WASHINGTON -- I was a stranger and you invited me in.
Evangelicals nationwide are turning their Bibles to Matthew 25:35 and praying that Congress is listening to those words — part of a highly-coordinated effort to spur progress on the long unresolved and contentious issue of immigration.
Faith leaders and their congregations have become an unlikely but powerful ally to reform advocates, framing the question over what to do with 11 million unauthorized residents as one of moral compassion, and tapping into influence among Republicans to soften opposition to a pathway to citizenship.
“Immigration is an issue that speaks to coming to the aid of the most vulnerable,” said the Rev. Joel Hunter, head of the megachurch Northland near Orlando. “We want to develop in our people a heart for those who are disadvantaged and give them a fair shake.”
Evangelicals have gotten involved in the issue in recent years but the current effort is unmatched, including grassroots mobilization, videos and direct appeals to policy makers.
To elevate their cause, the faith leaders, who have come together under the name Evangelical Immigration Table, have begun a campaign called, “I was a Stranger.”
It calls for church members to read the 40 verses of Scripture that relate to immigration — Exodus 23:12, for example, calls for resting on the seventh day and allowing the “stranger” or “foreigner” to refresh as well — and pray that legislators take the same Bible-led approach.
“We’re not telling people that you have to vote for this candidate, but we’re telling people that if you are evangelical Christian, the Bible should be your authority on the topic of immigration,” said Matthew Soerens, U.S. church training specialist for World Relief. He said many evangelicals were unaware of the links to immigration in the Bible.
The latest action came Thursday, when a group of religious leaders met with staff at the White House. Many also met privately with senators and representatives, focusing on Republicans who have generally opposed a path to citizenship.
“Evangelical America is the base of the Republican Party,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “We’re seeing Republican members of Congress getting support as well as pressure from social conservatives. That’s the big difference in this debate, when a member who’s on the fence can look to his or her base and say, ’Oh, okay, my folks want me to do this.’ ”
During the last immigration debate, in 2006 and 2007, surveys showed white evangelicals were more likely than the general population to view immigrants as a threat to U.S. values. New studies and anecdotal evidence shows that has faded, helped by the swelling ranks of Hispanic evangelicals.
With 100 million evangelicals in the United States — that’s about a quarter of all voters — a sizable shift in thinking could be, in Noorani’s view, “a game changer.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, has shifted from an anti-“amnesty” candidate in 2010 to a centrist in the current debate, pushing an approach that toughens enforcement but also would allow a path to citizenship. Since stepping into the spotlight, Rubio has had private talks with prominent evangelicals such as Ralph Reed.