'I was a stranger, you welcomed me'


UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Chester Jones

Even the weather was with us on April 10, as I joined thousands of people on the National Mall in support of comprehensive immigration reform. 

I said the Pledge of Allegiance at least six times, surrounded by accents from around the world. Everything about the day supported the rally cry of this new civil rights movement: “We are America.”

The faces in the crowd came from around the world and personified the American identity as a nation of immigrants.

From the group wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Asian Youth for Christ” to the buses with “La Iglesia de Cristo” painted on their sides, it was easy to see Jesus in the crowd. I imagine he would be carrying a sign reminding us of his words in Matthew, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

I was proud to have many United Methodist leaders and members in attendance, including Bishop Minerva Carcaño from the Desert Southwest Conference who addressed the crowd on behalf of the Council of Bishops. It is important that our church actively encourages and expands its ministry of hospitality among immigrants. This will call for the Council of Bishops to prioritize expanding immigrant ministries, particularly those working with Hispanic/Latino people. Evangelism and discipleship in the 21st century will depend on these ministries to share the Gospel with the largest and fastest growing racial/ethnic groups in the United States.

A part of welcoming the stranger among us is recognizing the challenges and injustices many immigrants face. This starts with economic or political conditions in their home countries that cause them to leave home with the odds stacked against them and continues through the racism they face in immigration policy and daily existence in the United States.

When considering immigration reform, the United Methodist Church calls for just and comprehensive immigration reform in its Book of Resolutions (No. 119 and No. 266). Resolution 266 reminds us, the “Wesleyan call to work for prophetic justice, calls us to follow our Social Principles and respond in appropriate and direct ways to prevent harm to the sojourner. Jesus teaches us to show concern for the poor and oppressed who come to our land seeking survival and peace.”

The bill that passed the House of Representatives last December is far from just and does not begin to meet Wesleyan standards. Known as HR 4437, this bill criminalizes not only the immigrants who come here illegally, but also those who offer them humanitarian assistance. This bill is only about enforcement. The Senate attempted more comprehensive reform, but recessed without passing any immigration legislation.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, close to 12 million undocumented people live in the United States. We cannot extract them from our society - they are housekeepers and business people, construction workers and college students, farm workers and congregants. These people must be afforded the same opportunities that immigrants have been offered in the United States since the Pilgrims landed here in 1619.

American history books are full of the heroic plights of European immigrants. The struggles of current immigrants are similarly heroic. They come to the U.S. to provide for their families, looking for work and a living wage or to escape horrid living conditions. They face hardships but are willing to learn English, pay taxes and work hard to become American citizens.

I believe we must not address the issue of immigration from a state of fear – fear of a country where racial/ethnic people make up a majority of the population, fear of immigrant cultures thriving, fear of depressed wages.

Standing on the National Mall, surrounded by people of all colors, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of humanity; I was overwhelmed by patriotism at the ideal of America as a field of dreams; and I was overwhelmed by the sacrifice so many people are willing to make to become American citizens. 

It is my hope that the history books will be telling the story of this civil rights movement and its heroes and “sheroes” in the near future. It is my prayer that the United Methodist Church will be a leader in this movement.

Jones is the top executive at the General Commission on Religion and Race.