The strangers in our midst: American churches want to reach out

Saturday, June 24, 2006

At least three Christian denominations recently have gone on record acknowledging the government's position on national security and labor concerns. At the same time they also affirmed the need for Christians to look upon the illegal immigrants not as statistics but as people who need help and compassion.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod recently issued a joint statement from Synod president, the Rev. Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick, and the Rev. Matthew Harrison, executive director of LCMS World Relief/Human Care, declaring, "while we accept our Christian responsibility to care for those in need, it is not the role of the church to specify particular legislation."

The two go on to say that "we also request that the charitable act of providing assistance to undocumented aliens not otherwise engaged in illegal activity not be criminalized."

In making this statement, the Lutheran church remembers its own history. It was founded 159 years ago by immigrants who came to America to escape religious oppression in Europe.

Kieschnick and Harrison go on to say, "This much is certain: God in His Word, consistently shows His loving concern for the 'stranger in our midst' and directs His people to do the same."

At the recent U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, its membership voted to urge Congress to legislate "comprehensive and humane immigration reform."

Bishop Gerald Barnes of San Bernardino, Calif., noted that $25 billion spent on border enforcement in the last 12 years has not provided what it was meant to. According to Barnes, the number of undocumented immigrants has doubled in the last dozen years.

"It is clear that an enforcement-only approach to immigration reform has failed," he said.

The membership of the Bishops' Conference agree that "legislative debates over how to restructure the nation's immigration system should approach any policy change as a moral issue that protects the dignity of all immigrants."

According to the Rev. Patrick Nwokoye, pastor at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Cape Girardeau, it is the church's obligation to be just and compassionate to those "who are coming here not because of anything else but to make their lives better.

"They should obey the rules of the country, nobody questions that at all," he said. "We should do more than say, 'Let's ship them out.' We have to think about how important it is to be gracious and generous to people."

At its convention in Greensboro, N C., the Southern Baptist Convention voted to "balance faithful enforcement of the United States' immigration laws with compassionate outreach to all immigrants."

"The Bible teaches us to obey the law of the land," said the Rev. Dr. Derek Staples, pastor of Lynwood Baptist Church, a Cape Girardeau congregation that hosts a Hispanic mission. Southern Baptists should also consider "laws established by the government that do not encourage us to go against the teaching of Scripture."

Staples said he does not know the immigration status of the Hispanic individuals who come to Lynwood's mission. Anyone of Hispanic descent is welcome, he said.

"We look at the immigrants who are here as an opportunity for us to give them the Gospel," Staples said. "We know immigration is a serious issue. We want to be sensitive to the issue while at the same time taking advantage of every opportunity to share the Gospel."

In taking care of immigrants' immediate needs for food, clothing and shelter, Staples said, Christians can also take care of the immigrants' spiritual needs while guiding them to do whatever it takes to legalize their status in this country.

"That would be the right thing to do," Staples said. "Our ultimate objective while they're here is to introduce them to Jesus Christ."

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