Standing in line at the courthouse for early voting recently, I overheard some fellow Tennesseans discussing the border crisis and the influx of child refugees into the Volunteer State. I heard one man tell another that the government was putting up Guatemalan kids at hotels for $250 to $1,000 a night. I don't know how true that is. There had been a multimillion dollar plan to turn a nice hotel into a refuge for unaccompanied minors from the border. But I'm a clergyman, and here is something I do know:
By botching this immigration issue, we could wind up betraying our religious commitments as well as our reputation as a haven for asylum seekers.
Whatever one thinks of our current immigration policies or the president's stomach for enforcing them, nearly 80% of Americans continue to identify themselves as "Christian." And while as many as half of those may be steeple dropouts, it's significant that they continue to identify with the faith into which they were baptized. Polls suggest that nearly all of them believe in God. No doubt most try to love their neighbors as themselves, and I suspect that many resort to prayer when the propeller falls off. So, yes, America is a blended nation spiritually, but the dominant flavor of that blend remains decidedly Christian.
That's why I was struck by a recent letter of the United Methodist Bishops of Texas to the faithful in the Lone Star state. Not exactly a liberal bunch, these Texas bishops have offered some sage pastoral advice for all Americans of faith. It's worth noting that the authors didn't rely on secondhand reports. Some of the authors spent time on the border interviewing children and assessing the situation before putting pen to paper.
They start with the non-negotiables, the things the Bible commands. Most of us don't like being commanded to do anything, but the Texas bishops identify three teachings Christians must heed when it comes to this latest immigration crisis:
- Children are exceptional, and Jesus issued a stern rebuke to his disciples when they tried to shoo them away. (Luke 18:15-16) The bishops could also have reminded us that Jesus was once a child refugee himself. (Matthew 2:13-14)
- Christians are commanded to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty and welcome the stranger. When you have done it for the least of these, say the bishops, you have done it to Jesus. (Matthew 25:40)
- Christians are to extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:12)
The bishops remind us that we do not know what these children may have experienced in their own countries. "We do know that their plight breaks the heart of God," they go on to write. The bishops wisely acknowledge America's fears about homeland security and the financial costs of getting involved. Even so, they call upon Christians to rise above these fears and allow God's love to shape our hearts and our response.
The bishops next offer concrete suggestions for how individuals and churches might respond. Prayer, short-term housing and other "life necessities" while the long-term status of these asylum seekers is being resolved are among their prescriptions. To paraphrase John Wesley — Methodism's founder — the bishops admonish the faithful to do as much as they can for as many as they can for as long as they can.
No letter is perfect, and the bishops' letter falls short of the soaring rhetoric that might inspire a nation. They might have written something like this: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
But, then again, that has already been tried.
Oliver Thomas is the author of 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell Youand a member of USA Today's Board of Contributors.
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