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Ministering to Illegal Immigrants

Illegal immigration presents unique challenges to the Church in the United States.1 Responding to the situation requires wisdom about how to minister to people who have broken the law. This is an important aspect to state up front in the discussion. Euphemisms such as “undocumented workers” cloud the matter. This is a moral issue. But with that point acknowledged, Christians must still face the question of how to minister to the twelve million or more people who are already in the country to stay. This too is a moral issue. The legal status of these migrant workers in the country should not affect the Church’s heart of compassion toward the great numbers of single mothers and families with small children that live in most of our towns, cities, and neighborhoods. In such times, the people of God must somehow learn to make distinctions between welcoming the illegal alien in the Church and giving carte blanche to the alien in the state. By doing so, the Church will avoid unthoughtfully signing onto either a bandwagon amnesty policy or a spirit of angry disrespect for an entire class of people. How should Christians read their Bibles in light of current tensions?2

The Scriptures speak quite a lot to the topic of migrant peoples, actually. The theme of the people of God being on a search for a land of their own pervades the narratives of the Old Testament patriarchs. The sojourn of the children of Abraham in Egypt shows a story of a people who go from being welcome guests (as in the Joseph story at the end of Genesis) to being an unwelcome and persecuted slave underclass (as in the beginning of the book of Exodus). This life experience profoundly shaped provisions of God’s law related to strangers. Israel is told not to “mistreat the alien,” and “regard them as native born” (Exod. 22:21; Ezek. 47:22, NIV). Deuteronomy summarizes things this way: “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19).

The New Testament brings the issue right into the heart of Jesus’ life and ministry. Fleeing from Herod, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph took safe haven in Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15). Perhaps this is one reason why Jesus highlights those who receive and treat aliens well as among the righteous in the kingdom of God: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger (“alien”) and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt. 25:35-36). By saying these things, Jesus was telling His disciples that they were to be characterized by a tender and helping spirit to needy people.

Can the modern Church see Jesus in the poor immigrant’s face? Biblically speaking, the answer to that question is “yes.” What does this mean practically for local churches? For Christians, this really is the issue. God’s people must welcome a rich diversity of ethnicities and cultures in the Church as an expression of the reach of the gospel (the book of Acts, Eph. 2:17-20, Rev. 7:9, 14:6). A spirit of kindness, not hostility, should characterize a church’s response to illegal immigrants. For example, Victor Orta, pastor of a Hispanic congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recognizes the seriousness of the fact that illegal immigrants have broken the law and the security threat a lax border policy poses to the nation. But he also recommends that churches can do some basic things like help immigrants learn English. According to Orta, this is one practical way to help “the least of these.”3

The national debate over how to deal with this complex problem will rage on for the foreseeable future. One positive scenario would involve a rigorous and perhaps lengthy process through which current illegal immigrants would recognize what they have done wrong, but could apply for citizenship and make restitution for their debt to society. In the meantime, however, what would be the potential social impact of millions of such persons whose lives were transformed by the love of Jesus and the goodness of God’s people? For the moment, that is one of the most pressing questions that the Church in America could ponder.


See also Kairos Journal article, "Illegal and Not Just Undocumented."


For an example of one church that is struggling with the implications of gospel ministry to illegal immigrants, see Abe Levy, “Test of Faith for a Church,” San Antonio Express-News, May 28, 2006, 1A.


Bill Sherman, “Churches Face Choice in Immigration Crisis,” The Tulsa World, May 27, 2006, A12.