Mike McClenahan, the senior pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, in the affluent North County region of San Diego, has watched his community’s opinions on immigration reform change dramatically over the last five years. Many of his congregants, including conservative businessmen who initially resisted the subject, have come to embrace the need for reform, telling him: We need to address this; we need to broaden the conversation.
How did this happen? The church, which hadn’t previously made public statements on the issue, formed a small immigration focus group and brought together undocumented immigrants and citizens. They invited economists, theologians, and lawyers to give guest talks and formed a book group. They heard the heartbreaking stories of how the broken immigration system affected their fellow congregants, and how policy often had negative impact on the economy. They listened to each other’s stories. “That was pivotal for our most conservative people,” says McClenahan.
Organizing to support immigration reform ‘is a no brainer.’
Eventually, McClenahan offered the program to everyone in the congregation. They encouraged undocumented immigrants to share their stories, they read 92 verses in the Bible that speak to caring for immigrants. The approach was particularly helpful for conservatives, he says, who “are not thinking about this from a biblical perspective [but] from a partisan perspective”. McClenahan was particularly moved when he saw that many of the children the church tutored were showing physical signs of stress due to fears their parents would be deported.”Those children are not just their children, but they are our children,” he says. “If we live by covenant relationships in the church, then we are family to each other. This is what should fuel our biblical understanding of immigration.”
The congregation was moved and began to take action. Church members contacted their congressional representatives to advocate for immigration reform. They partnered with other faith communities to expand social service programs for immigrants and to join the broader evangelical push for immigration reform. “We expanded our social services to create a nonprofit immigration center with trained staff and pro bono lawyers to help our neighbors navigate the immigration process, including driver’s license and citizenship classes,” says McClenahan. “I think this is a tangible way to welcome the stranger, love the foreigner in your midst, love your neighbor, as scripture tells us.”
On a summer day of lobbying in 2013, McClenahan flew to Washington, D.C., to implore Congress to act on immigration reform. He returned again that winter, joining Fast4Families, a fast held on the National Mall to pressure Congress to act on immigration reform. And he met with former President Barack Obama to explain how his church was emblematic of evangelical communities across the country.
When McClenahan looks at the broader evangelical landscape, he sees the potential to increase the active support for immigration reform. There will certainly be resistance in some corners, he says, but, especially among young pastors, organizing to support immigration reform “is a no brainer.”