In 2007, when pastors Juan-Daniel Espitia and Tom Theriault began inviting congregants to learn about the immigrant communities in and around their church, they never expected to gain the attention of former President Barack Obama. Espitia had come to the 1,300-member Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, located outside San Diego, to lead a small Hispanic congregation. His immigrant parishioners were outsiders among the church’s white, predominantly wealthy population. Many were families with mixed documentation status who lived in poverty and constant fear of deportation; they existed in the shadow of affluence.
As Espitia began ministering to this community, he became versed in its stories of struggle. He saw families torn apart and children growing up without parents. Both Espitia and Theriault knew they needed to get their church involved. Solana Beach already offered social services to the local immigrant community. A few dozen parishioners were involved in those programs, but they wanted to make a larger change. Their goal was to systemically improve the lives of the church’s undocumented immigrant neighbors. Espitia and Theriault believed that the broader congregation would get involved once they saw the plight of their fellow congregants and their neighbors firsthand.
They began by translating and publishing the stories of local day laborers who lived close to the prosperity of Solana Beach, in shacks and tents in the nearby canyons. Then they joined an interfaith annual Christmas celebration, “Posada Fronteriza,” at the U.S.-Mexico border. At these celebrations, broken families would reunite across the divide. They’d sing hymns, share testimonies, and sometimes pass communion over the fence. Crying, separated family members would touch fingers through the chain links. The non-immigrant evangelical congregants who attended were transformed by the humanity and heartbreak of these events. “It has been very moving,” says Espitia. Soon, increasing numbers of the church’s affluent, white congregants became involved with the local immigrant community, donating money and advocating for immigration reform.
The basic idea was to learn from each other. We wanted to see, ‘Can we discuss an issue that is controversial, that is difficult, and do it in an honest way?’
In 2011, Espitia and Theriault launched an “immigration focus group” at their church. They brought together a range of congregants, conservative and liberal, documented and undocumented, old and young. “The basic idea was to learn from each other,” says Espitia. “We wanted to see, ‘Can we discuss an issue that is controversial, that is difficult, and do it in an honest way? Can we listen to each other, learn and respect each other?’ ” The group met regularly over home-cooked meals, shared immigrant stories, and rigorously discussed immigration policy. They brought in guest speakers, including economists, theologians, and legal experts. As a result, even those who originally opposed immigration reform came around to supporting it. They saw immigration reform as both a smart economic move and a gospel imperative. They saw that the initial barriers or signs of resistance to immigration reform decreased with each passing meeting, until it dwindled to almost nothing. “We were moved when we saw that, indeed, we were able to learn to respect each other, trust each other, and listen to each other,” says Espitia.
The focus group appealed to the church’s senior pastor, Mike McClenahan, who eventually made immigration reform a top priority for the entire congregation. From there, the church’s involvement in advocacy snowballed. The focus group expanded, the church increased its outreach to the surrounding immigrant community, and parishioners engaged their political representatives. They also joined the efforts of the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical leaders, churches and organizations, including some of the most influential evangelical groups, like the National Association of Evangelicals.
In November 2013, President Obama invited Solana Beach’s senior pastor Mike McClenahan to the White House in recognition of the church’s commitment to serving undocumented immigrants and to learn how to further engage evangelical communities. To Espitia and Theriault, this was an important milestone, and one in a long journey. Today, they continue to build bridges between communities, because they believe relationships are the engine for authentic change. “We start to see in each other what we are supposed to always see in each other: Somebody made in the image of God.”