This week the Evangelical Immigration Table launched the “I Was a Stranger” campaign, which is based on Jesus’ words, “I was a stranger and you invited me in” from Matthew 25:35. The campaign aims to guide evangelicals “toward principles that we believe should inform both the interpersonal ways that we interact with our immigrant neighbors and the public policies that we support.” The EIT is comprised of individuals from various faith-based organizations and churches, ranging from Jim Wallis of Sojourners, to Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.The group was founded in June 2012 and includes organizations such as World Relief, Bread for the World, and the National Association of Evangelicals.
It is timed to overlap the first days of President Obama’s second term, as the administration plans to push immigration reform in 2013. In November, the EIT sent letters signed by over 150 clergy, academics, writers, and others to Congress and the White House urging immigration reform within the first 92 days of the new administration. They chose the number 92 because the Hebrew word for immigrant, “ger,” occurs 92 times in the Bible.
The campaign “invites individual evangelical Christians, church congregations, and legislators to read 40 verses of Scripture that relate to immigration and to pray that these passages will evoke the political will to create a just immigration system that better reflects Christian values.” It also includes a college and university program called G92, which launched on Cedarville University’s campus in Fall 2011.
On a January 14 conference call, Stephan Bauman, president of World Relief stated the EIT hopes to reach “over 100,000 evangelical churches” to join in 40 days of scripture reading and prayer concerning immigrants and current U.S. immigration policy. The EIT is urging evangelicals to lobby their elected representatives to implement immigration reform that:
- Respects the God-given dignity of every person
- Protects the unity of the immediate family
- Respects the rule of law
- Guarantees secure national borders
- Ensures fairness to taxpayers
- Establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents
The principles outlined by the EIT are vague and relatively non-controversial aside from the last, aiming to create “a path toward legal status and/or citizenship.” Despite the ambiguity, Noel Castellanos, head of the Christian Community Development Association implied that specific policy endorsements are a goal for the group, saying: “We still have a long way to go in trying to say ‘this is the particular legislation we support.’” He expressed hope that the “general principles that we promote as Christians” could guide legislators in developing new policies.
Castellanos explained his political activism resulted from his realization that “being nice to people and teaching them the Bible even more, and trying to create programs for these families is not enough. We’ve got to also examine the current state of our immigration policy.” In the past, he said, most pastors would be hesitant to “get involved in this political process,” but claimed the situation is different now because more Hispanic immigrants are worshiping alongside evangelicals.
He urged Christians to “read one scripture verse about immigration a day for forty days and to commit to praying and to see how God might use this information and reading these scriptures to inform their thinking about policy, but more importantly about immigrants themselves.”
Dr. Bill Hamel, president of the Evangelical Free Church compared today’s immigration issue to the civil rights movement of last century, stating: “Evangelicals sat on the sidelines in the civil rights discussions but we must not this time.” Joel Hunter, an Orlando based pastor and spiritual adviser to President Obama said: “as we inform our people as to what scripture says, we believe that that will … percolate up to government policy.”
The “I Was a Stranger” campaign web site includes a detailed guide for meeting with and “[encouraging] legislators to vote in favor of immigration policies” that the EIT believes “are consistent with biblical values.” It also suggests that churches participating in the 40 day challenge hold a press conference at the end of it, and provides instructions for working with the press.
Although the EIT claims to represent millions of American evangelicals, it is unclear how much traction this issue will gain in local churches. Less than half of evangelicals polled prior to the November 2012 election said immigration was a top voting concern for them, so only time will tell if the EIT’s efforts will, in reality, “mobilize” evangelicals into political activism.