Carson Rogers is a politically conservative Southern Baptist pastor—affiliations that firmly influence his feelings about immigrants and refugees. He believes equally in effective law enforcement and compassion toward human beings.
“Jesus was an immigrant,” says Pastor Rogers. “Shortly after he was born, Herod put out a decree that all the baby boys were to be put to death, so Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt. So, here is a toddler, the lynchpin of the Christian religion, and he starts his life as a refugee.”
These are human beings, and many of them have children who would effectively be orphaned, which is another group the Bible talks a whole lot about protecting and not oppressing.
Pastor Rogers has been thinking a lot about Jesus’ status as a refugee since he started Declaration City Church, a Southern Baptist mission, in Northeast Philadelphia. The neighborhood is diverse and relations between longtime residents and immigrant newcomers can sometimes be strained. When Pastor Rogers arrived in 2016, he began looking for ways to ease these tensions. Rather than search for a building, he began inviting neighbors to casual dinners at community centers and to small Bible-study groups at his home.
“We’re taking an upside-down approach to planting a church,” he says. “Instead of immediately buying a place and trying to cram it full of people, we’re following Jesus’ lead. He would go in to a city and meet people, love them, serve them and develop relationships. Then, growth happens organically.”
Pastor Rogers hopes these informal events will bring together residents from different backgrounds in the spirit of friendship and the love of Christ. “The dinners are a way to serve our community and to provide a safe space where people can meet and get to know one another,” he says.
Getting to know one another often means mutual education, with immigrants and U.S.-born neighbors learning about each other and their cultures. These exchanges offer the chance to find common ground. For example, 61 percent of new legal permanent immigrants are Christian, according to the Pew Research Foundation. At the same time, some immigrants may be surprised to learn that more than half of Evangelicals support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, according to a 2015 study. Furthermore, the vast majority of Evangelicals also believe that immigrant families should not be separated and that their “God-given dignity” should be honored.
At Declaration City Church, gatherings are part of an overall mission to provide hospitality and welcome to everyone. “When the Bible talks about practicing hospitality, it’s not primarily talking about having people over to your house who are already like you and you’re already friends with,” says Pastor Rogers. “It’s talking about making your home a safe space for strangers.” He quotes Leviticus: “You will regard the alien who resides with you as the native born among you; you are to love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Pastor Rogers also points to Ephesians 2:12-19, which points out that early Gentile Christians were once without a spiritual home: “…at that time you were without Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise…” For Rogers, the implication is clear. All believers, regardless of ethnicity, “are one in Christ before God. There is one family. So that should definitely inform how we treat others, knowing that God has heart for the foreigner, for the person who is oppressed.”
Pastor Rogers would like to see the U.S. government find a way to enforce immigration laws in a way that is both effective and compassionate. “If we could cut down on the drug trade across the border and all the violence that brings, that might go a good distance in terms of at least mitigating the suspicion of other ethnicities. It would help people see that they aren’t here to harm us or take anything from us,” he says. “At the same time, I would not want to gravitate to the other extreme, where our enforcement and laws for the sake of self-preservation didn’t give these immigrants the dignity they are due as human beings.”
He points out that deporting every undocumented immigrant does not make logistically or morally. “We need to remember that these are human beings, and many of them have children who would effectively be orphaned, which is another group the Bible talks a whole lot about protecting and not oppressing,” he says. “So let’s look at common-sense reforms and enforcements of current laws. Let’s make sure we are balancing our need for stability and self-preservation with compassion, and that we’re treating others with the same dignity that we want to be treated with. That is what our nation was founded on.”