A Delicate Hospitality

How Hispanic Churches in Southern California negotiate the dilemmas of ministry with undocumented immigrants. 

When he was 19, an associate pastor of one Southern California church came to the United States illegally from El Salvador. Although he has been an American citizen for 25 years, he doesn’t view violation of immigration law as sin. In fact, he sees his own illegal entry as a good that led to the salvation of his family.

For the past 10 years, he has led a ministry team that serves burritos, drinks, and the Word of God to day laborers (some of whom live in the surrounding caves) in Laguna Canyon. He recalls one day laborer’s gratitude: “I thank God for your ministry. I was going to open a bar when I go back home, but now I want to open a Bible study.”

According to a 2005 Pew Hispanic Center report, there are 11 million unauthorized migrants in the United States (including 6 million Mexicans and 1.7 million children under the age of 18). This is an increase of 700,000 from a year ago. In California alone, there are approximately 2.4 million undocumented immigrants. This influx is creating economic, social, and political pressures—as well as ministry opportunities and dilemmas for churches. The pastor mentioned above (who wished to remain anonymous) is one example. CT spoke with a number of Hispanic pastors and churches to see how they are dealing with the legal and spiritual dilemmas that arise around unauthorized migration.


Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), says that Hispanic evangelical churches, especially in border states like California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, are full of undocumented immigrants. “We have two responsibilities,” he says. “One is our collective ethos to protect our citizenry from possible terrorists and from drug trafficking. But similarly, we can’t deny Leviticus 19:34.” The verse says, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your nativeborn. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Rodriguez interprets the command this way: “We have a moral, biblical, Godgiven obligation to take care of the disenfranchised, the alienated, and the foreigner. How they got here is not our issue.” He doesn’t see someone’s illegal status as sin. He points out that Hispanic culture dominated and preceded Anglo-Saxon culture in the West, and asks, “Was it sinful for the Europeans to kick the Indians out and put them on reservations? . . . Is it sin for a father to cross the Rio Grande because his family is impoverished? He’s a hardworking, God-fearing individual; his family is impoverished, the [Mexican] government is corrupt, drug traffickers are mowing down individuals in his community, and for the sake of saving his children, they cross the Rio Grande.”

Rodriguez adds, “I would like to see the white evangelical church make some clearcut statements that would resonate with the Leviticus 19 principle alongside with what we are stating: Let’s protect our borders; there is a legitimate border issue. . . . Nonetheless, we need to work at creating programs within our churches that will facilitate the expeditious acquisition of documents, residency, and citizenry requirementsfor these Hispanic immigrants.”

Notre Dame doctoral student Daniel Ramirez traced the history of Mexican Pentecostal ministry in the borderlands through five decades, beginning with the Azusa Street Revival of 1909. Ramirez found among Apostolic Pentecostals and many other Mexicans and Mexican Americans “a de facto biblically informed hospitality that transcended—and all but disregarded—national borders and legal status.”


For top-tier NHCLC pastors, this remains the case. It begins with how Hispanic clergy understand their role. Rodriguez says they have determined that there is no legal precedent or obligation for the clergy to report the undocumented within their churches, and they base their conclusion, in part, on the traditional right of “clergy privilege.”

Joe Trull, editor of http://www.christianethicstoday.com/, pastored for 20 years in the border town of El Paso, Texas. He sees clergy privilege regarding unauthorized migrants as “somewhat analogous” to what Corrie ten Boom did by hiding Jews during World War II in defiance of Dutch law. Pastors must decide between the greater good and the lesser evil, he says. They should acknowledge the evil in disobeying the law and be careful not to rationalize it for their own convenience, but also weigh this evil against the greater good of allowing Hispanic immigrants to feed their families. He adds that Christians must work to pass better laws so that the evil of breaking the law is temporary.

Hospitality to the undocumented also means taking a compassionate approach, as does Templo Calvario in Santa Ana—one of the largest Hispanic churches in the country. The church has a history of immigration ministry. During the 1980s immigration amnesty signed into law by Ronald Reagan, Templo Calvario partnered with World Relief to help congregants with their immigration cases. Santa Ana is home to one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the country. For years, World Relief and many other Christian groups have helped resettle Asian and European refugees who were fleeing communism. For some Christian groups, refugee issues evolved into immigration issues. World Relief still helps those who are eligible to legalize through marriage, family ties, or employment—including a few who enter the country with the intent to overstay their visas.

Like most people interviewed for this article, Templo Calvario’s senior pastor, Daniel DeLeon, was hesitant to speak on the record—until Rodriguez intervened. DeLeon has pastored the church for 29 years and says that when he began, the congregation was composed of 99 percent English-speaking, second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans. Demographic changes in Santa Ana have transformed the church.

On the Sunday I visited, the sanctuary was overflowing for the early morning Spanish-language service, but it was only about two-thirds full during the 10 a.m. English-language service.

DeLeon says that as a church, Templo Calvario doesn’t have people standing at the door asking for green cards permanent residency documents). “God has given us a mandate to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. This witness shall be preached to all the nations. . . . The word [nation] in the Greek means all ethnic groups. So whether they’re here or there, across our borders or across the ocean, we have a responsibility to preach the gospel to them.”

He doesn’t kick out migrants if he finds out they are unauthorized workers. “I’m not a legal entity for the government. I tell people from the pulpit, ‘Get your papers in order,’ and will always encourage them to abide by the laws of the land.” But he reserves judgment for the “real illegals”—those who knowingly employ the undocumented.

DeLeon says Christians have a second responsibility. “Many of the laws through the years have come about through the influence of the church, not only in America, but in the world. So we have a responsibility and a right to speak about issues that are touching the life of our congregation and the people that we serve.”

Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, a historian at Azusa Pacific University near Pasadena, California, has found in her research that Hispanic pastors don’t preach about the immigration issue: “The sermons are [about] piety, personal holiness, conversion. It doesn’t come up as being illegal, terrible, and sinful, and it doesn’t come up as a communal response to reform laws.”


At a meeting of about 30 Hispanic pastors within one affiliation of churches, I was introduced as a journalist from the podium and then waited near the exit to do interviews. Most of the pastors either coolly or nervously walked past. A few agreed to be interviewed, but only if they and their churches were not identified. A pastor who emigrated legally from Uruguay many years ago and whose congregation is 50 percent undocumented immigrants explained, “We have a lot of pastors who are illegal.” (This situation may be unique to this affiliation of churches, which has a very loose organizational structure.) He does not view immigration violations as sin and said neither do his congregants, with one exception. Two years ago, a couple who had been praying and trying unsuccessfully to gain legal status decided they were outside of God’s will and returned to Mexico as an act of faith.

Another pastor said that when fingerprinting was implemented in his nationally-known church’s children’s ministry (to safeguard against pedophiles), many gifted workers, fearing deportation if their illegal status were discovered, had to find other avenues of service. He said they felt rejected and resentful toward the church’s leadership because the church was “hindering them from doing the work of the Lord.”

A southern Orange County associate pastor said that his church’s senior pastor decided to forgo fingerprinting. Instead, he allowed the associate pastor to use his judgment in evaluating workers for the Spanish-language children’s ministry.

As Sanchez-Walsh suggested, most of these pastors, like DeLeon, advised their congregants to “do the best they can” to be honest, law-abiding, hard-working Christians. Only one pastor took a different stand. He had crossed the border illegally as a young man to marry his Mexican-American fiancé, but says that he now believes the current process for getting into the United States is “great” and “necessary.” When an undocumented worker responds to the gospel, “the Lord will not be glorified” if that person continues to live a lie. He expressed relief, however, that no congregant had ever confessed illegal status to him.

Christianity Today, March 2006

© cas 2006

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