In May of 2016, I was called to be senior pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church, a prominent Oklahoma congregation in an area well-known for its luxurious homes and gated communities. Many didn’t realize at the time that immigrant and refugee families also resided within blocks of our well-manicured campus, or that their children attended the same schools that ours did.
For decades, evangelical churches like ours have prayed for God to send us people from around the world who might hear the good news about Jesus. In the last two years, God has done just that in South Tulsa.
Today, immigrants from more than 40 countries – including the Middle East, India, East Asia, Eastern Europe, Central/South America and Africa – participate in our ESL, citizenship and sewing classes, as well as Bible studies and community outreach events. We now print our teaching materials in six languages and have opened a new clothing and resource center to meet families’ physical needs. Our children’s and preschool classrooms have become multi-ethnic.
Unfortunately, people today bristle at the terms “immigrant” and “refugee” in ways they didn’t two years ago. And yet our congregation has learned that nothing is more effective in overcoming biases than proximity. Partisan politics means little when there’s a human being directly in front of you, learning with you and praying with you.
Cross-cultural contact forces us to confront our own incomplete and insufficient ways of thinking. Such contact often helps us realize we’ve had opinions or beliefs about people that are untrue. We soon learn we have more in common than we think, and we find points of contact upon which to deepen relationships. Cross-cultural contact forces us to confront our own incomplete and insufficient ways of thinking. Such contact often helps us realize we’ve had opinions or beliefs about people that are untrue.
This has certainly been our experience in South Tulsa. Our immigrant and refugee congregants frequently say things like, “People in this church have treated us with more kindness than we have experienced in any other place in America.” Several have expressed such sentiments to the entire congregation during Sunday morning worship.
A similar thing is happening outside our congregation as well. The local public schools, which most of our children attend, are also becoming multi-ethnic at every level. As a result, our church is often invited to engage with families within the schools and at school events because of our unique connection to the immigrant and refugee communities.
Many other parts of our state are following similar patterns. According to data from New American Economy, one of Oklahoma’s major congressional districts has added more than 6,000 Hispanic and Asian-American voters since 2016. Statewide, we are home to 14,984 immigrant entrepreneurs, and immigrant-owned firms employ 29,120 Oklahomans, according to NAE.
Many are contributing to major companies and industries, or are business and restaurant owners who continue to enrich the cultural diversity of our state. In fact, of all the Fortune 500 companies in Oklahoma, 20 percent were founded by immigrants or their children. Several business owners in our church employ immigrants and refugees and consider them integral to their businesses.
In other words, our state’s success on every level depends on contributions from those who were not born in the United States. If more churches and their leaders will open their hearts and doors to their own international neighbors, perhaps it will be Christ’s church that helps our country chart a course toward compassion and mutual understanding.
How does the Bible fit into all of this? Loving, welcoming and imparting the gospel to people from other nations is one of the Bible’s most consistent themes, from the Hebrew scriptures, to the teachings of Jesus and the early church.
It pains me that so many people, even church people, form their opinions about immigrants from salacious headlines and social media shares. To put it plainly: While I cannot say for sure how often people pray and read their Bibles during the week, I can say with confidence that most are inundated with content from their preferred media outlets all day, every day.
As a pastor, I have no ties to any political party, politician, bureaucrat or potential candidate for office. For me, immigration is a Biblical issue. Our foreign-born congregants are human beings made in the image of God – not a political problem to be solved.
I believe the majority of people in our congregation would say the same. They go out of their way to serve, welcome and include our international neighbors. My prayer is that our church will continue to move from “us” and “them” to just “us.”
If more churches and their leaders will open their hearts and doors to their own international neighbors, perhaps it will be Christ’s church that helps our country chart a course toward compassion and mutual understanding.
As followers of Christ, we proclaim that we belong to a kingdom that is not of this world. No single political party, left or right, represents the entire purposes of God. I believe the church is uniquely positioned to be a beacon of hope and a change agent in these incredibly divided times. After all, we place our hope not in the kingdoms of man, but in the King of all Kings.