Evangelical leaders from across the country, including many from the Chicago area, are meeting with members of Congress Wednesday to press for immigration reform. Evangelical Protestants have traditionally resisted offering legal status to people who enter the country illegally. So this lobbying effort represents a major shift for some evangelicals, including those close to home in greater Chicago.
Glen Ellyn is an almost picture-perfect Middle American suburb with a commuter train depot smack in the middle of town, tall houses with wide porches and neatly-kept front lawns, and well-equipped playgrounds where mothers push their children on swings at midday.
Not far from the town center is a large, red brick building topped with a white steeple: the Glen Ellyn Evangelical Covenant Church.
The Rev. Mike Langer, the pastor of Spiritual Formation and Outreach, stepped inside the church’s red-carpeted sanctuary, and pointed out the organ alongside a set of drums.
“We are sort of a hybrid of the new and the old,” he said. “You see a traditional old arched ceiling. A professor of mine was fond of saying, ‘If you turn these upside down, it looks like Noah’s Ark, and the theology behind that was that we’re all in here saved and everyone else is drowning.”
Rev. Langer gave a little laugh, then added, “I don’t really like to think of that as the theological framework that we work from.”
He’s trying to convince his largely affluent congregation, which was founded by Swedish immigrants, that changing the law to help today’s immigrants is a moral issue, one worthy of their prayers … and political support.
“I support immigration reform because I think it more reflects our Biblical values than anything we currently have in place,” he said.
That’s why Rev. Langer supports the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform, a document signed by some 200 national evangelical leaders. It calls for keeping families united, and creating a path for citizenship. But the pastors are quick to point out that they aren’t advocating for a general amnesty, and they want stronger, more secure borders.
Evangelicals haven’t always supported these ideas, and still, not all do: Studies show white evangelicals are divided fairly evenly on the issue, and even question why - or whether - their churches should be involved.
“There are folks that I serve communion (to) who strongly disagree with me right here in this church,” Pastor Langer said. “I love them and they love me, and we continue to work with one another.”
His church has just one Latino member. And when that lone member faced deportation after being stopped for a traffic violation, fellow congregation members rallied around him and offered financial help.
“I think the problem is when we don’t have that relationship established with the actual immigrant, it’s easy to sort of scandalize that person, to have the impression that this illegal label is the defining label of this human being,” the pastor said, adding, “That leads to so many misconceptions.”
Matthew Soerens, a former lay minister at the Willow Creek mega-church in the Chicago suburbs, has co-authored a book on the topic: Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate.
“Frankly our churches haven’t done a great job of discipling people to respond to issues of immigration in ways that are consistent with Scripture,” Soerens said.
“The Hebrew word for immigrant ... appears in the Old Testament alone 92 times,” he said. “This isn’t one or two verses, this is a consistent theme throughout Scripture.”
The real catalyst for change may be demographics. Latinos represent the fastest-growing group within evangelical churches. A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll shows 60 percent of white evangelicals would support a path to citizenship if immigrants met certain requirements.
But that community is still split. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found a majority of white Protestant evangelicals consider immigrants a burden, and think they threaten American values.
Given the divide, many evangelical pastors are hesitant to even talk about the subject, Soerens said.
“It’s probably easiest as a pastor to not address this issue because it is controversial and because a certain percentage of any congregation is probably not going to agree with what they hear,” he said. “And that means they might not come back to church, or they might not tithe, or whatever the case may be.”
But the momentum is moving in the other direction. Wednesday, Soerens and other religious leaders spent the day visiting Capitol Hill, meeting with 75 members of Congress, particularly those who are evangelical Christians. They planned to publicly pray for lawmakers by name, and worship into the evening.
“We’ll be asking that God would give these legislators wisdom, to know how to address the challenging circumstances that so many of our immigrant brothers and sisters find themselves in,” Soerens said. “But even more than that, I think our legislators need courage. I have talked to plenty of legislators who, behind the scenes, will tell you they basically know what they need to do, but it’s a politically risky thing.”
Some skeptics have suggested the evangelical push for immigration reform is an attempt to attract more Latinos to the Republican party.
Pastor Langer of the Glen Ellyn church scoffed at that idea, saying he’s never heard it mentioned by religious leaders. He won’t disclose his own party affiliation, except to say he’s not a registered Republican.
“I have no stake in this benefiting the Republican Party, as an evangelical. I have a stake in benefiting the kingdom of God,” he said.
Still, he believes Latinos would become a natural constituency for the Republican Party, if Republicans were viewed as more supportive of reform.