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Evangelical Christians prepare for ‘largest ever grassroots push on immigration’
January 12th, 2013
10:00 PM ET

Evangelical Christians prepare for ‘largest ever grassroots push on immigration’

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN) – When the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez talks about immigration, it is as someone who has witnessed the way a religious community is affected when a family is torn apart by deportation.

“It is personal for me,” Rodriguez said, describing deported friends and congregants as "lovely people. These are wonderful, God-fearing, family-loving people.”

Rodriguez, the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has a naturally boisterous voice that booms with authority. When he speaks about immigration, passion oozes out of every syllable. But his voice softens as he speaks of those close to him who have been deported: an associate pastor's wife, a friend from Sacramento, California, a well-known congregant - the list seems committed to memory.

Even as he relives the heartache, the pastor seems hopeful, if not optimistic.

Rodriguez, along with a number of other high-profile evangelical leaders, many of whom who have worked on immigration reform for decades, are betting that 2013 represents the best opportunity they've ever had to get meaningful reforms passed. Proof of their confidence: A coalition of evangelical groups is launching what many are calling the “largest ever grass-roots push on immigration.”

“We have a moral imperative to act,” Rodriguez exclaims. “This is the year. This is the evangelical hour to lead in a justice issue.”

In the mind of many evangelical leaders, the reverend is right.

Betting on 2013

The coalition is called the Evangelical Immigration Table and it is brought together a diverse mix of evangelical groups, including the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the National Association of Evangelicals, Sojourners and Focus on the Family.

Though the groups began holding broader discussion two years ago, Monday will serve as the campaign's first concerted push on immigration, with the goal of getting meaningful immigration reform through Congress in 2013.

“I think we have a window of opportunity in these first months of 2013,” Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told CNN. “I think there is a real, new conversation on immigration reform.”

That window, Land acknowledges, is small and could close at any point. Congress has a number of issues to deal with in the coming year; Republican members of Congress hope to focus on government spending and the debt, while the White House is likely to push for gun control early in the president’s second term.

Land, however, says that isn’t an excuse.

“I am hopeful that Congress can walk and chew gum and the same time,” Land said. “I am hopeful they can deal with more than one issue at the same time.”

The group has already released an open letter to Congress and the White House. In it, they the group presses Congress to respect “the God-given dignity of every person” and establish a “path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and wish to become permanent residents.”

“As evangelical leaders, we live every day with the reality that our immigration system doesn’t reflect our commitment to the values of human dignity, family unity and respect for the rule of law that define us as Americans,” the letter states. “Initiatives by both parties to advance commonsense fixes to our immigration policies have stalled in years past.”

Since the group's launch last June, organizers have been fundraising and placing people in three states,  Colorado, Florida and Texas, to lay the groundwork with local evangelical leaders and politicians. By making these early investments, coalition leaders hope there will be a highly reactive group of evangelicals ready to push for immigration reform.

In addition to local networking, these evangelical leaders have begun lobbying leaders in both the U.S. House and Senate and plan to do more “grass-roots lobbying,” including bringing people to Capitol Hill in the future.

According to Jim Wallis, CEO of Sojourners and a leader in the coalition, the group has met with “top-level White House officials” as well as Democratic and Republican leaders "from Chuck Schumer to Lindsey Graham."

“Immigration reform, fixing this broken system, has a chance of being the first thing, maybe the one thing, that I think could really be accomplished in a bipartisan way,” Wallis said. “Courageous, bold, bipartisan decisions that do the right thing are not real common (in Washington), but I think this is really possible now.”

Making the focus biblical

For Richard Land and other coalition leaders, this is not just a moral issue, it is also biblical.

“For those of us who are people of faith, these are issues that our faith informs,” Land said. “For us, this is an issue that is rending the social fabric of the nation and causing a great deal of human suffering. As people of faith, we need to address it.”

The campaign will release a video on Monday that features more than a dozen evangelical leaders reading the text of Matthew 25:31-46.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him…” reads Max Lucado, a well-known evangelical pastor and author.

“He will sit on his glorious throne, all the nations gathered before him…” continues John Perkins, an evangelical author and speaker.

The video continues this way for more than two minutes, evangelical leader after evangelical leader reading a biblical text that stresses the importance of helping “a stranger.”

“'For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me,'” Jesus says, describing the Final Judgment. “'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'”

In addition to the video's release, the coalition organizers have asked local leaders to encourage their congregations to take the “I Was a Stranger Challenge.” Those who take the challenge will receive daily verses of scripture that might apply to the immigration issue – with the hope that they will use them in prayer – and a “Toolkit” to help spread the word on the need for immigration reform.

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” reads the first text, citing Genesis 1:27.

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands,” reads the last text, citing Revelation 7:9.

Pastors are also being urged to use their sermons to speak about the need to help "strangers" and relate immigration reform to Christian values.

In total, the organizers believe the campaign will reach more than 100,000 churches.

“Evangelicals have been converted by the Bible and by Jesus on the issue of welcoming strangers,” Wallis said. “It is very clear if you go around the country, this is a conversion here. It is a biblical conversion. What Jesus says is the way you treat the stranger is the way you treat me.”

‘The right thing for the wrong reasons’

Coalition leaders also see the 2012 election results, particularly the fact that Republican nominee Mitt Romney struggled mightily among Hispanic voters, as a powerful tool they can use against reluctant politicians. Land, who has long counseled Republican presidents on religious issues, says he plans to use the 2012 election to his favor when talking to legislators.

“We plan to point out that if the GOP ... wants to be a viable national party in the future, then it is going to have to get more Hispanic votes then it did in the last election,” Land said. When asked if he is comfortable with getting immigration reform passed by using political and election bargaining, Land laughed.

“Maybe [the Republican Party] should do the right thing for the wrong reasons,” he said.

But Republicans are not the only group faced with changing demographics. Evangelical Christians, too, are seeing the makeup of their churches change drastically.

Nearly one-fifth (19%) of Hispanics in the United States identify as Protestant, a Pew Research study found in 2012. On top of that, Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to say they are “born again” or evangelical as opposed to mainline Protestant.

Though Hispanics are still more likely to identify as Catholic – 62% do so, according to Pew – evangelical leaders say they see signs that the number of Hispanics in their churches will only grow in the future.

“The growth in most of our churches is because of immigration. That is the future of our churches,” Wallis said matter-of-factly.

That change is evidenced in the ethnic makeup of the coalition’s leadership. Luis Cortés, president of the evangelical group Esperanza, Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, and Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, all signed on to the group early. Additionally, many of the local pastors are from primarily Hispanic churches.

Wallis concludes: “This is our growth, these are out brothers and sisters. We are a diverse body of Christ, we are a very diverse community. This is our family and this is our future.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Immigration • Latino issues • Protestant • Race

soundoff (1,205 Responses)
  1. FreeFromTheism

    when someone uses the term "god-fearing" to describe one as if this was a good attribute, they should know they have issues

    January 13, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  2. GonzoinHouston

    Like it or not, there are over 10 million illegal aliens in the US today. Trying to find and deport them all would cost over a trillion dollars and turn America into a police state. A rational solution to this problem is going to require answers from both left and right, without politics. We could give them some sort of guest-worker status that does not necessarily lead to citizenship, for example. It wouldn't be perfect, but it would be a huge improvement.

    January 13, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  3. DOG1

    Evangelicals are starting to see a loss in their numbers as Americans wise up to the hypcrisy. These immigrant families will provide the churchs with a new source of blind faith followers they can use for their political ends and a revenue source.

    January 13, 2013 at 10:06 am |
  4. Surthurfurd

    Jesus was killed because he broke the law of the land.
    He was an immigrant.

    January 13, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • MagicPanties

      My invisible pink unicorn was killed because she broke my aunt's teacup.
      (no worries, she has arisen once again)

      January 13, 2013 at 10:03 am |
    • Surthurfurd

      Magic... now was it the unicorn that has arisen or the teacup.. you were not clear... or did they both come back to repeat the process again?

      January 13, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  5. blake

    CNN continues to relentlessly promote their far left agenda.

    January 13, 2013 at 9:57 am |
    • MagicPanties

      @blake continues to suck at the Faux News teat

      January 13, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • Surthurfurd

      If you stand on the far Right everything is to the left. Just like if you stand on the far left everything is to the right.

      January 13, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • Rick

      So now 'evangelicals" are "far left", huh? Whatever floats your boat, I guess...

      January 13, 2013 at 10:05 am |
    • kenstanek

      What about super-religious people is far-left?

      I'll step back now while your head explodes.

      January 13, 2013 at 10:07 am |
    • want2believe

      Yeah...the far left always pushing issues in the name of the lord... on issues we all agree need addressed...

      January 13, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • tb63

      I love that scene in "Scanners".

      January 13, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  6. Mike

    Sounds like the Evangelicals realize the have been on the losing side of every issue and now are tring to throw their Republican stooges a lifeline for 2014. Smells like desperation.

    January 13, 2013 at 9:57 am |
  7. MagicPanties

    My invisible pink unicorn also supports immigration reform.

    January 13, 2013 at 9:55 am |
  8. greencard

    "God fearing, loving people" that broke the law and came here illegally. Kick them out, all of them. If they want back in, then do it the proper and legal way. The last thing we need is to turn the US into another Mexico.

    January 13, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • patriot

      Nuff said...

      January 13, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • MagicPanties

      Our companies lured them here, and our economy continues to rely on them. Look what happened in Alabama recently.
      Deporting all illegals would bring everything to a halt in this country.

      It's a two-way street; both sides benefit and both sides will need to make some changes.

      January 13, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Skeptimist

      Greencard, that would be a great idea if it weren't 600 years overdue.

      January 13, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  9. trex

    ..Growing up a preachers kids in Assemby of God, I found that there are three distinct types of fundamentalist church goers............The needy of mind, body and spirt, the low educated, and the ultra conservative slightly paranoid. The needy of mind, body, and spirt actually are those that this ministry assit properlys. The other two, the ministry can help shape their political beliefs thru paranoia. I recall didtrictly when JFK was running against Nixon, the Church spoke about how Kennedy's...... "allegience would be FIRST TO ROMAN, since he was that AWFUL CATHOLIC"...Now, please tell me that didnt influence the congregation.

    January 13, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • trex

      ......No arguements please........I was there.............I saw..............I heard it all....................................

      January 13, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • nancheska

      Yup....unless you were a WASP, the politicos back in the day looked down their nose. I think they still do; it's just different players today.

      January 13, 2013 at 10:17 am |
  10. Peter

    Not for anything the but GOP Evangelical Protestant background is why they lost the Latino vote. Latinos are traditionally Catholic, Mexico is 90% Catholic, and this country has a deep anti-Catholic bigotry the GOP in the 80s and 90s did not want a huge number of poor Catholics coming into the US, it was the same way a hundred years ago when the Irish started immigrating to the US in large numbers and would have large families -white Protestants treated the Irish like trash then and are treating Latinos like trash now.

    January 13, 2013 at 9:53 am |
    • Nancheska

      I never really will understand when there are Protestants who snub Catholics (when after all, the Christian church started as Catholic, before there was Catholicism, people were Pagan or Jewish, and if they were Jewish, well, their "brothers" were Muslim). So...for example: when it comes to religion and what we deem "sacred?" Look at now we have Christmas: a combo of Pagan Solstice and Festivus holiday, we pay homage to St. Nicholas from Turkey, who gave dowries to young women by dropping coin purses down chimneys and gifts to kids whose famillies were dirt poor, we mimic the Jewish festival of Lights, aka Hannukah, to commemorate the miracle of one day's worth of oil burning 8 days during the Macabee war, when incidentally, Jesus (if you believe he existed) was likely born in spring or summer! To top it off, Christmas became largely commercialized a century ago to boost the economy! It's all in how you look at things, but that's just one example of how we partake of a holiday that has become mishegos over the last hundred years or so. A redeeming thing about it is that it does bring some awareness to those less fortunate than we, which, after all was Nicholas' point (and some would also say Jesus' point).

      January 13, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  11. Rev J Wright

    This is hilarious! The GOPhers\Ballbaggers\Unholy Christians\NRA and Gun Wingnuts heads are EXPLODING. Immigration push, Gun Control push, Obamacare birth control, Gay marriage, DOMA, Tax the Rich and another 4 years for President Obama - and we'll will GET'R DONE.

    January 13, 2013 at 9:53 am |
  12. jim

    These ministers are race hustlers just like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. They don't want Hispanics to become fully independent, English-speaking members of American society–they just want to keep them down and under the hustlers' thumb.

    January 13, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • Surthurfurd

      They do sound a lot like Pat Robertson.

      January 13, 2013 at 9:54 am |
  13. Roniqintox

    from all the post here sounds like a lot of you are very uneducated

    January 13, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • Skeptimist

      Indeed! And we rely on the uneducated to preserve so many of our traditions.

      January 13, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  14. Howdy Doody 2 u 2

    Six million wrongs do not make a right. Twenty five million wrongs do not make a right. 30, 0 50 million wrongs do not make a single right.

    The world is failing. It is failing because the light of truth is being pushed aside for self assuming anointment. Get yourselves togehter...you may not recover even if you start now! Its very very late.

    January 13, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • Bostontola

      Thank you oh magnificent one.

      January 13, 2013 at 9:55 am |
  15. Surthurfurd

    It is interesting how people come to their selfish conclusions then turn to their religious text to try to back themselves. (This goes for all sides of this and many issues.)

    January 13, 2013 at 9:50 am |
    • Skeptimist

      "To shore up the dikes of their necessary beliefs, men will use whatever mud they can find." ~ Clifford Geertz, Cultural Anthropologist

      January 13, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  16. RaJa

    My Hindu God has many heads, he can do many things at the same time

    January 13, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  17. Chaos

    The issue effects them personally. Otherwise, these hypocritical cretins would be calling for universal deportation.

    January 13, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • Surthurfurd

      Are you calling those who oppose immigration reform as "hypocritical cretins" also?

      January 13, 2013 at 9:49 am |
  18. JD

    Praise the Lord they have religion. The problem is they are not law abiding! That is a sin!

    January 13, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • Surthurfurd

      Are you saying Jesus was a sinner?

      January 13, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • Skeptimist

      Suthurfurd: Jesus was framed. Which speaks to much of the drift in this thread.

      January 13, 2013 at 10:49 am |
  19. dreamer96

    If Christopher Columbus had been killed on sight on the beach..and never returned to Spain to spread the word about the New Lands to the West...The Native Americans could have taken the European weapons and started their own industrial revolution...and been ready when the next bunch of illegal immigrants arrived..

    January 13, 2013 at 9:44 am |
    • Bostontola

      That's not a dream, that's fantasy.

      January 13, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  20. MrQ

    What a novel idea! - Justify criminal behavior with the cloak of God.

    The New Testament text says in several places that Man should follow the laws of governing authorities. Thus we see again why so many have left the Church behind in the last 25 years: Hypocrisy and greed.

    On the other hand, it has worked many times before. Surely it will work again.

    January 13, 2013 at 9:42 am |
    • Surthurfurd

      Jesus was killed because he violated local laws.

      January 13, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • EveT

      Agreed. There are cases throughout history when leaders have used the cloak of God to justify criminal behavior. Some of the worst atrocities in history happened because of this religious mindset.

      I am all in favor of Christian social justice, but that does not extend to aiding and abetting people breaking the law.

      January 13, 2013 at 9:49 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.