Farm workers in one of the biggest orchards in the country have been studying their Bibles during this season of Lent. That doesn't surprise me -- immigrants, including both documented and undocumented, are the fasting growing population in the American churches. What is unusual is that they are using the very same Bible study as thousands of Anglo churches across the country are using -- especially white evangelical churches. The Biblical course is called "I Was A Stranger." Each of the 40 days during Lent, it examines one of the many verses in the Bible that addresses how we are to treat "strangers in the land." What's even more unusual is how many of these Christians have also persuaded their elected representatives in Congress to do the biblical study with them!
For Christians, there is no day that more exemplifies hope and renewal than Easter. Each year on this day, we celebrate that the darkness of this world does not have the final say. When so much of the news from Washington, D.C. is bleak and inspires such little hope for the future, it is good to be reminded that more is possible than ever seems probable in our bleakest moments. While it remains to be seen, the issue of immigration just might be a reminder for us all of this reality. Many of those farm workers are feeling a lot of hope these days that the broken system that has endangered their lives and separated their families may about to be reformed.
For them, this Easter seems especially hopeful.
It would be an overstatement to say that Republican politicians suddenly discovered the case for comprehensive immigration reform in the exit polls of the 2012 election. But, there is truth to it. The shift in the party's approach to the debate since the returns came in has been stark. However, this shift on immigration for many conservative Christians started well before any election results came in and is now driving the conversation on immigration reform more than most realize. Here is the story you might not know.
There were seven days in Washington, between June 12 and June 19, 2012 -- one week -- in which a public policy discussion begun to turn around. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama had tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform but were blocked in Congress by political maneuvering. But now, the winds are changing and reform seems close. And, a surprising group of evangelicals are helping to fuel the change.
On Tuesday, June 12, over a year's worth of work and building relationships was revealed with the public announcement of a new "table" of evangelicals committed to immigration reform. We launched a statement of principles that was signed by more than 150 evangelical leaders from prominent Hispanic evangelicals like Luis Cortez, Samuel Rodriguez, and Gabriel Salguero to prominent Anglo pastors such as Max Lucado, Bill Hybels, and Joel Hunter -- and even to Richard Land of the Southern Baptists Convention and Jim Daly of Focus on the Family.
The political disagreements of those who signed the statement are enormous, but still each person was united over their concern for the millions of people caught in a broken immigration system. Instead of dividing over ideology and politics, we came together for the sake of morality and the common good.
Early that Friday morning we got a call from the White House telling us that the president had decided to make a major announcement that day: young people under 16 years of age who had come to this country illegally when they were only children would no longer be subject to deportation. If they were law-abiding residents and had been to school, they would instead receive work permits that could be renewed every two years. It was similar to, though not as expansive as, the Dream Act, which Congress had previously voted against. That was very good news for the million and a half young people who have a dream of staying in the country they have lived in most of their lives. Instead of being placed in the deportation pipeline, they would now be enabled to contribute to the nation and help build America's future.
Two days later, on Sunday, there was great joy in churches across the country, with reports of many celebrations of Christians, both Hispanic and Anglo -- often together -- singing, dancing, and thanking God. It was also Father's Day, and many immigrant fathers felt for the first time in their lives the relief of not having their children living in the shadows of fear.
On Monday, the media pundits assessed the political situation. Contrary to many expectations, the Republican opposition to the president did not offer much pushback. Rather, some conservative Republican commentators now supported the action, described it as a good policy decision, and said it should have been done sooner -- which, of course, it should have.
By Tuesday, a poll showed that 70 percent of all Americans supported the decision to no longer deport young people who had lived here all of their lives and instead allow them to contribute to their real home country; only 30 percent opposed the move.
That week opened the door for a new bipartisan hope for immigration reform. But bipartisan results in politics are increasingly difficult to accomplish. It took moral pressure from outside the political system to get the system to slowly begin to work.
Some politicians have found themselves convinced by voting patterns and others by concern for immigrants, but what has fueled the change in opinion among the evangelical community has been clear. It all boils down to scripture and relationships. The Old Testament refers to immigrants 92 times throughout the text and almost all of those references have to do with treating immigrants with concern and respect. Jesus explicitly tells his followers in Matthew 25 that how they treat immigrants and "strangers" is equivalent to how they treat him. Christians are hearing the message the Bible has for them: if they treat immigrants and "strangers" well, they are treating Jesus well. If they treat immigrants and "strangers" poorly, they are treating Jesus poorly.
At the same time, more and more Christians are finding themselves sharing their pews with immigrants on Sunday. And while many of the country's major denominations are losing members, immigrant communities are increasing church rolls. To worship with someone is to know them better; many Americans are finding immigrants to be hard working, family oriented, and committed to both God and their communities.
These shifts had been happening naturally and informally in many ways over the past 10 years but now they are occurring in a focused and purposeful way. The Evangelical Immigration Table that launched last June has been methodically blanketing evangelical college campuses with conferences and summits discussing immigration reform. Tens of thousands of Christians and churches have responded to the 40-day scripture reading challenge. Radio ads are up or going up in key states across the country on Christian radio stations with pastors talking about the moral case for immigration reform.
Often times the legislation in Washington, D.C., is seen in terms of a "zero-sum game" -- when one person or party benefits, the other suffers. But, on immigration reform, that view is being challenged. Ultimately, it is not just immigrants that benefit from fixing our immigration system but churches, communities, law enforcement, and businesses will all benefit from these changes. If we can bring 11 million people out of the shadows, the whole country will be a better place.
It requires a change in thinking and perspective. It necessitates us going beyond an analysis of who is up or down in the polls or what congressional districts are up for grabs. It makes us ask the question that before party or ideology, how can we serve the common good? It is a question that can sometimes be harder to answer because it requires us to think outside of our normal boxes, but when we do wrestle with the answer, we all benefit.
Most people in America have lost their faith in Washington; the current and bitter "sequester" battle is a prime example of how some have lost sight of the common good. But in the same Capitol City at the same time and with the same players, the immigration debate is becoming an alternative example. That stark contrast bears some reflection.
So the common good is still possible in Washington, D.C., but only when we get beyond Washington. What hope requires is replacing bitter ideological battles with the search for the common good.
Follow Jim Wallis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jimwallis