A Call to Love the Immigrant
by Samuel Rodriguez
The Optics of 21st-Century Christian Compassion and Immigrants
As we contextualize 21st-century American Christianity, we must apply Kingdom optics that will enable us to properly view our surroundings with Christ-centered and Spirit-filled compassion.
Our nation currently exhibits a dramatic transformative shift in its demographic landscape. This requires strategic deliberation for a Kingdom-culture multiethnic outreach. By mid-century, for the first time, America’s population will be, as it pertains to ethnic composition, majority nonwhite.
The recent immigration debate has removed the graveclothes from an entire segment of our populace. This exposes an unprecedented opportunity for outreach and evangelism that will transform the face of Christianity in America.
From Wall Street and Madison Avenue to Washington, D.C., American corporations, politicians, and leaders understand the potential embedded within the immigrant community, especially the thriving Hispanic-American community. While corporate America engages Hispanic consumers, and political operatives recruit Hispanic voters, the church stands ready to reap a Hispanic harvest.
Historical suppositions that exclusively limited the necessity for outreach to immigrant population to churches in California, Texas, Florida, New York, and the Southwest, no longer apply. Today immigrants live in communities from North Dakota to Wyoming, from Maine to Alabama. As a result, any church committed to a viable 21st-century growth matrix must include an immigrant outreach strategy that includes compassion ministries.
Demographic realities and sheer numbers demand that the church engage this community. Let us consider the statistics. According to the 2010 census, the Hispanic population — at 16.39 percent of the U.S. population — is the largest minority group in the country.1 With over 50 million members, this community exemplifies future growth capacity made evident by the fact 75 percent of Hispanics are under 40 years of age and 34 percent are 18 years or younger. According to the 2010 census, 27.6 percent of the U.S. population (including Hispanics) is of ethic origin. (See sidebar United States Population by Race: 2010).
By 2020, the Latino population will total roughly 102.6 million people or 25 percent of the United States population. The future of American Christianity, evangelicalism, and the next great harvest lies in the Hispanic and immigrant community, whether or not we reach out with compassion.
Vertical Empowerment for Horizontal Outreach
A clear and practical articulation of a biblical worldview based on the message of the Cross will empower compassionate outreach to the immigrant. Why the Cross? The Cross represents the quintessential platform from which to do ministry.
No other symbol incorporates passion and promise like the Cross. A simple symbol depicting two pieces of wood — one vertical and the other horizontal — successfully brands the eternal hope of glory to all mankind.
Vertically, we stand connected to God, His kingdom, eternal life, spiritual truths, divine principles, and glory. Horizontally, we exist through community, relationships, family, culture, and society.
Far too long people have lived either vertically or horizontally, but few, even in Christian leadership, have succeeded in living and ministering from the place where the vertical and horizontal planes of the cross intersect — the nexus of Christianity, compassionate evangelism.
To reach the lost in a multiethnic, digital world, we need a church committed to the vertical and horizontal. We need a church committed to saving the lost and transforming communities; addressing sin and confronting injustice, pro-life, and pro-poverty alleviation; ending religious persecution and human trafficking. To fulfill the biblical mandate to make disciples, the American church must intentionally exercise compassionate outreach to fulfill the Great Commission.
Compassion Ministries, Immigrants, and the Undocumented
In spite of the demographic shift, there exists some trepidation within Christian ministry concerning immigrant outreach. Some ask, “How do you reach out to a community that includes undocumented individuals? Are there legal ramifications or obligations as we render services to these individuals?”
First, the church carries a biblical imperative to reach all people. Christ admonished us to make disciples of all people while simultaneously reminding us that we can only measure the viable execution of His Word in how we treat the most in need: “ ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ ” (Matthew 25:40) We can trace biblical mandates to engage in compassionate evangelistic outreach to Leviticus 19:33,34: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as a native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
Carlos Campo, president of Regent University, addresses this concern via the lens of the prophet Isaiah: “The undocumented are surely the poor wanderers of our day. Pastors have a moral duty to respond to them as they would any other brother or sister in need.”
Albert Reyes, president of Buckner Services, believes that pastors and churches that reach out to the immigrant in essence deliver the same redemptive outreach exhibited by the Good Samaritan.
Today’s American immigrant may represent the most alienated and rejected segment of our society — today’s least of them. As with many of today’s divisive issues, Bible-believing Americans carry a moral and biblical responsibility to offer facilitative platforms that activate the ministry of reconciliation. Evangelicals and Christians committed to spreading the gospel must incorporate prophetic witness that heals communities, ushers in peace, and exalts righteousness and justice.
As we engage in compassion ministries, we must not allow the issues that fall under the purview of the federal government to distract us. Pastor Daniel DeLeon of Santa Ana, California, captured the spirit of outreach when he declared, “When I stand at the church to receive people, we don’t ask them what their legal status is for we are concerned with the heart and not the card. In addition, we are not officers of the government; we are servants of the Lord.”
To that end, the Kingdom metric of Christian witness lies within the rubric of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God. Our mission is to fulfill the Great Commission, equip the saints, make disciples, and worship God in Spirit and in truth. Let Uncle Sam enforce immigration laws while we embrace a church that reaches the lost for Christ.
Risk management and liabilities
If we exercise the biblical mandate of compassionately reaching out to all people, including immigrants, can a church suffer legal consequences for immigrant outreach especially if the individuals we minister to are undocumented?
The Department of Justice, the Attorney General’s Office, Congressional representatives, White House officials, secular adjudicators, and ecclesiastical authorities all agree on one irrefutable fact: biblical ministry and outreach to immigrants, regardless of their status, carries no legal liability.
“With the exception of deliberately employing undocumented individuals or transporting them across state lines, which does construe a violation of the law, clergy are uniformly protected by federal and state statutes throughout the United States,” explained Everardo Zavala, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference chief legal counsel.
There are several principles churches must follow if they are going to successfully reach immigrants. Inner-city and urban churches often have the neighborhood margins for effective immigrant outreach. Rural churches may need to strategically plan to effectively reach out to the immigrant community with compassion. The Hispanic National Association of Evangelicals and the Hispanic Mega Church Association created a rubric of immigrant compassionate outreach. This includes what all churches, especially rural and smaller-size churches, need to incorporate to successfully reach the immigrant community. The rubric includes: leadership engagement, symbiotic language-oriented programming, aesthetics, and community-building techniques.
Compassion ministries must seek to build trust with the immigrant community by removing cumbersome documentation that may alienate the very community they intend to serve. Since the law protects ministries, they need to minimize bureaucratic practices that alienate rather than engage. For example, while certain food-distribution ministries require registration, this does not need to serve as a deterrent for engagement as long as the registration process does not require proof of citizenship or questions surrounding legal status. Nevertheless, the most effective immigrant-focused compassion ministries require minimal disclosure of private information. The vast majority of compassionate outreach services require little to zero documentation.
When the American church understands that it carries the spiritual and legal authority to assist the immigrant, the potential exists to emerge as the only trustworthy institution in the eyes of the community. Some immigrants feel trepidation and angst toward local, state, and federal agencies that assist in food and needs-specific services. Many immigrants, however, consider the church the sole sanctuary for both spiritual and physical needs. “If immigrants cannot trust the church, who can they trust?” inquired Mauricio Elizondo, Hispanic American Assemblies of God church planter.
“Many low-income Hispanic immigrant families avoid government agencies because they fear deportation. They work many hours in the fields and yet do not have enough to feed or provide for the basic needs of their families. We bear witness to the fact poverty, hunger, and despair have increased exponentially in the past few years in the immigrant community. With that reality we encounter an unfortunate simultaneous increase in many social ills such as addiction, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, and the proliferation of gang activity. The only hope is the church of Jesus Christ,” declared Elizondo.
Gilbert Velez understands firsthand the dynamics of compassionate ministry. Velez is senior pastor of the 2,500-member Mercy Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Laredo, Texas. Velez also oversees the Hispanic Mega Church Association. “Compassion ministries must begin not just with services, goods, and outreach. But to effectively reach and engage the immigrant community, compassion ministries must build trust,” explained Velez.
According to Velez, “Any ministry committed to reaching the immigrant needs to employ personnel who speak the language and understand the cultural terrain.” Compassion outreach begins at the leadership level. Any church committed to reaching the immigrant community must include ethnic and immigrant leadership in its governance. This will secure an institutionalized commitment rather than a token or temporary effort. For example, if I want to plant a church and attract various ethnicities, church growth models indicate I will attract what I reflect in my leadership from the praise and worship to the ushers and staff. My leadership team must reflect the community I desire to serve.
“Some within the immigrant community view all nonethnics, including ministries, as possible extensions of law enforcement that may result in deportation and separation of families. As a result, to combat misinformation in the community, compassionate outreach must engage bilingual staff to secure appropriate dissemination of services. People trust those who speak their native tongue,” continues Velez.
For smaller or rural churches that do not have the finances to hire bilingual personnel, Velez notes the exponential growth of bilingual volunteers in almost all states and regions. “One would be hard pressed to find a community where the church cannot find a bilingual person who can help them. It could be a teacher or college student. Spanish is the number one secondary language in our nation. Engaging a bilingual staffer is as easy as a bulletin board announcement or a Facebook posting. It works.”
Symbiotic Language-oriented Programming
Symbiotic language-oriented programming means that any ministry committed to immigrant outreach must learn to speak the language of the community but, simultaneously, must stand ready to teach the community the language of the church. In other words, it is not just learning to speak Spanish. Viable immigrant outreach can assist in providing English and ESOL courses to the immigrant community. A pastor in Texas said, “We will learn Spanish, bring them to church where we provide English courses. The church can serve as the primary institution for both vertical integration into the Kingdom and horizontal integration into American society.”
Velez added that trust begins with speaking the language of the community and hiring personnel who understand the culture. “Ethno cultural contextualization of any outreach is vital for effectiveness.”
Compassionate immigrant outreach requires branding the outreach in a marketable manner consistent with the colors, fonts, and preferences of the community. This requires a simple cultural orientation. Ministries that desire to reach the immigrant communities must understand the basic threads embedded in the ethos of the community from food to music, colors, and particularities. A 101-cultural orientation can result in a great harvest.
Compassionate evangelistic outreach must incorporate messaging in both languages. Some ministries exhibit the appropriate spirit but poorly execute the outreach for lack of language-friendly resources. For example, a primarily Anglo congregation in Dallas decided to reach out to immigrants with educational resources at the beginning of the school year. They targeted Hispanic families with school-age children. Church staffers rented a parking lot in the heart of the community, set up a truck, and brought in new back packs stuffed with pencils, notebooks, calculators, and other school supplies.
Unfortunately, although they were in the right place at the right time doing the right thing, few families took advantage of the outreach. Why? Ministry organizers discovered after the event that all their advertisement was in English. Effective compassionate outreach to the immigrant community requires linguistically contextualizing the mission in both Spanish and English. In short, compassion and culture must intersect for effective evangelism to take place.
Churches must define ethnic and immigrant outreach via the conduit of community. While American and Western European models embrace and celebrate the individual, Hispanic and immigrant groups embrace both a commitment to individual achievement and community mobilization. In the words of Jesse Miranda, executive presbyter of the Assemblies of God and chief executive officer of the Hispanic National Association of Evangelicals: “Celebrating culture and embracing the distinctive threads of our people can only lead to the mosaic we call the Kingdom. We need to go from orthodoxy to orthopraxy to orthopathos. That is to say, we need ethnic outreach that begins in the head, moves to the hand, and finishes in the heart — the heart of the community.”
The Agenda of the Lamb
Compassion-based evangelism stems not from the narrative of a political ideology but rather from the heart of prophetic witness. Reaching out to Hispanics, and other immigrants — whether legal or undocumented — may not reflect the agenda of the donkey or the elephant, but it does reflect the agenda of the Lamb. These immigrants, particularly Hispanic immigrants, stand poised to change the Christian experience by broadening the evangelical agenda, incorporating a transformational missiology, reigniting a prophetic socio/political movement, and globally serving as ambassadors of a Kingdom-culture ethos that reconciles righteousness with justice.
In essence, the Hispanic immigrant demonstrates affinity toward the core values that permeate the American Bible-believing Spirit-filled church — commitment to biblical orthodoxy, holiness, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Without a doubt, Hispanic and other immigrant Christians will emerge as the firewall of righteousness and justice in the 21st century against spiritual apathy, moral relativism, and cultural decay.
Viable compassionate immigrant outreach may very well serve as the balm of Gilead in healing the current strife between native and immigrant. Even more important, compassionate evangelism may result not only in the salvation of the immigrant community, but also in the salvation of the American Church.