During his commute to Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, religion professor Santiago Piñón passes about 20 churches, many of which have billboards advertising the next Sunday’s sermon. “I have never seen one that said ‘Welcome the Stranger’ or ‘Be Kind to Your Neighbor.’ I would have been there. I want to hear that,” says Piñón, who is also an ordained minister with Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
There is, in fact, significant evangelical support for immigrants. A 2015 study by LifeWay Research, which conducts national research for churches, found that more than half of evangelicals support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The vast majority also believe that immigrant families should not be separated and that their “God-given dignity” should be honored.
We need to have pastors who are courageous enough to talk about immigration.
Yet many congregations don’t address immigration at all. Sixty-eight percent of evangelicals say their church has never encouraged them to reach out to immigrants, according to the LifeWay study, though the same number said they would welcome hearing a sermon on immigration. Piñón says the absence of direction from ministers and pastors creates a vacuum that is too easily filled by biased rhetoric.
“Congregants are getting information from social media, and unfortunately I think a lot of clergy are doing the same thing,” he says. “We need to have pastors who are courageous enough to talk about immigration. Oftentimes these pastors don’t because it’s political. I think we have a false dichotomy of separation of church and state. They say, ‘Immigration is political, so let’s not talk about it from the pulpit.’ ”
Piñón, whose ancestors are both Mexican and Native American, proudly refers to himself as Mexican. As a Latino he is often approached by immigrant students in need of counseling and advice. Some of these students receive protection under the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 policy that allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to study and work without fear of deportation. DACA was originally conceived to protect law-abiding youth who know no other home but America. The new presidential administration, however, has said it would abandon the program, leaving many students feeling more vulnerable and fearful than ever.
“While they are partially protected by law, they have also revealed who they are and where they live,” says Piñón. ”We are talking about students who are coming to classes, who paid their tuition. They’re doing well in our classrooms, and now they live under a constant threat of deportation to a country that many have no memory of.”
Piñón would like to see more Christians approach immigration as a human problem, not a political one. And he believes that ministers should stand up for reform that treats immigrants with kindness, decency, and mercy. He says this begins with simple things like the language they use in their sermons. “We use terms like ‘illegals’ that dehumanize the individual,” he says. “We need to remember: This person is my neighbor; she is shopping at the same market as I am; she has the same fears, concerns, and aspirations.”