with people who don’t pay taxes for the services.
“There are a lot of complicated issues — a lot of anger, too,” Hendrick said, adding that some of her church’s members are “very good people, but still here illegally.”
Mark Hoggatt, the church’s minister, said he’s baptized illegal immigrants and advised them to go through the legal channels to obtain citizenship.
It’s a hard lesson to teach, especially since many of the illegal immigrants come from Catholic backgrounds and are taught Liberation Theology, a philosophy that some use to justify breaking laws in pursuit of social justice for the poor and oppressed. Some Catholic priests even operate “underground railroads” for illegal immigrants, Hoggatt said.
His church provides for people’s needs, regardless of their nationality, but does not offer sanctuary for people evading authorities.
“It’s a tough call, but we expect people to obey the law,” he said.
Brian McCormack seems to be a living embodiment of the controversy, serving as deacon in charge of missions for the Sierra Vista church and field operations supervisor for the U.S. Border Patrol in Douglas, Ariz.
“As far as our congregation goes … we are probably just like most Americans — we are split on what is best,” McCormack said. “We have some members who see these illegal border crossers on a daily basis and who call the Border Patrol to report them. Other members just tell me about it after worship services.”
The Sierra Vista church supports missions in Papua New Guinea, Zambia, Australia and just across the border in Sonora, Mexico. McCormack said he feels a strong need to spread the gospel around the globe.
But many Christians — including those in the Border Patrol — struggle with mixed feelings about how people of faith should respond to the complex issue of illegal immigration, he said.
“I feel I am fulfilling God’s will in my life in the Border Patrol,” McCormack said. “He has used me to be a light of compassion to the people we apprehend everyday. I truly try to reflect the glory of Christ each day here at work.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING: Ted Parks.
July 1, 2006