AG helps lead compassionate focus among church groups
By John W. Kennedy
Dec. 8, 2013
A key element of the congressional immigration reform debate present this year but missing in the past features a wide spectrum of denominations at the forefront of proposing compassion for aliens in our midst.
While immigration reform has been a perennial topic since 2006, only recently have evangelicals spoken out as proponents en masse.
The Assemblies of God is a leading evangelical voice in the mix. The AG is one of the few denominations growing in the U.S., and that can be traced in part to the influx of immigrants.
Efraim Espinoza, director of the AG Office of Hispanic Relations, is a representative of an emerging evangelical church-based immigrant ministry coalition.
“Whether we get comprehensive immigration reform or we don’t, the immigrants are here,” Espinoza says.
The goal of the interdenominational coalition is to establish church-based immigration centers that provide information and advice to newcomers. Eventually, the centers would be staffed with trained laypeople certified as immigration consultants who could actively assist foreigners on the road to citizenship. World Relief attorneys would be on-call specialists.
“A lot of churches have undocumented pastors working for them,” says Kendri Metzger, World Relief senior immigration attorney. “There is hope that reform will give these pastors the opportunity to rectify their situation and gain lawful status.”
A Public Religion Research Institute study this year found that 56 percent of white evangelical Protestants agree that immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to become citizens.
The coalition that includes Espinoza will launch as a separate nonprofit early next year. World Relief is spearheading a drive to equip laypeople to establish immigrant legal service centers in local congregations once Congress has approved comprehensive immigration reform.
“This will put the church in the forefront of serving the 11 million undocumented residents here in the U.S.,” Espinoza says. “This is really a response to minister to the needs of the alien. The desire of this group is to determine what is the biblical response to this issue.”
The Fellowship isn’t a latecomer to the debate. Seven years ago, the General Council adopted an official statement on immigration:
“As people of faith we support comprehensive immigration reform that reflects human dignity, compassion and justice integral to a ‘nation under God.’ Apart from issues related to governmental jurisdiction, we believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to minister to all who live or work within our country.”
“This makes it clear we are going to minister to the immigrants in our midst, regardless of their status,” says Scott Temple, director of the AG Office of Ethnic Relations.
In 2011, the General Presbytery approved a policy streamlining the credentialing process for immigrant pastors. Noncitizen applicants may obtain a provisional ministry certificate, renewable annually for up to five years, if there is a reasonable expectation their legal status will be clarified in that time frame.
Espinoza notes many immigrants arrived with legal student, tourist or religious visas, but proper documentation lapsed. Uncertified individuals who claim they can help the undocumented gain legal status have jeopardized their standing instead.
“This document is an example of a positive and progressive position the Assemblies of God has taken to assist immigrants who are called to be ministers in the United States,” Temple says.
Immigrants by and large are nonwhite.
“The population figures are changing,” Espinoza says. “If the church is going to be healthy and viable in the 21st century, we’ve got to become just as ethnically diverse as the population overall.”
Actually, the AG is ahead of the curve already. The AG Statistics Department shows more than 40 percent of the U.S. AG’s 3.1 million adherents are ethnic minorities (compared to the 37 percent minorities represented in the U.S. overall population). Only 30 percent of AG adherents were ethnic minorities as recently as 2001.
Temple is projecting that ethnic minorities will compose a majority of AG churchgoers by 2020. The Census Bureau expects the general population to remain a white majority until 2042.
Scripture is replete with reasons God’s followers should treat immigrants with respect. For example, in Leviticus 19:33,34, God declares, “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (NIV).
Ephesians 2:12,13,19 makes an analogy of how all are excluded from God’s kingdom until redeemed by Christ.
“God made a path to citizenship through the blood of Christ,” Temple says. “That should cause us to identify with those who have been excluded from U.S. citizenship and are looking for a path of hope.”
Espinoza is encouraged at the high level of cooperation among dozens of denominations in the World Relief effort.
“It’s time we realize we’re building the Bride, not the brand,” Espinoza says. “The bride of Christ will be from all nations and all tribes at the foot of the throne. There won’t be the erasing of cultural distinctives, but there will be the erasing of barriers.”
Galen Carey, National Association of Evangelicals vice president of government relations in Washington, D.C., says many member churches already are reaching out in significant ways, including allowing immigrant communities to use buildings and assisting in language-specific start-up congregations. Local churches must be more involved once immigration legislation takes effect, Carey says.
“Immigrants will need help in understanding the law,” Carey says. “There will be a natural opportunity to meet a practical need in the process, and to form relationships that demonstrate the love of Christ.”
While not endorsing any particular piece of legislation, for the past four years the NAE has urged the Obama administration and congressional leaders to craft legislation that treats immigrants with respect and mercy, while also keeping borders secure.
Last year, the NAE organized a broad coalition called the Evangelical Immigration Table to implore the government to seek a humane and comprehensive solution. All 40 NAE member denominations are represented at the Table, as well as the Southern Baptist Convention, which is participating independently. Many of these groups are also represented through other encompassing networks of churches, including the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, National Latino Evangelical Coalition, and Esperanza.
The NAE proposal calls for legislation that includes elements of respecting the God-given dignity of every person, protecting the unity of the immediate family, and establishing a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and want to become permanent residents.
A Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study in May estimated that 83 percent of unauthorized immigrants are Christian, accounting for 9.2 million people.
“Our churches and communities have been blessed by immigrants, many of whom bring strong faith, entrepreneurial energy, and traditional family values that strengthen our future,” Carey says.
For AG General Superintendent George O. Wood, a person’s spiritual state is more important than legal standing.
“The issue for the church is not whether a person is documented or undocumented, but whether the person is saved or unsaved,” Wood says. “Our mission as a church is to reach the lost regardless of legal status.”
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel. His ancestors immigrated to the United States from Scotland in the mid-1700s.
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