Immigration and the Church in Phoenix

I live in Phoenix, the front line in the war against the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to be free.  I would imagine everything here looks pretty awful from the outside, seemingly without a silver lining, but I’ve been seeing something different, something beautiful happening here.

In the midst of our police raids, our masses of children orphaned by deportation, women giving birth in shackles, and our racist legislation, something wonderful is happing in the heart of the church.  People from all sides of the religious spectrum are coming together in a way I haven’t ever seen before to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).

And it’s beautiful.

 A friend of mine and I went to a meeting of clergy recently, gathering to discuss what we as a church can do.  We met in the chapel of a United Church of Christ congregation downtown and had everyone from pastors and priests with their collars to rabbis with their yarmulkes, Muslim women in their hijabs and a few Anabaptists with babies in slings across their chests.  Throw in a few Buddhist monks, devout Hindus, Unitarian Universalists, Baptists, and everyone in between and you’ve got a good idea of what the average immigration reform demonstration looks like here.

It’s a rainbow of beliefs putting our differences aside and uniting in the belief of a God without borders, without nationality, and who cares more about someone’s well being then their legal status.  I have in my mind an image of God looking down on us and repeating the phrase “It is good.” as he did in the creation story in Genesis.

The hardest thing about SB1070 and similar hate based legislation is that politically, in a lot of ways, they makes sense.  But I believe that we are called to do something radically different when we decide to follow Jesus.  Jesus’ teaching didn’t make sense.  Loving your enemy, praying for those who persecute you, turning the other cheek, these things don’t make sense at all… and that’s part of what makes it so fantastic.

Believing in Jesus is believing that doing what doesn’t make sense can be the best thing, and that sometimes doing what doesn’t make sense is what makes a better world possible.  I believe in that world and I want so badly to be a part of it.

Comments (11)

  1. Joseph

    The impassioned tone of this article is duly noted. I had a similar visceral response, when I found out about this legislation. I too thought of it as a clearly racist issue. Then I was reminded that I needed to see things from the other side. The fact is that good hard reason is needed when approaching issues like these. This article, however, remains at the more visceral, gut response level of reaction.

    What is needed is true dialogue between opposing sides. I have come to the conclusion that demonstrations usually create more polarity that dialogue. Despite the author’s intentions about preparing for these demonstrations as a unifying force, I remind them that it is not a genuine unity (only truly brought in Christ and Christian brotherhood), but against a common perceived enemy, based on fear and common opposition.

    It took an impassioned, though civil, conversation with a relative of the opposite perspective to make me think about another side of the issue. Though I still disagree on a good many things with him, I can not simply conclude that he was racist, or bigoted, or any other blanket label that one could so quickly draw upon as ammunition. Rather, I took well the point about how civil society is seldom helped by bleeding heart activists who constantly criticize government policies and economics, but usually with very little knowledge of these law, government, and economics, and with few viable alternatives themselves to offer. I am coming to see that using euphemisms like “undocumented” instead of “illegal” offer very little to the conversation, and masks the fact that there is a legitimate concern that people are illegally entering this country, which is against the laws that are in place for the common good and welfare of society (Immigration Reform is admittedly a much broader and pressing issue than can be addressed here). There are genuine concerns about how much our social and economic systems can handle rapid influxes of immigrants, especially those that operate under the radar of tax and welfare systems -I remind everyone that the national health care plan that many of us supported is tax-based.

    I am enough of a traditional orthodox Anabaptist (not an anarchist), to believe that government is ordained of God for the welfare and order of society. As a Christian, my door is open to all who look for refuge and shelter. I will not turn anyone away. But I cannot seriously call upon government to be Christian in this regard. Government is not the Church. The best Christians can do is to take governments concerns about peace and order seriously, and that means listening to its concerns too.

    If we take seriously a commitment to dialogue about such difficult issues, then it must be viewed from the other side (an art that it seems few in the Mennonite realm since John Howard Yoder have truly mastered). It means listening to the genuine concerns of the governments and those in authority, and working for viable policies which contribute to the health and welfare of the city, as the prophet Daniel was charged with.

    I would like to conclude that I am the child of an immigrant. My father came from a family of post war refugees. I am thankful to God that this country opened its gates and provided a peaceful place for our family to flourish and prosper. I think that in American history, our most creative and vital periods are when immigrants come and bring their various gifts. But, as with all things, there must be good order to the process, for the benefit of all. I pray that Christians everywhere will bring both compassionate hearts and critical reasoning to the table when working toward just and proper immigration reform. But this can only be done by replacing polarizing picket signs with open ears and open hearts to all who are concerned, and a determination to invest in the long haul, for the good of all.

  2. Robert Martin

    Joseph, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  3. TimN

    Joseph, I agree with your suggestion that dialog is important here, but I’m surprised by two things:

    1. How much your retelling of the other side’s point of view concedes to their way of framing the argument. Your description of “undocumented” as a euphemism ignores the way the term “illegal” has been used to dehumanize our Latino brothers and sisters and stoke fear in the US.
    2. The way you’ve ignore the power imbalance between the two sides that you are calling for dialogue with. Jesus never told the widows, orphans and alience to have “a dialogue” with the Romans or the Sadducees. The sermon on the mount is a manual for challenging the power imbalances in our society in a loving, nonviolent and confrontational way. Jesus modeled this in the way he consistently confronted the rulers of his day. Father John Dear is a good one to read for more on this theme.

    You make a brief allusion to how using the term “illegal” to recognize the way the current immigration law serves the common good. Can you say more about what the term “common good” means for you?

    Robert, you have made a point similar to this over in a discussion thread on the Mennonite over the last month or so. I’m curious: what have you learned from the conversation there? Has your point of view changed as a result? How have you changed other’s points of view?

  4. JennaBoettger

    Joseph and Robert, I am interested in what other avenues you would suggest challenging this issue in.
    The basic things that I would normally turn to don’t fit the magnitude of the situation. With what is happening to our brothers and sisters here everything simply voting or talking with my conservative mother inlaw about the issues isn’t enough.
    I agree that demonstraitions and protests can be polarizing and am open to new ideas, let me know what you think is a more effective way of handleing the situation.

  5. JennaBoettger

    *happening to our brothers and sisters everyDAY…
    Sorry, proof reading fail.

  6. Tim Baer

    For too long this country has had an immigration problem, that is, difficulties in South Americans crossing the border and living as second class citizens within our borders. The Right, on the one hand, focuses on the first problem. The left, on the other hand, focuses on the second. Very few focus on the reasons why they come here in the first place, though that is another conversation altogether. The issue is simply we have 13-16 million second class “permanent” residents that reside within our society and what do we do about or with them? Because, as Tim N stated before, the power lies with us and their fate is in our hands (though not mentioned, they kinda, sorta knew this before they came here).

    For too long the government has ignored this problem. This federal apathy has not met the needs of the citizens of this country or the needs of those who find themselves within our borders and unable to control their own fates. The right loves to say “But they’re ILLEGAL….” (end conversation) and the left loves to say “You are all a bunch of racists” (SUPRISE! Who woulda thunk it?!). I think the problem could be solved easily, and meet the needs of all parties involved. The right is the only side with specific gripes. I can’t help the left with their perceived racist issue, for that is a matter mostly in their heads, and I can’t solve that. So here it is, the solution to our problem, all laid out, with minimal difficulty.

    “The Latinos steal our jobs” – This is a flat out lie. More people in the country means more work for people in the country. More people here means more food needs to be sold, more houses built, etc, etc. It’s called “capitalism” and it mostly works.

    “A lot of the illegals commit crime” – Well, okay, this is somewhat, statistically speaking, true. I propose that we take Latin America’s tired, hungry, and poor. We took Italy’s and Russia’s and the Germans and it worked out pretty good. Let’s give Amnesty with this caveat: If you commit a violent, drug related, or theft sorta crime you go back to wherever you or your parents came from, to the second generation. If you want to appeal do it from your home country.

    “They don’t speak English” – The right talks about this incessantly completely forgetting that there is no National Language. They use “illegal” to justify sending them all back, then use something not illegal to blast the Latinos for. Well, it’s time we had a National Language. It’s not a big deal. We teach one language in schools, one language our laws are written on, etc, etc. In a generation or two it won’t even be an issue. I’m not saying you need to speak it to become a citizen but perhaps driver’s licenses, certain jobs, etc it can be required for.

    I think that’s it. That’s all it would take. I don’t think it’s terribly burdensome to say: “We’ll trade you citizenship for a willingness to speak English and a crime free lifestyle.” This would totally appease the right.

    The conservatives also forget how much cash it would cost to deport 15 million people, the police state required to round them all up, and the fact that the government stinks at this sort of thing. Hitler tried, and failed, over the course of seven years, an extremely oppressive regime, while taking over half of Europe. I figure if America really tried to deport them it would take a century to realize that it couldn’t be done.

    There’s my solution. No bitchin’ or griping or whining involved. Oh, and it’s basically free for the country to do.

  7. AlanS

    A couple of interesting immigration thoughts. Somewhat disjointed.

    1) My setting, part 1. I live in a small town (1,800 people) about an hour away from Wichita, Ks. Wichita is one of the bigger metropolitan areas in Kansas and one of the few places that actually has the resources to enforce immigration. Our town is small enough and far enough away that it has been something of a safe haven for undocumented immigrants. Let me be clear, we’re not a sanctuary city. The town’s actually pretty hostile towards the fairly large Hispanic immigrant community. There just aren’t the resources to enforce it.

    2) My setting, part 2. I’ve had something of a hard time introducing this conversation at the church that I work for. Mainly because our level of conversation is so different from the denomination’s conversation. For Mennonite church USA the discussion is “ok, we agree that the Arizona law is bad, how should we respond.” The conversation at our church is “is the Arizona law bad”.

    3)How national Politics becomes local politics. Kansas just voted in our primary election this week. One Kris Kobach handily won the republican nomination for Secretary of State. Why does that matter? Kobach was the main architect for the SB1070 and many other immigration legislation. All of a sudden our local politics matters on a very large scale.

    4)It really is about race, not legality. In south west Kansas there is a fairly large group of white, German speaking, Old Colony Mennonites, (think almost Amish) from Mexico, the vast majority of whom are undocumented. If the issue really is U.S. law and not race, you can come into my office and I’ll let you use my phone to call I.C.E. and we’ll get the Menno’s shipped back to where they came from! But no more pussy-footing around and pretending like this doesn’t effect people who look like you.

    5) Who’s your authority? If you’re going to call yourself a serious Christian and say that the Bible is your ultimate authority, it’s near impossible to support discrimination through legislation when the bible says things like this:

    Deuteronomy 24:17‐18 (NIV)
    17Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of
    justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a
    pledge. 18Remember that you were slaves in Egypt
    and the LORD your God redeemed you from
    there. That is why I command you to do this.

    Who is your ultimate authority; the Bible or U.S. law? The Biblical calling is to be on the side of the immigrants. It’s time to fish or cut bait. Pick a side. If you want to say you’re with the U.S., fine, but don’t pretend your doing it for any reason related to Faith, Jesus or the Bible.

    6) Have you forgotten your past? Anabaptists, but Mennonites especially, have an immigrant history and mentality. The Hispanic immigrant community in Harper reminds me of my Russian German forefathers in the 1870’s in Kansas. They want to preserve their language, their culture, their home life. They are leery of the wider world that surrounds them. They face the same discrimination and prejudices. It hasn’t been that long since people shouted things like ‘go back to where you came from’ and ‘learn to speak English you dirty kraut’ and crossed the other side of the street to avoid us. Nothing angers me and breaks my heart more than Mennonites who think that they belong in this country and are now willing to perpetrate the same injustices to others that we once experienced. Moses told the Israelites to “REMEMBER that you were slaves” because they were starting to forget. We’ve got the same problem.

  8. Joseph P

    I respect the point that civil society can suffer when there is no control over immigration. However, given our country’s history it’s hard to use that as an excuse for shutting down the border. That history would include specifically the theft of most of the southwest from Mexico and in general theft of the land from all indigenous groups.

    Thank you AlanS for the point that no matter how sensible it may be (for civil society) to discriminate against immigrants, it is not Biblical.

    I support use of the term “undocumented” in most cases over the term “illegal.” I don’t think we need to be afraid of using the term “illegal” at times when our purpose is to acknowledge the fact that a person’s border crossing was not in accordance with US law, but our language needs to be humanizing. Thank you TimN for pointing out that “illegal” is often used to dehumanize; I agree. My opinion is that referring to an illegal immigrant as “undocumented” is not inaccurate and helps us see that person with a clearer lens. I have close friends who crossed the border illegally and have lived here without documentation for nine years. Knowing them and knowing their story it feels far more accurate to use a term that describes them according to the challenges they face daily living in US society (“undocumented”) than a term that highlights the fact that their desperate and dangerous border crossing was not technically legal (“illegal”).

    Joseph, I do find you comments challenging and important to the discussion. Your points get to some of my deepest questions of balancing Christian (or moral) commitment and US citizenship. I have a deep respect for the democratic processes of our society and do not feel like I can so easily buck its laws for the sake of my own moral conscience. To do so seems to open the door for others (perhaps others who are not likeminded with me) to do the same. May we all wrestle with these questions and invite the Spirit to lead us.

  9. Samuel

    I really enjoy the way you lay out the issue, but I have one concern-you are unwilling to call a spade a spade. You correctly outline a good solution-trading English speaking and crime free lifestyle for citizenship. But this is a more ‘liberal’ proposal than the one offered by president Obama that has been rejected by every single Republican member of the senate (see his proposal here: it includes both English language proficiency and legal behavior as prerequisites of citizenship, as well as a fine that would have to be repaid for coming to America illegally. If you want to be non-partisan, notice that President Bush tried to get immigration reform roughly in this shape, and his base rebelled against him too.

    The problem with immigration reform actually is that large numbers of Americans, most of them Republican, don’t want a large influx of immigrants from Latin America because of the cultural and political implications for America (they talk about economic impacts, but really, there is nothing better for the American tax base than a large influx of healthy younger people to pay for our burdened Social Security and Medicare systems). You might call this racism, but at its core, it is about resistance to American culture changing.
    Now, we can talk about what the proper Mennonite response is-whether it is right to get involved in the political debate, protest, vote, etc. around immigration. I respect those who don’t think we should be involved in politics. But surely we can agree regardless of how we come out on the politics of the issue that people who come to this country illegally are just as deserving of the lifestyle of Americans in God’s eyes as those who were lucky enough to be born here, and probably more so, since they were willing to suffer significant hardship to become Americans.

  10. Tim Baer

    Good call Samuel. While it’s true that Bush’s and Obama’s plans were, perhaps, more “conservative”, they lack(ed) one important detail: Seal the border. Bring our troops home and put them on the border. Without this any plan is doomed to failure.

    Indeed, many conservatives simply want “them” out of our country. I heard this on the radio today on the Michael Smerconish show. People call in and say something like “deport them all”. And he (and I) always ask “How?”. And there’s no answer (“well, uh, find them and, uh, put them on buses….”). How do you deport 15 million people short of creating a militarized police state? How? The fact is: We let them in. We looked the other way. Now all of us regret it (We all regret it because the WAY in which we let them in has created a plethora of issues.)

    There has been some debate over what we should call them. How about “aliens” because they’re “aliens”. They are non-citizens. Illegally here. Permanent residents. It describes everything we need to know about their status legally and culturally.

    So, how does our culture currently respond to aliens? Easy, we send 2 messages:

    A) Come on in. We may or may not do anything to you.
    B) Or we might kick in your door at 1am after you’ve been here for 8 years, take you into custody, and not give you a trial.

    So, essentially, our culture sends this weird mixed message. It is not compassionate to the citizens of this country nor compassionate to its aliens. We need a solution. All this talk of “racism” doesn’t deal with the problem. The left’s activism is polarizing and doesn’t offer a solution. The right’s response is half-hearted and ignorant of the facts.

    Whatever solution is created needs to be good and fair but extremely strict. The time for whining is over.

  11. Diane

    The whole earth belongs to the Lord. Borders belong to worldly governments.

    According to my current understanding, the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world exist side by side here on earth. The citizens of the Kingdom are those who by the power of the Holy Spirit live in and from Jesus Christ. What that looks like is as varied as the people and circumstances involved.

    One of the ways that has worked out in my life was several years ago when I was called to jury duty. Twice I was called to a jury room and questioned. Both times I had to respond in the negative when asked if I would render a verdict based on the law as the judge gave it to us. After having my position questioned I was dismissed by both judges; one respectfully and one who appeared to consider me lower than dirt.

    Other ways are that most of our food comes from small producers we buy from directly and whose operations we have visited; we share our home with several young adults in transition; a young couple who live in an apartment less than a mile away have their garden in our back yard.

    Also, I’m bold in telling people about the two ways of ruling; self-giving service in the Kingdom of God and lording-it-over people, even if benevolently, in the kingdoms of the world. I see all kingdoms of the world like ships headed for a breakup or already coming apart and leaving people adrift in the water. It seems to me that there is nothing kind about helping people attain a better position on a ship that’s going down, so I put my resources into invitingly showing them their place on a ship that’s not going to fall apart. The sooner they make the transition, the less the trauma.

    The outcomes of my testimony are in God’s hands. Being a Kingdom ambassador has very concrete meaning for me as does God’s love which dispels fear and never fails. The goodness of God has led and continues to lead me into greater congruence with the mind of Christ. If God’s doing that for me, God’s doing it for everyone and I want to partner with God in that endeavor.

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