Kate and Me on Immigration

Kathryn Jean Lopez:


Christine A. Scheller:

[Orange County Register, April 2006]

Responding to my Christianity Today article, “A Delicate Hospitality,” Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote that the attitude I encountered at a meeting of Hispanic evangelical pastors in southern California was “almost completely accommodating to lawbreaking.” That’s one way to look at it. The “Don’t ask; don’t tell” approach of the pastors at that meeting and elsewhere is more complex than Lopez makes out, and I think she knows it.

In an article entitled “Borderlands Praxis: The Immigrant Experience in Latino Pentecostal Churches,” which appeared in the September 1999 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Notre Dame doctoral student Daniel Ramirez traced the history of Mexican Pentecostal “solidarity” in the U.S./Mexico borderlands through five decades, beginning with the Azusa Street Revival of 1909. Ramirez found in Apostolic Pentecostals “a de facto biblically informed hospitality that transcended—and all but disregarded—national borders and legal status. For Apostolics and for many other Mexicans and Mexican Americans, the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico continued to constitute a ‘single cultural province,’ one in which people migrated (as opposed to immigrated) in search of better economic opportunities but not necessarily different social arrangements.” He concluded, “When U.S. law would capriciously raise barriers to divide people historically united through blood, language, music, cuisine, hardship, and faith, a higher law … called for a social ethic built on brother and sisterhood and charity toward the sojourner, with scant regard for de jure distinctions.” Sociologist Julian Samora evaluated the United States’ fluctuating immigration policy covering the late 1800s until 1971 in Los Mojados: The Wetback Story, published by University of Notre Dame Press. He said the evolution of policy toward our neighbors to the south “may best be understood as an extensive farm labor program—an efficient policy representing a consistent desire for Mexicans as laborers rather than as settlers.”

Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, a historian at Azusa Pacific University in Pasadena, California, explains that white evangelicals are socialized around piety, law, organization, and individualism instead of around the “communitarian effort of survival” that is common among Hispanic immigrants. She says Hispanic pastors generally don’t preach about the immigration issue at all: “It doesn’t come up either as being illegal, terrible, and sinful, and it doesn’t come up either as a communal response to reform laws.”

Wiley Drake, pastor of multiethnic First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, models the approach Lopez prefers. Drake once sponsored an undocumented Guatemalan pastor in the process of becoming a United States citizen—after confronting him about the sinfulness of his illegal status. He says, “Real help is making them legal.” If only it were that easy. According to Anita Calvillo, owner of United Immigration Services in Santa Ana, Mexico is assigned the same number of entry slots as say, Norway, or any other country—making it impossible for most Mexicans to ever enter the country legally.

Coincidentally, I met Drake at a meeting of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR), where Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the Minutemen Project, was a featured guest. Gilchrist said he hoped churches aren’t ministering to illegals “at all,” and amidst the propaganda and conspiracy theorizing at the meeting, one audience member let the word “cockroach” slip to describe unauthorized Mexicans. Drake got involved with CCIR after returning to southern California from a stint on the East coast. He says he was surprised to find that Buena Park had become “heavily Hispanic.” He adds, “Most of the gang bangers, most of the lawbreakers, were illegal immigrants.” Sgt. Gary Worrall, the media relations representative of the Buena Park police department, says Drake’s claim is both debatable and unverifiable. (To be fair, I don’t know another pastor who houses the homeless on church grounds, as Drake does.)

White evangelicals have been largely silent on this humanitarian issue because we resist antinomianism and because we would like those who violate immigration law to view it from our individualistic, pietistic perspective. Perhaps because I am relatively new to a county where scores of my “pro-life” brethren drive luxury cars, wear $200 jeans, and have the chutzpa and wherewithal to indulge in all manner of flesh preservation, I find it obscene to point out the splinter in our poor brothers’ eyes—especially when we employ them to do our household chores. It causes me to shudder, in fact, to think how God must view the richest “Christian” nation on earth walling off its borders to the poor.

6 Comments on “Kate and Me on Immigration

  1. No Chris. The Orange County Register published a rebuttal I wrote re. Lopez’s column. It’s no longer available online, but I have the clipping somewhere.

    The header is the Dale Chihuly Seaform Pavilion at the glass museum in Tacoma, Washington. It is actually a covered bridge of clear glass cases filled with blown glass seaforms. The full photo is posted under the title “Banner Photo” in the photography category, along with another view called “Kaleidescope of Color.”

  2. Chris,

    I’ve posted my rebuttal; found it through an email search.

  3. Dear Christine, I enjoyed your writing. I must quibble, though, with your description of me as a Notre Dame doctoral student. While I would have been honored to study there, my Ph.D. (December 2005) was earned at Duke University. I am currently an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Department of Arizona State University. My current book project, “Migrating Faiths: A Social and Cultural History of Pentecostalism in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands,” may be of interest to you. Best regards, Dan Ramirez

  4. Daniel,

    Thanks for the correction. It’s been a while, so I’m not sure how I got that one wrong.

    I will definitely look for your new book. So fascinating. Can you give us a summary?

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