Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Christian Responses to Immigration
This past Monday I was a part of a Faith & Politics Forum that I pretty much initiated and organized at the suggestion of John Laesch, the Democratic candidate for Congress running against House Speaker Dennis Hastert out here in Yorkville, as part of an effort to get Christians thinking about how their values relate to the issues of this upcoming election. We wanted it to be a non-partisan forum and invited both Laesch and Hastert to attend, though only Laesch was able to make it.

For this forum, about 40 of us gathered at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Aurora for a panel discussion on "Christian Responses to the Immigration Crisis". The panel consisted of Reverend Wayne Miller of St. Marks, Reverend Roy Brown of Progressive Baptist in Aurora (a predominantly African American congregation), and Father David Engbarth of Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Aurora. I functioned as moderator for the discussion (and also represented both our Emergent Cohort, up/rooted, and our own faith community, Via Christus in Yorkville). I gave the panelists about 45 minutes to respond to a few opening questions about the immigration issue and then opened it up for questions or comments from the audience.

I began by asking the panelists to describe their church and how immigration directly affects them. Father Engbarth probably had the most direct exposure of the three, as a large majority of his church was Hispanic. He gets to hear first hand accounts of immigrant life, and understands their struggles. He asked us to realize that at its core the immigration issue is very simple - it's literally a matter of survival. These people are not coming here because they want to. They are coming because they have no other choice for the survival of their families. They are economic refugees.

Rev. Brown said that his congregation, as African Americans, were dealing with having to share their power and status with a new minority group. I was especially interested in what he said about how the Hispanic community, by allowing themselves to be exploited and mistreated over here (often because undocumented immigrants have no ability to fight back), is actually undermining a lot of the civil rights that the black community has fought so hard for over the past 50 years. For instance, blacks have fought hard for fair wages and discrimination free work environments; but if Hispanic immigrants are willing to work for sub-standard pay and allow themselves to be mistreated by their employers, then that essentially undoes a lot of what blacks have worked towards.

Rev. Miller, representing a mostly white, middle-class congregation said that there is a difficulty in getting his people to see this as a justice issue (in the sense of respecting the human dignity of immigrants) rather than just a compassion issue (i.e. just giving poor immigrants a handout while still thinking of them as unwanted guests). He said his church was far more eager to get involved in ministries of compassion than ministries of justice.

The discussion quickly moved into the economic realities that are the underlying cause of immigration, both legal and illegal. Father Engbarth encouraged us to consider why these immigrants are coming here in the first place? What is it about our international, economic, political, and social systems that causes this situation? What is it that creates what are essentially "expendable human beings" (which is how many immigrants tend to feel about themselves because of how our society treats them, according to Father Engbarth). He suggested that the solution to immigration was not simply to seal our borders, but to focus on fighting global poverty and the systems that contribute to it.

In a similar vein, Rev. Miller said the key question was "Who is being served by our current immigration policy?" And the answer is that wealthy corporations and wealthy Americans in general are the ones currently benefitting from cheap, easily exploitable immigrant labor. He asked why we aren't doing something to dry up the demand for immigrants as much as trying to stem the supply.

Rev. Brown pointed out that stealing cheap labor from Mexico is not compassion, and suggested that while we should not deport immigrants already living here, we should seal our borders so as to protect immigrants from further exploitation.

When we opened it up for questions from the audience, discussion turned to how we can help undocumented immigrants become legal and help them "assimilate" without being patronizing or assuming they need to fit into the mold of white, middle-class American culture. We also talked some about the political and economic situation in Mexico that was causing so much immigration, and pointed out how free trade agreeements like NAFTA have exacerbated the problems greatly (though a lot of the blame also falls on the deep-seated and long-standing corruption in the Mexican government).

At this point we heard some first-hand testimony from a Mexican immigrant in the audience who shared with us his motivations for coming (his concern for the welfare of his family), his appreciation for America, and yet also his desire to return to Mexico someday. (One of the more interesting points made this evening was that most immigrants dream of going home someday to their native lands. They don't want to stay here in America forever. However, for most of them, that dream is eventually crushed and they resign themselves to staying in America.)

We closed the evening by asking how we could continue conversations like this, and how we could put these concerns into practical action. It was suggested that churches need to lead the way both politically, by advocating on behalf of the poor and the foreigners, and in creating practical processes by which we can help undocumented immigrants go through the steps they need to become legal. It was also said that churches simply need to be deliberate about integrating races and cultures, and do whatever they can to get different groups talking.

We all felt like the night was a great success and we are eager to sponsor more forums like this in the future - perhaps spreading the net wider and involving more churches in the future. Laesch suggested that eventually we should think about hosting a really big, area-wide event with speakers like Jim Wallis and others. It'd be really exciting to see if we could make this a regular thing and work up to that over the new few years.

For another summary of the event, check out Carolyn's blog.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 11:32 PM | Permalink |


At 12/19/2006 01:54:00 AM, Anonymous Dan DeVivo

Mike, please get in touch with me as I am currently attmpting to plan similar community events around the issue of immigration. I am a filmmaker with an activist pulse:) please vist and email me at if you would be so kind. best, dan devivo


At 12/19/2006 01:55:00 AM, Anonymous Dan DeVivo

Mike, please get in touch with me as I am currently attmpting to plan similar community events around the issue of immigration. I am a filmmaker with an activist pulse:) please vist and email me at if you would be so kind. best, dan devivo


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