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Immigration issue shouldn’t derail ministry, Hispanic leader says

MIAMI (BP)–In a sprawling complex near downtown Miami, Iglesia Bautista Resurreccion is, in the words of its pastor, Augusto Valverde, a “church stuck in the middle” of a looming immigration crisis which demands a response from the greater Christian community.

With an estimated 300,000-700,000 illegal immigrants in the state of Florida alone — and Miami boasting a population of more than 60 percent legal and illegal immigrants — the church must “show the love of Christ in practical ways” regardless of a person’s legal status, Valverde said.

“Not only is the immigrant stuck in the middle, the church is stuck in the middle” in dealing with how to respond to the social, legal and spiritual implications, the pastor said.

At Resurreccion, Valverde told the Florida Baptist Witness that the church is about 99 percent ethnic, with about 70 percent being Cuban-Americans who face the least difficult hurdles in becoming American citizens by virtue of the wet/dry foot policies which allow them to seek political asylum as soon as they enter the United States.

Continuing to reach second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans has prompted Valverde’s church to begin an English-speaking mission for those who might feel more comfortable worshiping in English. Otherwise, Resurreccion is Spanish-speaking.

The other 30 percent of the congregation is made up of both legal and illegal immigrants of other Hispanic backgrounds, Valverde said.

“Believers and the church have a spiritual and biblical responsibility with any person in society that they are called to minister to,” Valverde said. “Be it they are people who are legally here or illegally here.”

Citing the biblical story of the Good Samaritan, Valverde, a native of Argentina, said Resurreccion has an ongoing ministry to provide food and clothing to families in need and, through a network, will place families with others who will share their resources with them until they are able to support themselves.

“Initially it may appear that you are enabling them, but in the meantime they don’t have other resources,” Valverde said. “The very environment or laws have overlooked them or allowed them to operate within society.”

Valverde said the church does not encourage illegal behavior but offers on-site help once a week through a member who is a lawyer who assists the immigrants in trying to work through legal proceedings and helps them weigh whether they should return to their country of origin.

“We understand there is a difficult legal issue,” Valverde said. “Every person who is illegal here obviously has to face the law or face legal proceedings. We don’t ignore that and that’s a reality that has to be confronted.” In the end, however, Valverde said the church must reach out to Anglos, Hispanics, African Americans or any group that needs to receive the love of Christ.

“All the people … need to be clearly told and understand that God’s love and Christ’s love is there for them and for their families — and the church is the one who can express that.”

Valverde, who is also the president of the National Hispanic Baptist Fellowship, will present a paper prepared by fellowship leaders during their annual meeting June 10-11 in Greensboro, N.C., prior to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting there.

The draft being circulated asks that forgiveness be extended to illegal immigrants who have lived productively and peaceably in the United States.

“What we are presenting is simply a biblical response to undocumented people and the church’s opportunity to respond at this moment,” Valverde told the Witness. “There’s no other hidden agenda or cards to be played.”

Mark Fischer, pastor of First Baptist Church in Hialeah, said he doesn’t believe anyone’s citizenship status is his business.

“We minister to people, whoever the need. Do we have people who are most likely illegals? Yes,” Fischer said. Immigration “is a political issue in our country, but in the Kingdom of God, it is a people issue.”

A former International Mission Board worker in Ecuador, Fischer has been in Hialeah nearly seven years. He described the church as fully bilingual, “a family church where we are not divided by language.”

Recognizing statistics show that more than 60 percent of the community speaks Spanish, Fischer said the church offers English as a Second Language classes and help for people in learning to navigate the complex immigration process.

Uniquely poised in what Fischer called the center of the Hispanic world, considered the “Ellis Island” for Cubans, Fischer said he believes the immigration laws as they stand offer little “parity of equality” for various ethnic communities.

“What we are doing is just trying to be the family of God to whoever and whatever [as] God opens the door of opportunity to us,” he said.

As an immigrant who came to America when he was 7, David Lema told the Witness the issue is up-close and personal for him, so much so that when he is confronted by an immigrant family, he automatically reaches into his billfold to extract a $50 bill kept there for the express purpose of offering it to buy shoes for their children.

The grandson and son of Cuban pastors, Lema does not easily forget being exiled to Spain after his father was imprisoned in Cuba in the 1960s and later emigrating to the United States where he was sworn in as a citizen in New Orleans when he was 12.

“At the time we came to this country, America was the land of opportunity,” Lema reminisced. “We dreamed of coming to America. In Spain, all they talked about was everything in America was better than anywhere else in the world. The gum was better, the sheets were better, the shoes were better.”

Lema, associate director for theological and distance learning for the Florida Baptist Convention, recalled studying for the citizenship test and then standing before a judge to gain U.S. citizenship.

Going home to celebrate with his mother, father, brother and sister, Lema said he won’t ever forget what followed.

Asked to step across the street from where his father was pastor of a Spanish-speaking church to the English-speaking congregation, Lema said the congregation applauded while his family walked up to the platform where the pastor handed his father an American flag folded into a triangle.

“‘To us, this is a sacred symbol,’” Lema recalled the pastor’s words. “‘And now it will be also to you.’”

Calling immigration an issue which must be expressed in political terms, Lema said the church must not lose sight that this is also a social issue -– defined in terms of people and relationships.

“And the minute you do that, then you understand that it goes beyond and becomes a spiritual issue,” Lema said. Speaking of solutions, Lema said people should not be so overcome by the problems that they don’t advocate “just” solutions.

“We’ve lost the prophetic perspective of the church,” Lema said. “When you have to face the reality of people that need Jesus, I don’t care what we have to do. To come and say, ‘Here is the Gospel, it is only presented in English’ … that’s not the way we have been brought up to think as Christians.”

Mindful of sending the right message, Lema said Christians cannot afford to harbor any prejudice toward any type of immigrant, legal or illegal.

“As Americans, we have to stand for what we believe in, and we believe in freedom and so we have to stand for freedom not only in Iraq, not only in other countries, but for freedom in the United States,” Lema said. “As Christians and Americans, we cannot violate human dignity. These people have to be treated in a dignified fashion. They have to be treated with respect.”

Lema said he believes Congress and President Bush must take on the responsibility of providing for national security but should do so in a way that takes into account the complexity of the problem.

Meanwhile, there is a huge opportunity for Christians to reach out, Lema said, pointing, for example, to a new church start in New Orleans where workers helping to rebuild the city are being presented with the Gospel.

“To take 12 million people and look at them with contempt just because they don’t have a stamp on a little paper, to me, is hard to fathom in this country,” Lema said. “I can see it in Cuba or a totalitarian government. I can see it anywhere except here.”
With Emanuel Roque translating for Augusto Valverde.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan