September 22, 2011 News » Cover Story

God before country 

Christians urge the religious right to revisit their roots on immigration

It was going to take God's intervention.

Doug Olsen, executive pastor at Woodmen Valley Chapel, told his 6,000 congregants to pray hard. The application for the permanent residency of their worship pastor, Andy Bromley, and his family had been lost in the bureaucracy of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The days were quickly counting down for them to either secure their green cards or get the boot back to Britain.

The Englishman had filled out the nearly 3-inch stack of paperwork and filed it in October of last year. He was told that the process should be wrapped within six months. But as of June, he and Olsen knew a number of steps were left in the application process, including an interview, and they hadn't heard a peep. They got nervous; the Bromleys' temporary visas would expire Aug. 12.

"This guy, Andy Bromley, is a fabulous guy," says Olsen. "He's God's gift to us in the sense of who he is, and his style, and his understanding of grace, and worship, so we were really excited to keep him.

"So we start making a blitz."

They called their lawyer. They also contacted the offices of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and, one of their congregants, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn.

They heard back from Bennet's office, which let them know that Bromley's application had been misplaced. But Lamborn's office "took a special interest," says Olsen, and promised to doggedly champion the application through Immigration Services.

In an Indy interview, Lamborn says smart immigration policy would weigh what the immigrant has to offer: education level, job skills, family ties, liquid assets that can be invested in creating a business.

"We have to start looking at what can people bring to the table," he says, "when they come here that can help us the most as a country."

Bromley, a recording artist with a long career as a worship leader, rates pretty highly on that scale. And on Aug. 4, Olsen blasted out a triumphant e-mail to the congregation.

"As a result of your prayers," he wrote, "we are thrilled to report that this week the Bromleys' Green Card applications were approved (only 10 days before the deadline)! ... May this answer to prayer encourage your heart regarding God's purposeful intervention in the lives of those who seek His will."

Olsen included a quote from a staffer in Lamborn's office: "There is no question God worked to resolve this case."

'Really freaking lucky'

Caleb Lázaro, a young pastor in Colorado Springs, doesn't begrudge Woodmen Valley its celebration. But as he read Olsen's e-mail, which a friend forwarded to him, he was stung by how it "exposes the bigotry of the immigration system."

He and his father, Jaime Lázaro, run a small Springs Christian community called El Centro. They call it The Center, Caleb says, because "Christ and his message of compassion are at the center of our personal lives and the life of our faith community." Every Sunday, dozens gather for worship at a location we've been asked to not report, since most of the congregants are undocumented immigrants.

Caleb knows how it feels to be undocumented. When he was 6 years old, his parents packed him and his two sisters up and migrated from Peru to California. There, they lived for about three years without paperwork, moving sporadically, in constant fear of deportation. With the help of the Catholic Church, they were able to find a brief window of opportunity for legal status, and dove through.

Two years ago, he finally became a citizen.

"We were really lucky," Caleb says. "And I say 'lucky,' instead of 'blessed,' because I don't like to say that I am blessed when I know that there are hundreds and thousands of other people who are looking for that hole in the system. We just got really freaking lucky."

Just like Bromley.

To Lázaro, Bromley's luck began, put bluntly, when he was born as a white man in Britain. And it doesn't hurt that he works for one of the largest churches in the Springs, a church with the means to attract aggressive assistance from Lamborn's office.

Will Stoller-Lee, director of the Colorado Regional Campus for Fuller Theological Seminary, agrees.

"The folks at Woodmen Valley were genuinely desirous to do what was right, but they missed the injustice that was communicated through that e-mail," he says. That "lo and behold, when you are a powerful church and you enlist the support of your U.S. representative, things happen. Those are advantages that local immigrants could never, ever have."

Many of the men and women to whom the Lázaros pastor are economic refugees. They come to this country to work low-level jobs for employers who recognize that they are vulnerable to deportation and will sometimes ignore minimum-wage laws. And the immigrants will work these jobs because it is still better than what their country of origin can offer.

The immigration system offers refugees like these little help, say Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang in their book, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate.

Soerens works for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. In a phone interview, he notes that immigration laws use categories and quotas to regulate how many immigrants win visas. There are 140,000 employer-sponsored permanent visas for highly skilled immigrants or people with advanced degrees, yet only 5,000 visas for those who work in our fields, hotels and restaurants, and on cleaning and construction crews.

"A hundred years ago, 5,000 people came through Ellis Island on a typical day," Soerens says. "That's why we have gotten ourselves into this big mess, because there are way more jobs that most Americans don't want to do, even in this time of high unemployment."

There is no way to determine how many undocumented workers live the Springs. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn't ask whether an individual is documented or not. The Lázaros certainly have no way to estimate the population, though Jaime says that when he worked on a 40-person cleaning crew here in the Springs, "39" of those workers were undocumented.

"So there are all these jobs, but there aren't enough visas to come lawfully," Soerens says. "And for the past 25 years, what we have done is look the other way when people come unlawfully, then blame them."

Broaching the subject

Five years ago, Woodmen Valley Chapel senior pastor Matt Heard posed this question to his congregation: Would anybody in Colorado Springs miss the church if it went out of business?

Dick Siever was in the pews that morning, and the question struck him — in its simplicity, and also as something he'd never considered.

He's the son of a Methodist minister, but had never deeply thought about the church reaching out to those in need: "It was not something that was done in the church I grew up with."

Within months, Woodmen Valley had established the community-impact ministry A Call to Serve, or A.C.T.S. Siever would go on to be the director of community impact.

Through A.C.T.S., the church has established teams that help local low-income families, and the families of those deployed in the armed forces. They provide home repair, foster and adoption care, reading mentors, a mobile food pantry and a mobile kitchen, says Siever.

And they almost certainly are helping undocumented immigrants when they, say, provide food assistance to residents of a Springs trailer park.

"Regardless of their documentation, they live in this community. They have needs. And if we can meet these needs, then we do it," Siever says. "There are 72 low-income mobile home rental units there, and these people are, I would guess mostly undocumented folks, but I haven't asked. They are mostly Spanish-speaking adults. There are 450 people there, 100 youth," he says. "Those kids are U.S. citizens; I don't care where you are in the debate. Those kids are U.S. citizens."

Not one person at the ministry, he insists, cares whether they are documented or not.

However, on the issue of the immigration system, he is quiet. "From a social justice standpoint, we are just blind to that, to be honest to you."

And when the subject is brought up with Woodmen pastor Doug Olsen, he begs out of the conversation, apologizing that he can't discuss the "issue of illegal versus legal arguments, and the theological implications of this dialogue."

This dialogue is happening, though, among evangelicals throughout the country.

A copy of Soerens' book sits on the bookshelf of Matthew Ayers, local ministries pastor at New Life Church. Ayers oversees a free women's health clinic, and says that no woman there will be turned away due to legal status. "We believe our responsibility given in the Bible is clear," he says, "that the church is always called to bless others with the resources entrusted to us."

Ayers points to an interview that Soerens has with Bill Hybels, pastor of the Chicago-based megachurch, Willow Creek. Both Soerens and Hybels posit that the issue should be explored with a lesser focus on politics, and more emphasis on Christian tenets of grace, mercy and kindness for the vulnerable.

"At the national level, evangelical denominations are very interested in the issue of immigration," Soerens tells the Indy, "because most of those denominations have lots of immigrants in them. They are experiencing how dysfunctional our immigration system is."

Soerens is an advocate of "neither amnesty nor mass deportation, but an earned legalization process where people would come forward, pay a fine, and go through a process to earn citizenship."

This is not a new idea. Similar reform has been proposed by President Barack Obama, as well as George W. Bush, he notes. For that matter, look at a YouTube clip below of a 1980 presidential primary debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and it's clear that both Republicans favored comprehensive immigration reform.

"President Reagan was a strong advocate of immigrants, and saw them as part of what made this country great," Soerens says. "And you don't hear that rhetoric often nowadays. They were saying positive things about immigrants that you would never hear Barack Obama say."

In 2009, the NAE passed a resolution calling on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Just this past June, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest evangelical denomination and largest body of Christians after the Catholic Church, passed a similar resolution.

Even Colorado Springs' own Focus on the Family has entered the discussion. On Sept. 15, Focus president Jim Daly invited the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez onto his radio show. Rodriguez is the current president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and a strong proponent of comprehensive reform.

Roughly 20 minutes into the conversation, Daly raises the issue of undocumented immigrants. "The way that some may look at the Hispanic community," Daly says, "there can tend to be a generalization of everybody that's here, that's illegally here, is not as a good person. But it's not really accurate."

"The vast majority," replies Rodriguez, "97, 98 percent are not only good people, these are God-fearing, family-loving, hard-working people. These are the kind of people America was born for."

Short memories

It wasn't until they immigrated, Caleb says, that the Lázaros experienced poverty. They had left a middle-class lifestyle in Trujillo, Peru's third-largest city. Jaime made a good living with a family-owned FM radio station, but he wanted his children to have the opportunities that the United States offers.

In those early years, Jaime scratched out a living cleaning, handing out fliers, washing restrooms, anything to support his family. "The first few months, I cried many times, many times," says Jaime. "But now I am better person."

No matter how painful it got, Caleb says, his parents worked to instill in him the belief that America was his home. They taught him "that, yes, this place is messed up. Yes, I could get deported at any moment. But this place is home because God has brought us here.

"So I always had this feeling that I belonged there, even though the people around me in school definitely didn't," he says. "If you raise your kids telling them that their home is in Chihuahua, Mexico, but they were born here, or they were really young when they came here, they are going to be like, 'OK, my home is Chihuahua, Mexico, but I've never been there. So, what's this place?'"

In high school, he watched as friends joined gangs — a reaction, he says, to that rootlessness. "They said, 'All right, from here to here to here is home now, and we are going to defend it. We are going to protect it.'"

Now, as pastors, Caleb and his father try to teach their community that they can claim this country as home, that a piece of paper doesn't dictate citizenship: "You have a greater calling to be a citizen anywhere you go."

This idea that home is where you find yourself, documented or not, is one with deep theological backing, he says.

"The Bible is a collection of migrant stories. People are always getting sent out to new places, and oftentimes places that are very different than the places that they were born in. You read about real stories about people having to deal with very real issues. People being persecuted for teaching things that went against the culture, against the law, people who were arrested, people who were killed for defying the laws of different empires."

"The Bible is pretty honest about the issue of immigration," notes Stoller-Lee. "God's people have been exiles a lot. It is the story of the exodus. Shortly after Jesus is born, his young family is forced into exile. It's not like this is a minor theme."

Throughout the Old Testament, God instructs the Israelites to be kind to the immigrant. In Leviticus, as in Exodus and Deuteronomy, God is clear that "when a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt."

"The thing that is very important about the Israelites is that God makes it very clear that he wants them to remember their story," says Lázaro. "So in Leviticus, you see these celebrations that happen; all these different rituals that remind them of where they came from."

Lázaro can't help but note the hypocrisy of Americans, many whose families were escaping poverty and persecution when they arrived, now persecuting others for the same. Some may never have been told their family history, he acknowledges. But today in America, "it's so obvious people have forgotten their stories."

A Christian nation

Catherine Mortensen, Doug Lamborn's spokeswoman, says there was nothing unique about his office assisting Andy Bromley: Lamborn handles dozens of such requests each month. "Mr. Bromley did not ask for any special treatment, nor did he get any," she writes in an e-mail. "He sought help from our staff by calling the district office directly and explaining his situation, just as any other constituent would."

"We do all we can within the law to help constituents successfully navigate the federal bureaucracy," Lamborn says.

Through five years in Congress, Lamborn has been a conservative champion of tighter immigration controls. He has proposed or supported a number of pieces of legislation that would clamp down on undocumented immigration. The Birthright Citizenship Act would allow only infants born in the U.S. to "legal" citizens, or immigrants enlisted in the military, the right of citizenship. The Common Sense English Act would allow employers to insist their employees speak English.

At the same time, Lamborn is vocal about his faith. And on the issue of immigration, he speaks to a tension between his duty as a legislator and his calling as a Christian.

"On the one hand, I am compassionate about those who want a better way of life," he says. "And America offers the best way of life in the world. So I find it understandable that someone would want to come here, and do anything they can to get here so that they can take care of their family, so that they can make the most of their life. So I am compassionate and have pity on people who cannot do that for one reason or another.

"At the same time, I know that we are a country of laws, and we have to have an orderly procedure for doing things, and if we don't, the result is ultimately chaos or anarchy. So at the same time that I personally have compassion on people, we can't take in everyone we'd like to from the rest of the world."

He says that if the United States were to open its borders to every person living in extreme poverty, the country would be opening its borders to "millions, and possibly billions, of people in the world."

It's just not practical, he concludes.

"I think that nations are important in our way of life," Lamborn says. "Nationalism, when not carried to excess, is a good thing."

But as Stoller-Lee notes, the Bible seems rather mute on the idea.

"Issues of national sovereignty and what's right for the contemporary nation-state aren't dominant issues in the Bible," he says. "I get it that it is a contemporary issue; I understand that it is a major part of the discussion. But it really isn't the primary issue for people who look to the Bible for their moral guidance."

Christ himself made clear that he saw worldly empires as unimportant and transitory when compared to the kingdom of God.

"And that's a radical claim," Stoller-Lee says.

For Caleb and Jaime, there's an overarching ethic of grace and mercy to Christ's teachings that obscure the concerns of the nation. And this is something the church needs to address, says Caleb.

"I think that we are living in a time in this country where Christians are having an issue with what it means to claim Christ as their allegiance. And I feel like people have become convinced, especially in evangelical circles, that having an allegiance with Christ means having an allegiance with my country, and its policies and its laws."

"They need to change in their minds," says Jaime. "God is not an American."


When in Romans...

The life of Paul the Apostle, who is credited with writing a foundational portion of the New Testament, spoke not of a man who wilted under the authority of the day. He taught the word of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, often to the displeasure of the ruling class, says pastor Caleb Lázaro.

— Chet Hardin


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