Churches Struggle Over Immigration

Churches struggle over immigration
By Eric Gorski
Denver Post Staff Writer
Article Launched:10/23/2006 01:00:00 AM MDT

Illegal immigration's emergence as a potent political issue has many Colorado religious leaders struggling to balance respect for the law with compassion for the stranger, a central tenet of their faith traditions.

With immigration factoring heavily in the state's gubernatorial and congressional races, several trends have emerged as religious institutions seek to influence the debate. Among them:

The emergence of a vocal generation of Latino pastors who previously sat on the political sidelines.

Alliances between black and Latino pastors that could prove powerful in the future.

A call for comprehensive immigration reform by the Roman Catholic Church and an appeal for calm by mainline Protestant leaders.

A divide among evangelical Christians along racial lines, with some Latino leaders questioning why major evangelical organizations have remained silent.

For many churches, the issue is far from abstract – immigrants from Mexico and other points south are turning to them for spiritual nourishment.

Consider Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada. Senior pastor George Morrison has not been outspoken about immigration policy; he says he would rather talk about efforts to minister to people.

Come to Morrison's megachurch on a Sunday afternoon, and you'll find Mexican men in cowboy hats and reflective vests directing traffic in the parking lot, dancers spinning around with tambourines in the sanctuary and praise music in Spanish.

One of the state's largest Latino congregations, the church's Impacto de Fe ministry draws 1,500 worshipers per week, many of them undocumented immigrants.

“You know, (Morrison) is speaking louder than most because he's allowing a huge, thriving church to meet right there in the sanctuary,” said Ruben Mendez, a Faith Bible Chapel associate pastor and an emerging voice among Colorado's evangelical Latino leaders.

Churches seek solutions

Regardless of their faith backgrounds, Americans have serious concerns about immigration and favor a cautious approach to immigration policy, according to April polling by the Pew Research Center.

White evangelicals are particularly wary; 63 percent viewed immigrants as a threat to U.S. customs and values.

Even a majority of white Catholics and mainline Protestants, whose leaders have been outspoken in support of immigrants, are concerned that the newcomers are a drain on jobs, housing and health care, the poll found.

Denver Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput has highlighted immigrants' contributions to the economy while urging Catholics to steer away from “misguided sloganeering about border walls and 'illegal deadbeats.”' Chaput opposes both mass deportation and blanket amnesty but supports a guest-worker program.

On a recent Thursday night in the Eastern Plains town of Sterling, Chaput presided over the last in his series of town-hall meetings on immigration.

Some Catholics have criticized Chaput for being too lax on immigration. But the 60 people seated on metal folding chairs in the St. Anthony's school gym, most of them white and older, were supportive.

Sitting in the front row was Marilyn Van Well, 63, who collects crop data for the state. Van Well thinks English should be the nation's common language and has seen feedlot and dairy jobs go to Mexican workers willing to work for less. But she said her faith tugs her back to a compassionate, wider view.

“We need to welcome immigrants, for sure, but I think we need to do it in a legal sense,” Van Well said. “They are hardworking people, but they need to pay into the system. We have to pray to be more loving, and that's hard sometimes.”

In an interview, Chaput expressed reservations about building 700 miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border, which he said evokes images of the Berlin Wall.

“Secure borders are a very important issue, and I don't think our country is going to engage in a reasonable, rational discussion about this until our borders are secure,” he said. “There is a temptation once the borders are more secure to stop the discussion. That's the danger of it.”

Lack of consensus

Among evangelical Christian leaders, there is no consensus on immigration.

Butch Montoya, coordinator of Confianza, a group of Latino pastors formed a year and a half ago, credits immigration for galvanizing Latino leaders.

The activism is tempered with concern, Montoya said – from a Greeley pastor worried that immigration agents might storm his church, to pastors who wonder what would happen if a vanload of Latino men on their way to a church retreat was pulled over.

Montoya said he knows of one undocumented worker who is the pastor of a Latino congregation in metro Denver.

“We all agree we want a secure border, we want our society to be safe,” said Montoya, Denver's former manager of public safety. “On the other hand, we want the 12 million people that are here to have some avenue for citizenship. As long as they're undocumented, they're going to be in the shadows.”

Confianza has found an ally in the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of African-American pastors long active in local politics.

“We know what it means to be aliens, but it's from a different viewpoint, through slavery,” said alliance president Paul Burleson, who spoke last spring at an immigration rally in downtown Denver. “We know what it means to be disenfranchised.”

Other evangelical Christian groups' silence on immigration has caused tension. Montoya said Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family asked him to be a Spanish-language media liaison in a campaign to amend the Colorado constitution to specify marriage as between one man and one woman.

Montoya's answer: not when you haven't taken a position on immigration.

“Immigration is about families too,” Montoya said. “When you try to reach the growing Hispanic population, you have to reach out to some of their concerns and issues as well.”

Focus on the Family spokeswoman Lisa Anderson declined to comment except to say the ministry is developing an immigration position, which its board of directors will consider soon.

“They want to disobey”

Mendez, the Faith Bible Chapel pastor, said he believes groups such as Focus on the Family were simply caught off guard when immigration became a pressing issue.

Mendez is also vice president of Coloradans for Marriage, the marriage amendment's sponsor. He said he doesn't foresee any erosion of support among Latinos for the measure.

Immigration, Mendez said, is a far more layered and complex issue for the Latino community.

Moises Dominguez, 35, the lead usher at Impacto de Fe at Faith Bible Chapel, embodies that. A Mexico native, Domin guez has lived in the U.S. for 18 years and is the supervisor of a livestock-trailer factory.

“The immigrants, they are part of the economy, and I believe this is an immigrant country,” he said. “But some people, they don't want to be a part of this country. They want to disobey the rules, not pay taxes. I disagree with that.”

The Rev. Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said the NAE is split over immigration and is working on a statement balancing law and order with humanitarianism.

Haggard said he supports a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border if that's what it takes to enforce the law. At the same time, Haggard said, he wouldn't report an undocumented member of his church because that is the role of law enforcement.

“We do have our right and our left hand,” Haggard said of evangelicals. “On one hand, we will use our personal finances to pay cash so (illegal immigrants) can go to a doctor if they are uninsured. And on the other hand, we would say we are a nation of laws and we need to either abide by the law or change the law.”

Mainline Protestant denominations have fewer Latino members than Catholic and evangelical churches, but their leaders strongly support policies sympathetic to illegal immigrants.

Before tackling solutions, faith communities need to help dial down the rhetoric, said the Rev. Jim Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, a mainline Protestant group.

“The rhetoric is overblown,” agreed Bishop Allan Bjornberg of the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “We have a sense we are more at risk than a few years ago, and the immigration issue carries a lot of that freight.”

Staff writer Eric Gorski can be reached at 303-954-1698 or