Tolerance taught through shared views

Saturday, September 8, 2007

At the founding of America, most of the population in the fledgling United States hailed from the British Isles. The most populated part of the British Isles then, as now, was England. The dominant church in England then, as now, was the Anglican Church, brought into being when King Henry VIII was unable to procure a papal blessing to divorce his wife, Catherine. When the Revolutionary War ended, Anglican priests fled back to the mother country, leaving large numbers of so-called "Methodist societies" behind. Methodists, who in the 1800s were not as focused at that time on an "educated clergy," were better able to establish worshipping communities as the U.S. population migrated westward. All of this positioned the Methodists as the largest Christian religious group in the United States by 1850.

By 1900, the religious makeup of the United States had changed considerably, thanks to large immigrant populations of Germans, Italians, Irish and eastern Europeans -- most notably Poles. By the turn of the 20th century, then, Roman Catholicism had become the largest denomination in America -- a standing it easily maintains in these early years of the 21st century.

Immigration has changed the face of the United States throughout its history, and it continues to do so. We don't often think in terms of a faith perspective when it comes to immigration.

It's high time we did. Congress seems stalemated on immigration reform. Mainstream media gives us anecdotal reports on border fencing, guest worker programs and talk of amnesty. Public policy is based, at least in part, on prevailing attitudes. Attitudes ought to be based on something other than mere observation or what we heard the last "talking head" say on television. Our faith can help guide us. It's true there are no verses in Scripture which speak directly to immigration. But we can glean something from the biblical text about strangers, about hospitality, about compassion.

I invite you to find out more about how faith can inform our attitudes about immigration by attending the Interfaith Immigration Forum at 7 p.m. Monday at Centenary United Methodist Church in the main sanctuary. There will be Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Muslim and Hindu presenters. I'm expecting a dynamic event because it seems unlikely we will be in agreement. That's OK. I've learned a lot from people with whom I am in disagreement. A question-and-answer period will follow as will a time of light refreshment.

The sixth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, is fast approaching. According to a Gallup poll, the number of Americans who said they wanted immigration restriction increased 20 percent after the 2001 attacks.

Even lawyers who work in the field say the immigration process in our country is incredibly and needlessly complex. We ought to be wise enough to see something clearly. Foreign nationals want to live and work here. It's a tremendous compliment to America, and we should see it that way. Today's immigrants do many jobs native-born Americans won't do.

What we need, I'm increasingly persuaded, are sober minds informed more by their faith perspectives and less by the vicissitudes of the latest news cycle and by mere anecdotal observation. I hope you'll come and share in what promises to be an illuminating evening on Monday.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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