Religious leaders weigh in on immigration debate

06/25/2013 7:42 AM

06/25/2013 7:42 AM

For years, the Rev. Feliz Tovar has worked to convince Missouri legislators to see immigration reform not only as a civil rights issue, but as a way to improve the economy.

But more recently, Tovar, a pastor from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, has stressed theology over economic development as an argument for granting greater legal shelter for undocumented immigrants.

“When we look to the Bible for biblical truths on immigration it states that strangers are to be treated with the same dignity and respect as God asks us to reflect on toward each other,” Tovar told the Blue Ribbon Panel on Immigration meeting in Jefferson City in December. “We are to hold true that God asks us to love all people regardless of where they are from.”

On Monday, the U.S. Senate gave a comprehensive immigration measure more than enough votes to continue to advance in that chamber, and its backers hope to bring it to a final vote before the July 4 recess. Meanwhile, religious leaders across the country are weighing in on what many call a moral imperative.

In taking up the cause, Jewish and Christian alike have cited the same Scriptures, such as one in Leviticus, stating that “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens.”

This week, a group of pastors called the Evangelical Immigration Table — made up of leaders of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Sojourners, the National Association of Evangelicals and World Relief — are gathered in Washington to leading a week of prayer for immigrants and Congress. They said they hoped to encourage the Senate to “vote for common sense immigration solutions that include an achievable road map to citizenship.”

And on Sunday, the St. Louis Archdiocese is taking part in a “Rally for Citizenship” at the World’s Fair Pavilion in Forest Park, organized by Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates.

Along the way, the immigration debate has created strange political bedfellows.

For example, Catholic support for immigration reform comes amid a backdrop of opposition to gay marriage and the White House’s so-called contraception mandate, which says religiously affiliated institutions, such as hospitals and universities, must include free birth control coverage in their employee health coverage.

Both those issues will be front-and-center on July 3 when St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson will celebrate a noon Mass at the Cathedral Basilica for “Life, Marriage and Religious Liberty.”

But when it comes to immigration, the bishops and the White House are in agreement.

Javier Orozco, director of the St. Louis Archdiocese’s Hispanic Ministry office, said caring for the stranger was integral to the church’s mission.

“The church has a real imperative to reach out to those who are marginalized,” he said. “That idea of being socially responsible comes from the Gospels.”

Demographic shift

But Orozco said there’s also a pragmatism to the bishops’ interest in getting immigrants into the pews.

“It’s of interest to the American Catholic church that the Hispanic population is growing,” he said. “There’s a real urgency to integrate those lived experiences.”

A recent poll by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that about 40 percent of the adult Catholic population in the United States is Hispanic.

That is largely because of immigration. According to an analysis in February by the Pew Forum on Religion Public Life, 52 percent of all migrants to the U.S. are Catholic. And three-quarters of Catholic immigrants living in the U.S. Are from Latin America or the Caribbean.

That’s important because, as a 2009 Pew study found, the U.S. Catholic population has lost more members than it has gained from people’s switching churches. Ten percent of American adults are former Catholics, according to Pew.

The Catholic church in the United States has long been a home for immigrants — Irish, Italian, German in the early part of the 20th century, and in recent decades Mexican, Vietnamese and Nigerian, among others.

“This rich diversity continues to be present in our churches,” said Orozco. “We know how to serve the immigrant. We’ve been here before — it’s something we do well.”

Leopoldo Sanchez, a theology professor and director of the Center for Hispanic Studies at Concordia Seminary in Clayton, said the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod also had begun to reach out to new immigrants.

Less than 1 percent of the denomination — the second-largest Lutheran group in the country — is Hispanic, said Sanchez. Church leaders look at the country’s changing demographics and recognize that the synod must adapt to survive.

“This is a church that was historically German and Scandinavian, and at one point it had to rethink its identity as American, and train its pastors to speak English,” Sanchez said. “Similarly, now the Lutheran church has to think about using Spanish.”

The synod is now studying how it can grow leadership from within Hispanic communities, he said.

Embracing the marginalized

Karen Aroesty of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois is also on the board of the Hispanic Leaders Group of Greater St. Louis. She said a large part of immigration reform was fighting bias.

She mentioned a favorite online video game among white supremacists, called “Border Patrol,” as an example of what Latinos are up against in terms of racism.

The game features cartoon characters of a pregnant Mexican mother — her character’s name is “Breeder” — and her two children, who run across a desert river as the game player shoots to kill them.

“It’s a general xenophobia, a fear that people are coming who are usurping our way of life,” Aroesty said. “So many (in the Hispanic community) have enormous strength when it comes to faith, but many don’t see them as people of faith. It’s less about religion and more that ‘those people are a different color and speak a different language.’?”

Because of its history of frequently being “a stranger in a strange land,” some say the Jewish community is especially attuned to the plight of the immigrant.

“It’s a biblical injunction — the Torah mentions it no less than 36 times,” said Rabbi Carnie Rose of Congregation B’nai Amoona in Creve Coeur. “We are called to be committed to the stranger, the widow, the orphan, those who are marginalized.”

Rose’s congregation of about 500 families has focused on what he calls “radical inclusivity” for the last eight years, welcoming inter-married couples and gays. More recently, B’nai Amoona won a prestigious prize given by the Ruderman Family Foundation for its work adapting its synagogue and grounds — and spending $500,000 in the process — for people with disabilities.

Focusing on a broad embrace of the marginalized “reminds us all that Jewish people come in every shape and size and color,” Rose said.

Daniel Groody, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame and director of the school’s Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture, said both the government and religious bodies would soon would have no choice but to adapt.

“Whether we change our immigration policy or not, it’s changing us, ready or not,” he said. “The difference is this is happening at an accelerated pace. Within one generation, everything will look different.”

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