Rich Nathan, senior pastor of the Vineyard Church in Columbus, OH, knows what it’s like to feel out of place. He grew up in a Jewish home in Queens, NY, and attended religious schools, but he always felt somewhat 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 Rich had ever met. She was also a devout Christian. Rich embraced Marlene’s faith, and he later married her.
The Christian values reflected in his wife’s outlook have largely shaped Rich’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.”
Vineyard is a congregation of 12,000—the largest in Columbus—and represents viewpoints across the political spectrum, from liberal to conservative Republican. But Rich doesn’t care about political affiliation; he’s concerned about whether people who need help get it, regardless of who they are or where they’re from. 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, Rich 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 Rich’s leadership, the Vineyard opened a community center, which today offers free medical and dental services and employs a full-time attorney whose sole job is to work with immigrants: helping them process their paperwork and get their green cards. There are citizenship classes, GED classes, and an ESL program in which a few hundred people are enrolled.
Every day, Rich 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 immigrant families to be forcibly separated or deported if they’re law-abiding. Which makes the resounding xenophobia of late so mystifying to him.
“Anti-immigration has become the litmus test of conservatism,” he says. But he says this makes little sense. Just look at his congregation. Every week, they sit beside immigrants—legal and not—and worship the same God. They heartily support the Vineyard’s community center, because including the outsider is what it means to be a person of faith. Rich 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 Rich knows that real change is going to require strong voices within government. He’s been to Washington and spoken with members of Congress and the president’s staff. “Where are the voices speaking against the bigoted rhetoric?” he asks. “Where’s the counterargument?” For now, Rich will continue voicing that argument and encouraging his congregants to do the same.
This story appears as part of New American Economy’s Reason for Reform campaign, which features hundreds of stories from individuals around the country sharing their reasons for immigration reform. To give your reason, learn more about the project here.