This might surprise you, but I am a strong advocate for immigration reform, but not in the way you might think.
Since 1970, the United States has experienced the greatest period of immigration in its 227 year history. Some estimates say over 35 million people immigrated into this nation between 1970 and 2005. The number of immigrants in this short, thirty five-year span equals or surpasses the great immigration that occurred from 1800 to 1924. How our churches respond to immigration will define the shape of our ministry in the coming years. As our nation becomes more ethnically diverse, being the Body of Christ becomes more challenging than ever before.
The 35 million legal immigrants coming into the United States since 1970 have literally broken the melting pot, and created an incredible mosaic in almost every city and state in this nation. Adjusting to these changes is not easy. Nevertheless, as followers of Jesus, the words of the Great Commission should determine both our attitudes and our actions toward our new neighbors.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)
The Greek phrase translated “all nations” (panta ta ethne) is better understood as “all people groups.” The concept of “nations” as a geo-political theory did not exist until after the 19th century. Jesus’ command is to make disciples of all the people groups, and to do this “as we go” into the entire world. Today, we live in a time when the “nations” or “people groups” literally have come to us, and live next door. We no longer have to cross over geographical or national boundaries to make disciples of all “nations.” They are here, next door! This is why our attitude is so critical. How we view immigrants and how we feel about them will affect how we share Christ with them.
I am an advocate for immigration reform (a reformation of our hearts) because how we feel about our new neighbors will determine how we share Christ’s love with them, and whether or not we fulfill the Great Commission in our lifetime.
We must look deep our hearts and ask God to shed the light of His Word on those attitudes that foster fear, resentment and animosity. Instead of pontificating and judging those who look and speak differently, we should listen carefully to what God said to His people centuries ago.
“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.“ Leviticus 19:33-34 (NASB)
Instead of speculating and passing judgment on why they are here, I suggest we give thanks for the opportunity God has given us to demonstrate His love to our new neighbors. Rather than demand they look, cook and live as we live, why not celebrate our differences and appreciate the diversity they bring to our communities.
I confess this kind of immigration reform is difficult, especially if we have lived most of our lives in a some-what, homogeneous world. This kind of reform takes place in the heart, and you cannot legislate a change of heart or compassion toward others. Only God can work in our hearts to bring about change, and only a miracle of His grace and love can root out our deep-seated fear and prejudice.
When I was growing up in south central Kentucky, diversity was a black and white issue. That is no longer the case. In city where I live today, Greensboro, NC, there are 142 different nationalities represented in our county school system. According to the US Census report, approximately one out of every ten people in our county is foreign-born.
In light of these demographic changes, we have a choice. We can choose to be angry because things are not like they used to be, or we can celebrate the opportunity and privilege God has given us to introduce our new neighbors to our Savior. The foreign mission field has come to us!
This is the “immigration reform” I advocate – a prayer that God will give us compassionate hearts for the “strangers” who have come to live in our midst, and to enable us to love them unconditionally as Christ loves us.