In 1990, I moved my family from California to Chicago to establish a church for people who were not regular church attendees. Our new church and our family did whatever we could to develop and become friends with our La Villita neighbors, many of whom were undocumented.
We discovered quickly in La Villita that the major issue in many of our friends' lives was that they were in our country illegally. I will forever feel the impact of the courage and determination demonstrated by one of the women in our church who was in La Villita without a green card. Maria and her four kids were left by her alcoholic husband to survive on their own. She eventually made her way to La Villita Community Church, where she found programs for her kids and a group of caring friends who supported her as she forged a new life for her family.
Because she could not work legally, Maria established her own business as a street vendor, cooking some of the best tamales in La Villita at 3 a.m. each day, selling them to men and women on their way to work, and rushing home to get her kids off to school as soon as she had sold the last tamale. In bitter cold and snow, and in the middle of Chicago's blistering hot summers, Maria made sure her kids were fed and clothed, in school each weekday, and in church every Sunday morning.
Seeing the struggles of people like Maria shook my world. I began to realize that all of the acts of love and kindness in the world would not change their immigration status. As long as they lacked a path to legal residency, and eventually to citizenship, their lives would always be unstable at best, and in crisis at worst. I became convinced that loving my undocumented neighbors included working to change our nation's current immigration laws.
In May 2005 I visited California's Azusa Pacific University to lead a workshop at a conference, "A Day without a Mexican," for urban youth workers. The title was based on a movie that dramatized the possible impact on L.A. and our nation if all of the Mexican and other Latino immigrants upon whom we rely so heavily were to disappear suddenly from our country. To my surprise, more than 100 college-age leaders showed up to learn more about immigration reform.
I provided an overview of various biblical passages that call us to love and care for the stranger, including Deuteronomy 10:16-19 and Leviticus 19:33-34, and I was moved by the deep concerns that these leaders then expressed for the people with whom they worked. Many of the undocumented teens were fearful of being deported. Most of them could not go to college because of their undocumented status. The irony is, many of them have lived their entire lives in the U.S.A. and have never set foot in Mexico or Latin America.
A few undocumented young people in the meeting began to share their stories. First there was silence, then sadness, and then excitement. We began to pray for these young people. Their accounts were tragic and inspiring at the same time. The thing that most impressed me was the role that Christians and the church had played in helping these young people come to new faith in Christ.
Many of us left that day convinced that to minister effectively to ethnic communities affected by the immigration debate, we had to get involved.
The New Civil Rights Movement? With the exception of a few prominent leaders, the church has struggled to lift her voice on behalf of our immigrant neighbors. After the House passed border security bill HR 4437 (2005), which would make it a criminal act to assist undocumented immigrants in any way, the Roman Catholic Church's Cardinal Mahoney said this: "It is staggering for the federal government to stifle our spiritual and pastoral outreach to the poor, and to impose penalties for doing what our faith demands of us."
Years from now, will we look back at this issue of immigration reform in the same way that we look at the civil-rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s? Will we wonder why evangelical churches and leaders did not get involved?
Six things you can do to demonstrate the love of Christ toward our
1. Understand the issues related to immigration reform (visit the church and immigration website at www.churchandimmigration.com.
2. Pray for our lawmakers to change the current laws and for the Lord to work in the lives of the men, women and children who are here without legal status. Pray that God would use their difficult circumstances to help them trust in Him, and that he would use His people to bring about change.
3. Send this article to a friend.
4. Write a letter to Congressional leaders asking for a fair immigration policy.
5. If you know people who are undocumented, get to know them as persons created in the image of God rather than as "illegal aliens."
6. Read Juan Hernandez' The New American Pioneers: Why Are We Afraid of Mexican Immigrants? Use it in a small-group discussion on the biblical response to immigration.
Noel Castellanos has worked in full-time ministry in the Latino community for the past 25 years.