It is as much a part of the American tableau as an Independence Day parade. This July 4, scores of smiling immigrants will gather — on the lawn of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and in public squares across the U.S. — to raise their hands and pledge an oath to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America” and become U.S. citizens.
The ceremony is the final step in a lengthy naturalization process in which immigrants must prove their knowledge of American government and demonstrate proficiency at speaking English. It may take months or years for their applications to work their way through the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
But for every immigrant who successfully becomes an American citizen, there are millions more who hide in the shadows, fearful that a routine traffic stop or anonymous phone call might lead to deportation. The Pew Research Center estimates there are more than 11 million “unauthorized immigrants” living in the U.S.
Members of both major political parties say that immigration reform is needed, but legislation remains stalled in Congress. As election-year rhetoric heats up, a growing coalition of evangelical organizations — including the ethics arm of the Southern Baptist Convention — is quoting the Bible to bolster its call for sweeping immigration reform that will alleviate “a moral, economic and political crisis in America.”
And although Southern Baptists passed a resolution in 2011 calling for a “just and compassionate path to legal status … for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country,” Jim Goodroe says many Baptists in his home state of South Carolina still think about immigration mostly as a political issue. “The Scripture verses [addressing the treatment of immigrants] have minimal impact on their political positions,” Goodroe said. Former Southern Baptist Convention president Bryant Wright said at an April 29 press conference in Washington, D.C., that “too many of the conservative evangelical Christians [are] allowing their views on immigration to be shaped more by talk radio and other news outlets rather than by the Scriptures.”
Goodroe, director of missions for the Spartanburg County Baptist Network, is at the forefront of the immigration-reform movement aimed at South Carolina evangelicals. He is an admitted social conservative who voted against Barack Obama but says the issue of immigration reform transcends political ideologies and that the Bible is a “pro-immigrant book.”
Goodroe coordinates Baptist missions work among churches in an area of the state with the largest and most diverse international population in South Carolina. “As you get to know [internationals] as individuals,” he said, “you realize that our commonalities far outnumber our differences — which are mainly excruciating challenges … from which God’s grace spared us by having us born here.”
As someone whose job it is to work with churches to develop strategies for sharing the gospel with all people, Goodroe feels that working to advance immigration reform is a natural outgrowth of his ministry. “I still come at this primarily from a missions perspective,” he said, “since the Great Commission is to make disciples of all the ethnicities — panta ta ethne — and the Luke and Acts versions of the Great Commission say to do this starting where we are.”
Last year, in a radio advertising campaign funded by the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical groups that includes the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Goodroe recorded a 60-second spot that ran for several weeks on 15 Christian radio stations. He called on Christians to urge elected leaders to seek solutions to the immigration problem — solutions that might “reflect each person’s God-given dignity, respect the rule of law, protect family unity, guarantee secure borders, ensure fairness to taxpayers and establish a path toward citizenship.”
Since the radio spot was first aired, EIT has made a “significant compromise” in its position, Goodroe said, broadening “pathway to citizenship” to “legal status” as an acceptable alternative. “I believe this change will allow comprehensive immigration reform to eventually pass Congress,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg, who chairs the House subcommittee on immigration, told The Courier through his press office that he has met with local faith leaders, including Goodroe, on the issue of immigration reform and wants to “continue facilitating those conversations in the future.”
“I value highly the input from faith communities like [Evangelical Immigration Table],” said Gowdy, a member of Spartanburg First Baptist Church, “as well as from law enforcement officials and those who want to work in good faith to address the challenges in our immigration system.”
Goodroe’s outspokenness on immigration reform has not always met with support. He has heard from a dozen or so critics in the year since the radio spots started airing, including someone who sent him an email telling him to “go to hell.” A layman in Goodroe’s association suggested that his church stop sending funds to support the association, but that has not happened. Even though Southern Baptists officially endorsed immigration reform in their 2011 resolution, Goodroe said that local church autonomy and the priesthood of the believer “allow churches and their members to disagree.”
Goodroe, who will lead immigration seminars this September at the North American Mission Leaders conference in Atlanta, keeps the pastors of his association informed of his work with EIT, and he is quick to share with both critics and supporters his six-page paper, “An Evangelical Response to Immigration,” plus a page of 40 Bible verses that address how God’s people should treat immigrants. The 40 verses include Leviticus 19:33-34 (“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God”); and Matthew 25:35 (“For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in”). (Citations are from the New American Standard Bible.)
Another South Carolina Baptist leader, Derrick Smith, pastor of Kaleidoscope Multiethnic Fellowship in Spartanburg County, appears in a new 45-minute documentary, “The Stranger,” which profiles three immigrant families’ stories, including a single-parent family in Smith’s own church. The film seeks to mobilize evangelical Christians to respond to illegal aliens and to immigration policy “in ways that are consistent with biblical principles,” according to a statement from EIT, which commissioned the documentary.
“As an American Christian … are you called to keep people who are different from you out of the United States, or are you called to get them into the kingdom of God?” Smith poses while being interviewed in the film. “In our church, we know people who came to this country undocumented, [and] they became Christians here. Would you say to them, ‘I wish you hadn’t come here and weren’t a Christian’?”
Matthew Blanton, who grew up in Ecuador as the child of Southern Baptist missionaries, is working to encourage churches, Sunday school classes and others to schedule group showings of “The Stranger” (TheStrangerFilm.org). Blanton says God gave him a passion for loving immigrants when he was a student at North Greenville University and was leader of a Spanish-speaking Impact team that led worship at nearby churches. He found that “80 to 90 percent” of Latinos who made decisions for Christ were undocumented and lived in constant fear of being separated from their families. “It changes everything when it’s your brothers and sisters,” he said.
Blanton, a recent seminary graduate who is headed to the Guatemala mission field early next year with his wife, recently organized a town hall meeting for Latinos at First Baptist Church of Gaffney, where U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, speaking entirely in Spanish, addressed about 150 people. In March, Blanton helped plan a luncheon for about 60 Charleston-area pastors of different denominations at an event co-hosted by Charleston Southern University. In April, Blanton led a delegation of 15 South Carolina pastors to Washington, D.C., to meet with South Carolina’s members of Congress and ask them to pass meaningful immigration legislation.
One of the pastors who traveled with Blanton to Washington was Dale Sutton, pastor of Overbrook Baptist Church in Greenville. “My concern in this debate is very pragmatic,” said Sutton. “I’m pretty conservative politically, but we have got a fiasco in our nation, and we just keep kicking the can down the road.”
He said he does not favor amnesty, a word Sutton says is “kicked around all over the place” by those who argue against immigration reform. “We want to see the laws obeyed,” he said, “but if the laws are not working, let’s fix the laws so that everybody knows what the rules are.”
Sutton said he is old enough to remember when it was illegal for a black person to eat at a lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in Greenville. “A lot of us in the Southern Baptist Convention were late to the party on racial equality,” he said. “I don’t want to be on the wrong side of the Bible again.”
Beyond South Carolina, a growing number of Southern Baptist leaders are calling for immigration reform. Conservative evangelical heavyweight Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, joined former SBC president Bryant Wright April 29 in urging Congress to enact immigration reform. At a news conference in Washington, D.C., where more than 250 evangelical leaders gathered to encourage Congress to move forward with comprehensive legislation, Patterson said he believes “we are at a point in this country where we are very much on the verge of acting unjustly.”
“I believe the fear of God informing our actions would cause us to reach out to many people in this country from many different origins who are not known lawbreakers, not workers of wickedness, but simply needing an opportunity,” Patterson said. “We cannot afford, on the issue of immigration reform, to be anything other than kind and generous.”
Wright, SBC president from 2010-12, discussed the resolution on immigration reform that was adopted by Southern Baptist Convention messengers in 2011 in Phoenix. Southern Baptist leaders saw the “need for us to have a resolution calling for immigration reform that was based on biblical guidance and biblical standards,” Wright said.
The SBC’s resolution called for the advancement of the gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and holding businesses accountable in their hiring practices. It also asked public officials to establish — after securing the borders — a “just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country.” It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention participates in the Evangelical Immigration Table. Russell D. Moore, ERLC president, is a signatory to EIT’s principles, according to a list of signatories published at the organization’s website, evangelicalimmigrationtable.com.
“While evangelicals, like other Americans, might disagree on the political specifics of achieving a just and compassionate immigration policy, our rhetoric must be informed by more than politics, but instead by gospel and mission,” Moore wrote in a 2011 blog post entitled “Immigration and the Gospel.”
“The larger issue is in how we talk about this issue, recognizing that this is not about ‘issues’ or ‘culture wars’ but about persons made in the image of God,” Moore wrote. “Our churches must be the presence of Christ to all persons, regardless of country of origin or legal status.”
Barrett Duke, ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research, says U.S. law must be respected even as Christian Americans seek a compassionate immigration policy. “Those of us who are offended that these men and women willingly broke our laws and continue to do so with false identity documents are right to be offended,” he wrote in an ERLC.com post in November 2012. “There must be a penalty for this. But for those of us who call ourselves Christians, our reaction to them should first be one of compassion, not retribution.”
“These men and women are loved by God as much as we,” Duke said. “They also are created in the image of God. They are also people for whom Jesus died. They deserve better than what some among us are attempting. For many, the skills they apply here are not even useful in the homelands they left years ago. To drive them out is certain to consign them to lives of abject poverty. This is not a Christian response to people in need.”
Other prominent Southern Baptist signatories to the EIT principles at the organization’s website include Paige Patterson; former ERLC president Richard Land; Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; J.D. Greear, lead pastor, The Summit Church, Durham, N.C.; and Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research.
South Carolina signatories, in addition to Goodroe, Smith, Blanton and Sutton, include Tony Beam, director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University and chairman of the Christian Life and Public Affairs Committee of the South Carolina Baptist Convention; and David Blanton, director of missions for Union County Baptist Association.
— With reporting by Michelle Tyer, a newswriter for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Tom Strode, Baptist Press Washington bureau chief.