Rich Nathan, senior pastor of the Vineyard Church — the largest church in Columbus — empathizes with immigrants in this country; like them, he knows what it’s like to feel out of place. He grew up in a Jewish home in Queens and attended religious schools, but he always felt spiritually disconnected from the faith of his parents and teachers. For many years, well into college, he struggled to understand what kind of man he wanted to be and how he wanted to live his life. He gave up religion and became an atheist, but found no clarity.
Then, in college, a friend gave him direction. Her name was Marlene, and she was unlike anyone Nathan had met. “I looked at her and realized that I’d been judgmental toward people,” he says. “And in comparison, she was softhearted and generous.” She was also a devout Christian. Nathan embraced Marlene’s faith. He later married her.
The Christian values reflected in his wife’s outlook — her generous, nonjudgmental heart — has largely shaped Nathan’s moral obligations toward his fellow human beings. When preaching, “I regularly use illustrations of refugees and the size of heart that we need to have toward them,” he says. “What does it mean to be compassionate and walk in the shoes of someone else? That’s a regular part of what this congregation hears.”
I regularly use illustrations of refugees and the size of heart that we need to have toward them. What does it mean to be compassionate and walk in the shoes of someone else?
Vineyard is a congregation of 12,000 and represents views across the political spectrum, from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. But Nathan doesn’t care about political affiliation; he’s concerned with whether people who need help get it. Many of the Vineyard’s faithful are outsiders, individuals who hail from 130 countries around the globe. Forty-one percent of the congregation is not Anglo/Caucasian. And because of his own struggle to find a sense of place, Nathan knows how troubling it feels when you don’t fit in.
“The church really began to get involved in the issue of immigration in the early 2000s,” he says. “The face of Columbus changed. There were many more refugees, especially Africans.” But also Arabs, Iranians and Hispanics. Under Nathan’s leadership, the Vineyard opened a community center, which today offers free medical and dental services and employs a full-time lawyer whose sole job is to work with immigrants, processing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) claims and helping people get their green cards. There are citizenship classes, GED classes, and an English as a Second Language program, in which a few hundred people are enrolled.
Every day, Nathan sees the immigrant members of the Vineyard congregation integrate further into American civic life. He sees families grow and prosper. He sees them give back. And he believes that most Americans don’t want immigrants to be forcibly separated from their families or deported if they’re abiding by the law. Which makes the resounding xenophobia of late so mystifying to him.
“Anti-immigration has become the litmus test of conservatism,” Nathan says. But he says this makes little sense. Just look at his own congregation. Every week, native-born citizens sit beside immigrants — both documented and undocumented — and worship the same God. The native-born congregants heartily support the Vineyard’s community center, because including the outsider is what it means to be a person of faith. Nathan and his flock are not the only Christians who feel this way.
“The National Association of Evangelicals has been clear on this issue,” he says. “A number of Vineyard churches have been actively involved with immigration. The greatest base of support can come from the faith community.” And yet Nathan knows that real change is going to require strong voices within government. He’s been to Washington, spoken with members of Congress and former President Barack Obama’s staff. “Where are the voices speaking against the bigoted rhetoric?” he asks. “Where’s the counter argument?” For now, Nathan will continue voicing that argument and encouraging his congregants to do the same.