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posted: 8/17/2010 12:01 AM

Dealing with immigration in suburbs' evangelical hub

Activist urges evangelicals to reach out to immigrants here legally or illegally

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  • Matt Soerens talks with Sundanese immigrant Mohammed Osman in Osman's apartment that has no electricity in Glen Ellyn

      Matt Soerens talks with Sundanese immigrant Mohammed Osman in Osman's apartment that has no electricity in Glen Ellyn
    Associated Press

 

Ahandwritten sign on the church door announces the event where Matthew Soerens, fluent in Spanish, the Bible and the nation's immigration laws, will try to win converts.

For months, he has been seeking out Evangelical pastors locally and around the country, hoping to persuade them that immigration reform is a Christian imperative, even though the issue is so explosive that many ministers won't go near it.

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"I've heard people in churches saying things about immigrants that would make me kind of cringe," Soerens says.

On this night, he is speaking at Community Christian Church in Naperville, a megachurch with several sites in the Western suburbs. In neighboring Aurora, where the church has a campus, the number of immigrants has grown so steadily that some of its schools are mostly Latino. Their presence, and their struggles, have drawn notice in the broader church.

Soerens' presentation is called, "Who is My Neighbor? A Christian Conversation About Immigration." A small crowd of older couples, 20-somethings and young families is scattered around the auditorium, some with pens poised for taking notes.

Soerens barely mentions politics. He hardly ever talks about advocacy on a first visit to a church. Instead, he reels off Bible verses, from Deuteronomy, Zechariah, Malachi and more, and speaks of the Christian duty to be hospitable toward strangers, even lawbreakers.

Then, one-by-one, legal and illegal immigrants, some clutching their children, take the stage to tell how they face separation from their families. Pastors from other churches who helped sponsor the event pray over each immigrant and ask the audience to participate.

"I think the rule of law is important, and I don't think that we should pretend that the law wasn't broken," Soerens says later. "But we don't look at people and say, 'These are citizens, and these are aliens.' We say, 'These are all people made in God's image.' That's everyone."

Several prominent Evangelical leaders agree. They have publicly supported some steps that would ease a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

In July, when President Barack Obama gave a major speech seeking to restart his stalled immigration overhaul, he was introduced by influential pastor Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington. Other well-known evangelicals attended, including the Rev. Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Yet, as Soerens has found through his work, Evangelical churchgoers are in a far different place. Law and order is still the focus and sympathy for illegal immigrants is thin.

Soerens is trying to change that, one church at a time.

Soerens is an alumnus of Wheaton College, known as the "Evangelical Harvard." He is tall, clean-cut and tireless.

At age 26, he is already an author. He and fellow advocate Jenny Hwang wrote "Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate," a book that grew out of their church presentations on the Bible and immigration.

To better live out his beliefs, he moved into a dilapidated apartment complex across from a strip mall, among the few places in Wheaton where new immigrants can afford to live. He leads a Bible study for young people in the building. A small fellowship group he formed for Spanish-speakers in the complex now holds weekly worship at a local chapel.

"Scripture is at the core of who I am," he said. "I'm Evangelical and biblical, not a liberal in Evangelical clothing."

Soerens is based in Wheaton for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group for theologically conservative Christian churches. World Relief has been settling refugees for the U.S. State Department for decades.

He started as an intern, studying microfinance in Nicaragua, then returned to the Wheaton office, conducting workshops on applying for citizenship and counseling immigrants on their chances for being naturalized. That job, he said, was mainly "giving people bad news."

He began his outreach to pastors last year, largely in the Western suburbs.

The region is a hub of American evangelicalism.

Along with World Relief and Wheaton College, it is home to Christian publishers Tyndale House and InterVarsity Press, and the offices of Christianity Today, the widely read Evangelical magazine. Hybel's Willow Creek megachurch is a short drive away, as are Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Moody Bible Institute, founded by famed 19th-century evangelist D.L. Moody.

What happens here can have an impact on American Christianity far beyond the area, and one of the key recent developments has been the arrival of a large number of immigrants.

The foreign-born population in the suburban Chicago-Naperville-Joliet region increased by more than 30 percent between 2000 and 2008, according to the Brookings Institution "state of Metropolitan America" report, an analysis of census data.

Lost in all the attention to the growing religious diversity in America is the fact that many recent immigrants are Christian.

"There are fewer and fewer churches that don't have immigrants in them," Soerens said.

Slowly, the immigration issue went from just a public policy debate to a church issue.

Immigrants' legal status came up during everyday activities, such as organizing volunteers to work with children, which requires background checks for all participants. Churches with food pantries or other service ministries became aware that many of their clients weren't legal residents and wondered whether aiding them broke the law.

Grant Dixey, who attended Soerens' talk in Naperville, said the issue struck home with him when his daughter wanted to invite a 6-year-old friend, a Hispanic girl, to her birthday party. He struggled to find an address or phone number for the girl and her family.

"I think it's important to do things like this tonight, where we can educate our members about something that's highly controversial," said Dixey, a computer programmer from Aurora. "I think the Christian voice needs to be more involved."

Audiences aren't always as open to the idea.

Soerens said people have accused him of rewarding lawbreakers or have argued that illegal immigrants are disease-carriers who steal American jobs. "A lot of evangelicals watch certain media where they hear this over and over again," Soerens said.

Pastors trying to decide whether to formally take up the issue with churchgoers must weigh whether it will drive away members. Recently, Hybels sought to reassure the Willow Creek community at a church immigration forum held after his appearance with Obama.

"We are not going to turn our church into a politicized organization," he said. However, "we're not going to pretend that there's not an issue here."

The biblical debate centers on Romans 13, which says Christians must submit to civil authorities and obey the law. However, Scripture is also filled with exhortations to show kindness to the "alien" and, in Matthew 25, to clothe and feed the stranger.

When Soerens first started researching theology and immigration, he found so little written by evangelicals that he turned to Roman Catholic sources. The Catholic Church, along with many mainline Protestant and Jewish groups, has long advocated on behalf of immigrants.

Evangelical writers are slowly filling in the gap. Typical of the new books is "The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity," by Soong-Chan Rah. A theme running through all the publications is that by embracing immigrant Christians, predominantly white churches are saving themselves. Studies have found that multiethnic churches generally grow the fastest, in large part because of the higher birthrate among immigrant families.

"Contrary to popular opinion, the church is not dying in America; it is alive and well, but it is alive and well among the immigrant and ethnic minority communities and not among the majority white churches in the United States," Rah wrote.

Still, it is too soon to know how broadly evangelicals will embrace the issue. Many churches that have resolved to welcome immigrants insist they have no interest in getting involved in a political debate.

Mont Mitchell, senior pastor at Westbrook Christian Church in Bolingbrook, near Naperville, started his nondenominational church 13 years ago with the goal of creating a multiethnic house of worship. The church holds an annual Cinco de Mayo party, provides volunteer tutoring and translating for a local public school with many Latino immigrant children, offers free ESL classes, and hosts World Relief workshops on applying for citizenship.

"But we purposely haven't become a church that has become political in terms of immigration," Mitchell said, sitting in his church office. "I don't want to get distracted from the Gospel. So I just err, without apology, on the side of I'm going to love people and preach the Word and minister to the flock."

The Rev. Alexander Chu, pastor of Living Water Evangelical Church, a predominantly Asian-American church in Naperville, said his congregation is "just at the beginning" of examining the issue and is wary of moving beyond prayer and study right now.

He said he would not participate in any advocacy on immigration policy without "really knowing" what church members think and consulting with other local churches to hear their views. Chu was one of several pastors at the Community Christian Church event with Soerens.

"I believe my role is to provide an avenue for my congregants to dialogue with one another, read and study the Scripture and everybody come to their own decision," Chu said.

Soerens is aware of these concerns and treads lightly when he approaches pastors and their congregants. He emphasizes that he does not support amnesty for all illegal immigrants but believes there should be a way for some to earn a form of legal residency.

At the end of the Community Christian Church event, he distributes a "response card" asking for names and e-mail addresses from people interested in doing more.

"In any church, it only takes a few people to get on board," Soerens says. "There's been movement in the last few years, but there's still a long way to go."

Crusade: Religion 'alive and well' among immigrants

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