Students, faculty and guests gathered at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) Feb. 28 for a forum on gaining a biblical understanding of immigration. Walter Strickland, special advisor to the president for diversity, moderated the discussion. Speakers unpacked migration references in scripture; God’s mission and the local church’s mission in relation to immigrants; and the church’s political witness.
The Hebrew word gare, which can be translated as “immigrant,” is mentioned about 92 times in the Old Testament, said Miguel Echevarria, director of Hispanic leadership development at SEBTS. Echevarria pointed to Deuteronomy 24 and Exodus 22, in which God commanded the Israelites to show love to the immigrant, remembering their own experience as slaves in Egypt.
“The idea of loving your neighbor applies for both the old covenant and the new covenant,” Echevarria said. “What if we became indignant the way God is indignant when the immigrant is treated disrespectfully, without equity, without the love and respect that’s supposed to be ascribed to them as an image bearer of God?”
He also referred to Jesus’ command in Luke 6 to love your enemies, saying, “If you consider an immigrant your enemy because he’s taking your job, hurting your welfare, putting you at danger – he is your enemy, if you so view him that way. You are called to love your enemy.” Echevarria challenged participants to think about immigration from a larger perspective of scripture and argued that Christians in the United States have more in common with a believer coming into the country from Mexico, than an “unbelieving, secular Republican or Democrat down the street.”
“We tend to identify with [political] party leanings or ideological leanings … we should reorient our minds to consider the sojourner or alien trying to come into this country, who’s actually a fellow member of the household of God – an alien or stranger along with us – sojourning, looking forward to a better place.
“When you think canonically, we’re all exiled from the garden. We’re all looking for reentry into a new garden. If you think of the whole Bible and you’re not just pulling out scriptures here and there, it gives us a better grip on immigration.”
Addressing a common concern about submission to governing authorities, Echevarria encouraged attendees to examine laws in light of scripture, just as Christians have done with other topics like Jim Crow laws, same-sex marriage and abortion. “When we submit, we’re willing to say these things are OK,” he said. “I’m not calling for civil disobedience. I’m calling for us to stop and think before we begin to talk about our stance on immigration, before we take a party line.”
Engaging with the immigrant
Bruce Ashford, SEBTS provost and dean of faculty, and Todd Unzicker, pastor of missions at The Summit Church in Durham, elaborated on the church’s role regarding immigration and offered practical ways for local churches to serve immigrants.
Social action is not a church’s primary function when it gathers for corporate worship, but it would be an important function when the church scatters throughout the week, Ashford said. He added that the local church is not called to make public policy decisions but should consider if it can make a direct line from scripture to the issue. Unzicker recalled conversations he had with missionaries regarding the political climate in the U.S. Missionaries were primarily concerned about how the discourse would influence their gospel witness overseas. “The reality is in many of the countries that we’re talking about, if you come from America, regardless of who you are, you are a Christian,” Unzicker said.
“So when the headlines say they’re going to stop the entry of any refugees or stop the entry of any immigrants, whether it’s right or wrong, there is a perception that Christians do not care for their people group.”
Unzicker offered several suggestions for serving immigrant communities, such as partnering with agencies that specifically work with immigrants or refugees, teaching English as a Second Language classes and volunteering at cultural festivals to get to know people with different backgrounds.
Jimmy Roh, a theology student at SEBTS, encouraged Christians to reach out to second-generation immigrants, who share more of American culture, but whose parents may find it more challenging to develop cross-cultural relationships.
Alan Cross, missional strategist for Montgomery Baptist Association, reiterated the importance of building relationships with immigrants and their families.
“There’s a wide open door with immigrants right now because they’re very afraid. They don’t know where to look,” he said.
Cross has been working with Hispanic pastors and immigration lawyers to host immigration advisory meetings, where people can come with their concerns and legal questions.
“We’re trying to get [immigrants] accurate information. [Pastors] come around them and then form Bible studies out of this and form ways to penetrate the gospel through the issues that they’re concerned about,” Cross said.
Cross warned against partisan politics – choosing one party over another – but said the church should be more “political.” “Politics” comes from the Greek word polis, he explained, meaning “the people.”
He said it simply means “that’s how we arrange life, how we live and decisions that we make. The church should be involved with that, right? We want to speak into the larger society. We want to say there’s right and wrong.”
Christians have an opportune moment to do just that, said Cross, who received calls from The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times just days before the forum.
“People that aren’t necessarily asking the church or interested in what the church thinks of these things, are suddenly saying, ‘Where is the church on this?’”
Cross described immigration as an intersectional issue with roads leading into economics, culture, politics, arts and religion.
“If we put the cross at the intersection, say there’s a biblical way to look at this, people will actually listen. You’re able to have this discussion.”