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Pastors speak up for immigrants in D.C. visit

WASHINGTON (BP) — Mega-church pastors joined other evangelical Christian leaders on Capitol Hill to speak up for some in their own congregations on the same day legislation was introduced to repair the country’s flawed immigration system.

The spokesmen — including Southern Baptists David Uth, a Florida pastor, and Richard Land, head of the convention’s ethics entity — participated April 17 in the Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform. They addressed reporters outside the Capitol only hours after a bill crafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators was introduced.

During the day, about 300 evangelicals visited more than 60 congressional members’ offices to urge them to pass broad immigration reform this year. Many also participated in two worship services held at a nearby church before and after the Hill visits.

Uth, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando, said his role and that of other pastors and evangelical leaders is not to draft legislation but “to come alongside those who do; it’s to encourage them; it’s to pray for them.”

“And that’s why we’re here, because we believe they can come together and they can be committed to a reform that not only respects the unity of the family and the deep role that the law plays but that also has compassion, because we see the brokenness, the vulnerability of these people,” Uth said at the news conference. “They have no voice. I see it every weekend, and I wonder who is hearing their story. I’ve heard their story. And so I’m here to tell their story and to ask that something be done.”

First Baptist Church in Orlando has at least 32 original languages represented in its congregation, Uth said. Eight different language groups meet regularly on the weekend at the church, he told Baptist Press. About 1,000 Hispanics attend services at the church, which has about 16,000 members.

During the last 18 months, the members of First Baptist have become more aware of the needs of undocumented immigrants in their midst. In recent months, they have read a daily Bible verse for 40 days from the “I Was a Stranger Challenge” sponsored by the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).

“They realize now this issue has a name; it has a face; it has a story,” Uth told reporters.

Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, told reporters the congregation’s leaders had learned over time that about three-fourths of the nearly 1,000 Spanish-speaking people worshiping at the church weekly are undocumented.

As leaders, they studied the Bible, finding it said to welcome warmly the strangers and immigrants and “serve them with Christ-like love.”

“The Scriptures, however, teach as well that the laws of the land must be honored unless they are broken so badly that they must be fixed,” Hybels said. “I’m in Washington today with a deep conviction that our immigration system has been in a state of disrepair for far too long, leaving millions of people in an unsustainable state of limbo and fear.”

EIT, a coalition of evangelical leaders that supports broad immigration reform, has called for a solution that:

— “Respects the God-given dignity of every person;

— “Protects the unity of the immediate family;

— “Respects the rule of law,

— “Guarantees secure national borders,

— “Ensures fairness to taxpayers;

— “Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.”

The EIT participants who spoke at the Capitol did not endorse the newly introduced Senate bill, especially since they had not had time to study it, but said they would judge it based on the coalition’s statement of principles.

“This will be the template that we’re going to apply to any legislation and to any amendments that are offered,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, told reporters, “What we’re saying is: Here are our commitments, and we want any legislation to reflect that.”

Growing numbers of evangelicals have called for immigration reform during the last two years.

In 2011, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix, Ariz., approved a resolution on immigration reform that called for the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and holding businesses accountable in their hiring. It also requested public officials establish after securing the borders “a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country.” It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.

The enforcement failures in the current immigration system have resulted in an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States illegally.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).