In 2015, when Pastor Peter Matthews went to Washington, DC, to urge Congress to pass immigration reform, he and his fellow evangelical leaders realized just how disconnected congressional leaders had become from their evangelical base.
In one meeting with then-Speaker John Boehner’s advisors, Matthews and the other pastors made a passionate plea for reform. They quoted scripture, stressed the moral imperative of passing policies that supported immigrant families, and shared stories from their congregations. Faith communities, they explained, urgently needed—and desired—quick, comprehensive action on immigration reform.
They were undocumented, but they still felt like they could give back to American society.
To Matthews, this social responsibility was also very personal. After decades of ministry, he has seen immigrants, including the undocumented, flock to evangelical churches. During his years as chaplain at the University of Miami in Florida, he spoke with countless students who faced the impossible “log jam of paperwork” while trying to obtain documentation. At one congregation, he grew close to an undocumented Haitian family that was intensely dedicated to community service. “The children sang in the choir, the father served in ministry, and the family worked in soup kitchens,” says Matthews. “They were undocumented, but they still felt like they could give back to American society.” At a congregation in Cincinnati, Matthews encountered many undocumented parishioners who got lost in the dizzying maze that is our country’s immigration system. They lacked legal status “not by choice, but because they didn’t have people to walk them through the steps” of obtaining the proper paperwork. These families lived in fear, they faced heartbreaking separations, and they regularly dealt with the stigma and stress of their status.
The problem is so acute that evangelical pastors like Matthews cannot help but feel burdened by it themselves. When Matthews joined his fellow evangelical leaders in pleading with Boehners’ advisors, he thought they had made a compelling case. But then, as Matthews recalls, an advisor grabbed his hand and said, “Pastor Matthews, more than 100 or so congressional Republicans have less than 10 percent Hispanics in their congressional districts. They would have to all vote against their best political interest in order to place this on the floor.”
This statement, Matthews says, “took the air out of the room.” It opened his eyes to the stark disconnect between Republican congressional leaders and their evangelical base, who have welcomed immigrants into their communities and become staunch advocates for reform. This includes white evangelicals who have low Hispanic populations in their districts, evangelical congregants, and pastors and the top church leadership.
For Matthews, the lack of meaningful engagement on fixing immigration policy leaves evangelical pastors stuck in a difficult position, caught between their moral calling to serve their congregants and laws that split families and strip people of protection and dignity.
“I weep almost twice a week when you see the courageous people around the world who are moving just to have a place for their children to learn, and be fed, and be educated,” he says. “Yet we continue to treat them not just with disdain but with open hostility.”
“The immigrant families I’ve worked with in the past put a lot of sweat equity into being the drivers of this global economy, and they do it under the thumb of oppression,” says Matthews, adding that he is upset by the way these families are “scapegoated for political purposes.”
To Matthews, this is “the worst kind of degradation.”
Inaction by the nation’s leaders leaves Matthews frustrated. He wishes that, in the absence of reform, leaders would at least offer resources to help immigrant families navigate this complicated system and refrain from vilifying those without documentation.
“If you don’t have the will to vote for them,” asks Matthews, “where are the resources? Where is the middle ground?”