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Bringing Shalom: How the Church Can Respond to DACA

The Telos Collective supports the work of the Anglican Multi-Ethnic Network (A.M.E.N.), both in our midst and in the broader Church. In light of the current immigration situation in the United States, we asked A.M.E.N.’s Associate Director of Immigrant Initiatives the Rev. Heather Ghormley, founder of Tree of Life Anglican Church and Immigration Legal Aid Clinic in South Bend, Indiana, to share her perspective on how the Church can—and must—respond to our nation’s immigrant communities.

By the Rev. Heather Ghormley

Three years ago our little Anglican church plant in South Bend, Indiana responded to a call to start an immigration legal aid clinic as a way of tangibly sharing the love of Christ with our immigrant neighbors. The experience of this ministry has deeply challenged and changed how I think about Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger.

One of things I quickly encountered doing this kind of ministry was the immense emotional and economic toll uncertain legal status takes on individuals and families and the contrasting joy and relief that comes through securing citizenship.  The lurking thought that with the whim of any law or law maker one’s family and livelihood could be stripped away cultivates a residual sense of fear and worry among immigrants. Recently, I talked with a single mom who is trying to decide between overstaying her visa here in the USA (and thus becoming “undocumented”) or going home, pulling her daughter out of school, and becoming a beggar. She doesn’t want to break the law, and yet she must also care for her daughter. She must choose between fulfilling her obligations to a nation and fulfilling her obligations to the family God has entrusted to her. Like many other immigrants, her wish as a mother is to be able to give her children a sense of security that she herself has never known.

That human need for permanency and belonging is part of why the White House’s decision to to rescind the Obama-era DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is taking such an emotional toll on many in the immigrant community. DACA itself was never intended to be a permanent solution. In fact, it requires recipients to reapply every two years, thus creating a cycle of anxiety in people’s hearts as they are forced to wonder what’s going to happen to them over and over again. And yet for many DACA recipients this program is the closest thing to permanency they have ever known in the country where they have lived out almost their entire lives.

As Christians, our responses ought to be born of neither protectionism nor anxiety, but of love.
Among American Christians there is much debate over how to respond to immigration issues such as these. We in the Church are often tempted to mimic the language and behavior of our wider culture in how we talk about immigration. Depending on our political bent or legal status, we may be tempted to adopt the rhetoric of either triumphalism or panic. Sometimes we put a “Christian-ese” sheen on our cultural capitulation, slinging about Scripture verses with all the glib of Twitter; all the while adopting the general pride and anxiety of our culture and adding to its divisions. Such worldly patterns are not fitting for a follower of Christ. Instead, Christians are called to have speech that is “always gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6a). We are called to love the strangers among us as we love ourselves (Lev 19:34), to trust the Lord with our comings and goings (Acts 16:6-10) and to overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21).  As Christians, our responses ought to be born of neither protectionism nor anxiety, but of love. How, then, are we who are charged with bringing the Shalom of Christ to the world to respond to the human crisis of undocumented children, young adults and families among us? Does Jesus care about pathways to citizenship and other legal matters?

A good place for Christians to start answering this question is with a theology of citizenship. As Christians, our citizenship is first and foremost in the Kingdom of Heaven. While we are instructed to respect the law of the land and, as much as possible, to obey it, our primary allegiance must not be to any particular nation state, but to the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, however we American Christians respond to immigration issues, we must do so first and foremost not as American citizens nor undocumented American residents, but as citizens of the Kingdom who are eternally united to one another through Jesus Christ.

Alongside the spiritual truth of our Kingdom citizenship, we must acknowledge the earthly reality that some of us have the privilege of citizenship in the most powerful nation in the world, and some of us, despite also living in that nation, remain vulnerably without that privilege. Some of us have the relative security of believing that our families will remain together for the rest of our lives; some of us fear forced separation. Some of us are able to access education assistance and jobs with relative ease; some of us must make a constant choice between providing for our families and obeying the law. We ought to take stock, then, of what it means to share our Heavenly citizenship, with those who have a different earthly citizenship status than ourselves.  Whatever our view or relationship to the laws of the land, the mercy showered upon us through Christ and the dignity given to us by the infilling of the Holy Spirit should direct our views of our own worth and position as well as how we treat one another.

By God’s grace the New Testament offers us an excellent model of how to broker between the citizenships of Heaven and Earth. In the time and context of the early church, another great power offered and withheld citizenship from its residents: the Roman Empire. To be a Roman citizen was to have the right to a fair trial, live a life relatively safe from conscripted labor, and have access to the economic riches of the ancient world. To be a non-Roman citizen, and yet a resident of the Empire was to have a life of unpredictability, often punctuated by poverty, violence and forced labor.  As the Gospel spread across the Roman Empire, the Holy Spirit made it clear that both Roman citizens and Roman non-citizens were being called into mutual fellowship with one another.  The new fellowship in Christ was far more important than anyone’s political status in the Empire. Those who had the privilege of Roman citizenship began to see that citizenship, not so much as a personal right, but as a gift for the church and a tool of the Gospel. For example, the Apostle Paul uses his status as a Roman citizen to go and collect money for those who are trapped in the poverty of Jerusalem (mostly non-Roman citizens) (2 Cor. 8-9, Acts 24:17) and to travel about sharing the Gospel.  He uses this status (together with his position as a spiritual father) to advocate for the emancipation of the non-citizen and salve Onesimus (who, by the way, may well have broken the Roman laws to be with Paul) (Philemon 8-15).  Finally, Paul’s citizenship gained audiences with political leaders, and he used those audiences not to try to preserve his own life, but to proclaim the Gospel and as much as possible promote the well-being of his brothers and sisters in the Church (Acts 26-27).

Those who had...Roman citizenship began to see that citizenship, not so much as a personal right, but as a gift for the church.

Those of us who have the privilege of American citizenship would do well to imitate Paul and other Christian Roman citizens in seeing our own legal status, not as a personal right, but as a gift to be laid at the feet of Jesus for the sake of the Church and mission of the Kingdom.  Fellowship with all the believers (not just those who share our worldly citizenship, race or status) forces us to deal with the reality that the policies of our great empire, the USA, directly impact the lives of many of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Jesus instructs his disciples to have mercy, to welcome the stranger, and to give all that we have for the sake of the Gospel (including the power of our passports).  In this time of uncertainty, the Lord calls us to open our lives and hearts to our immigrant brothers and sisters, regardless of their legal status. We must carry them in prayer and friendship, and may be called upon to share the burden of meeting their tangible legal and economic needs.  How we answer this call will look different in different contexts.

The early Church also gives those of us without legal status an example of how to follow Christ in our precarious situations. Early Christians, who were not Roman citizens, found in the uncertainty of their condition an opportunity to trust the Lord. They saw the scattering of their communities and families as a mechanism for sharing in the suffering of Christ and spreading the Gospel. It was a form of martyrdom. It’s significant that when St. Peter describes the Church as a “holy nation,” he is writing to Jewish Christians in diaspora:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).

Jesus instructs his disciples to have mercy...and to give all that we have for the sake of the Gospel (including the power of our passports)
In today’s terms, many of the early Christians would have been refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. Because of their poverty and the injustices in their part of the world, they were sometimes forced to cross borders in order to sustain their families. In fact, fairly quickly, even the practice of Christianity became “illegal” in many places. Because of their beliefs, Christians were often estranged from their political and ethnic identities. They were forced to rank their allegiances in order of spiritual importance. From all appearances, the ranking went something like: 1) Jesus Christ and his Church, 2) one’s family, and 3) the local government.

The message that through Christ we who were no people are now one people called and sent out to be lights in the darkness was vital for these diaspora communities. Rather than see themselves as helpless victims, cast about by the whims of an unfeeling empire, the early Christians found in their suffering both an opportunity to identify with Christ and a chance to trust God on mission. What the Empire or other political leaders meant for evil, God would work for the good of those who love him, and so to him they gave all of their allegiance.

I find that level of faith still alive among immigrant Christians today. Very often at our immigration clinic I will sit with some of our clients as our legal aid director explains that at this time US immigration law does not give them a way forward or that one or more of their family members may need to leave the country for months or even years if they hope to ever re-enter legally. Often I get teary as we pray for these brothers and sisters, trying to imagine making the same choice in my own life. However, on several occasions, my immigrant brothers and sisters have surprised and challenged me by saying, “It’s okay, Pastor Heather. I trust God. God will take care of us and bring us to where He wants us to be.” These are words spoken by people who have learned to see their sojourning on this earth as part of the mission of Christ. They exhibit a dignity, courage, and faith that cuts against the narrative of fear and helplessness so often associated with having uncertain legal status. Their pain is real. The consequences and hardship to their families almost incomprehensibly difficult. And yet, they do not forget their true citizenship, nor can it be taken from them. They place their need for security not in the whims of human government, but in the Lord.

My prayer today for my brothers and sisters experiencing uncertainty in these days is that you too will lift up your lives and futures and even your families to the Lord. It’s good and right to work for the physical unity of your family and your own future wellbeing. And yet, even if your worst fears come to fruition, and you must live in hiding or be forcibly separated from those you love, take comfort! The Lord is with you and will make you shine as a light in the darkness wherever you go.

  • Have you ever felt like a sojourner in a strange land? 
  • What difference does the gospel make to a person with legal and economic needs?
  • What are some practical ways you can “love the strangers among us as we love ourselves” (Lev 19:34)?

The Rev. Heather Bakker Ghormley is Rector of Tree of Life Anglican Church in South Bend, Indiana. She serves as Associate Director of Immigrant Initiatives for the Anglican Multi-Ethnic Network. Heather is also a member of the Anglican Immigration Initiative Taskforce Team, which helps Anglican churches minister to the needs of the immigrants among us.

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