Houston ministers on immigration: An open letter

We are experiencing a time of rancor and division in our nation unseen in generations. Even people of faith and goodwill are conflicted, and admittedly, Holy Scripture often offers counsel in more than one direction. On at least one issue, however, the witness of Holy Scripture is consistent and unequivocal: the treatment of immigrants and refugees.

Early in the Old Testament, God reminds the people of Israel of their own formative experience as immigrants and refugees in Egypt and of the suffering they received at Pharaoh's hand. God delivered the Israelites into the Promised Land, and God commands them to redeem their worst experience by embracing those in similar circumstances:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. — Leviticus 19:33-34

God's people were human, as we are all human, and they often failed to follow God's command to offer sanctuary to aliens in their land. They were faithful to come together and worship together, proclaiming loudly, "This is the house of the Lord!" but they neglected God's call for grace toward immigrants and refugees.

The prophet Jeremiah reminded the people that worship is pleasing to God only as an outgrowth of empathy and justice. And in what does God's justice consist? Through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7: 5-7, 11), God says:

"If you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place."

God ends this injunction ominously: "I am watching, says the Lord."

Jesus himself likewise commands his followers to care for the vulnerable. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus gives us the model for how to care for the sojourner in need. In Matthew 25, Jesus proclaims that those who welcome the stranger in their midst actually welcome Jesus himself and have a place in God's kingdom, while those who do not will be cast out. And the author of the Letter to the Hebrews makes the point most eloquently:

"Show hospitality to the stranger, for by so doing some have entertained angels unaware."

Finally, the Book of Ruth chronicles the story of the widowed Moabite Ruth, an immigrant who moves to Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi. Ruth offers a poignant speech of loyalty and commitment to her mother-in-law and her newly adopted country. In later centuries, rabbis constructed a Jewish catechism from Ruth's speech. In other words, Ruth the immigrant became the very model for what it meant to be a faithful Jew.

Just so, we — who are ourselves a nation of immigrants — can learn lessons of fortitude and faith from today's immigrants and refugees who seek shelter in our great land. Like Ruth and like our forebears, they hope for a new life of safety and prosperity for their families. Like Ruth and like our forebears, they wish to work hard and contribute to our communities. They can remind us of our best selves, but first we must receive them with grace and compassion.

The Rev. Hannah E. Atkins, Rector, Trinity Episcopal Church
The Rev. Dr. Jim Birchfield, Senior Pastor, First Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Harvey Clemons, Senior Pastor, Pleasant Hills Baptist Church
The Rev. John Ogletree, Senior Pastor, First Metropolitan Baptist Church
The Very Rev. Barkley Thompson, Dean, Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal)
The Rev. Dr. Steve Wells, Senior Pastor, South Main Baptist Church
The Rev. Dr. Ralph D. West, Founder and Senior Pastor, The Church Without Walls
The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector, Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church
The Rev. Tommy Williams, Senior Pastor, St. Paul's United Methodist Church

An Open Letter to US Politicians and Fellow Citizens on Refugee Resettlement

People of Christian faith are on the cusp of the season of Advent, a time when we remember the birth of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that just after Jesus’ birth his family became refugees to Egypt in order to flee persecution and violence. Our Scriptures and many other faith traditions have as a central and prominent tenet the welcome of the stranger, the foreigner, and the immigrant. This nation has a history of such welcome.

Give me...your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Fellow citizens, these lines are written on our Statue of Liberty. When commissioned, this monument and these words were meant to welcome people fleeing all sorts of situations back home in native lands to our shores. Many of our ancestors were among these huddled masses.

Fast forward to this historic moment in 2015. We live in a time of mass migration. Refugee crises are the reality the world over. This has been true not for months but for years. Those from Central America, and now from Syria, and the war torn Middle East are the latest ones. Old and young seek a safer, more hopeful life somewhere other than in their ancestral land – a striking decision when you stop to think about it. The vast majority of them come with this simple aim: a peaceful life.

During times of terror, murder, and violence, political leaders will make decisions that protect their own innocent citizens from harm. Yet what about the innocent who are left in the crossfire?

Of the Syrian refugees being referred by the United Nations for settlement, more than half are children under the age of 18. A large proportion of them are women or elderly men. The protocol for admittance under refugee guidelines takes an average of 18-24 months during a rigorous screening process. Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute says, “The refugee resettlement program is the least likely way for a terrorist to infiltrate the United States.”

It is morally irresponsible for political leaders to lead with fear and misinformation. Governing is about making considered choices in speech and action for all of a nation’s citizens. Recent statements by political leaders are disappointing and appeal more to our base selves than to our more worthy selves. We expect our leaders to shepherd us on a higher plane.

Does this mean we receive people indiscriminately and irresponsibly? Of course not. But neither do we indiscriminately and cavalierly shut out those masses who are “yearning to breathe free.”

One year ago we were grappling with a response to those coming in larger numbers to our southern border. That challenge is ongoing. The Syrian question is the latest manifestation of a global reality. This challenge will not go away and, in fact, is an opportunity for our communities to show our moral courage in the face of fear. If we are not able to do that, we will have responded in exactly the way the forces of evil desire.

As Christian faith leaders, we call upon:

  1. Gov. Greg Abbott to reconsider his direction to state agencies to stop assisting organizations that help resettle Syrian refugees,
  2. U.S. representatives and senators to reject any bill that shuts down funding for refugee resettlement,
  3. Each faith community to find tangible ways to welcome a refugee family,
  4. All citizens and leaders to reject rhetoric unbecoming American values, and
  5. All Christians to speak in ways that give dignity and honor to all people.

We must respond with conviction to show once again that, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”

Signed (11/20/15)

Janice Riggle Huie, Bishop, Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
The Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Texas
Michael Rinehart, Bishop, Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The Rev. Mike Cole, General Presbyter, Presbytery of New Covenant (Houston)
The Rev. Tommy Williams, Senior Pastor, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church (Houston)
The Very Rev. Barkley Thompson, Dean, Christ Church Cathedral (Houston)
The Rev. Dr. Steve Wells, Pastor, South Main Baptist Church (Houston)
The Rev. Harvey Clemons, Pastor, Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church (Houston)