A Christian Perspective on Immigration

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Rev. Nancy Petty, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church
Raleigh, North Carolina
November 21, 2010
Available online at:
Text: Jeremiah 23:1-6

An unusual thing happened to me this week as I read Jeremiah 23:1-6. It was not a text that I recognized immediately as being all that familiar. But as I continued to read it and think about it, I had a nagging feeling that somewhere along the way I had, indeed, encountered this text. But where and why? I went back and looked at old sermons to see if I had ever preached on it. I found nothing. I went back through seminary notes to see if there was something significant about it that I had studied in seminary. Nothing. Then it hit me. The year was 1992—the month was May. I had just told my previous church, St. John’s Baptist in Charlotte, NC, that I was resigning to accept a call to another church, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Now many of you will remember what was happening here in the early months of 1992. You had just voted in February to bless same-gender covenants and to welcome gays and lesbians as full members of the church. Your prophetic decision made national news in the months that followed. Thus, my decision to come to Pullen made national news as well. As a result, I began getting letters from so-called Christians from all over the United States. I remember getting letters from people whom I didn’t know in Texas, Arizona, South Carolina, all parts of North Carolina, and from pastors in Baptist churches in small towns that I had never heard of. Now, I know you are sitting there thinking, “How sweet for all those people to send you letters congratulating you and wishing you well in your new ministry.” I still have many of those letters and as I have looked back over them through the years, I have cherished the two I got congratulating me—one from Jack Causey, who was the pastor of First Baptist Church Statesville at the time, and one from a seminary professor.

But let me get back to how all of this relates to the Jeremiah passage. Many of the letters that I received quoted this passage. Somewhere on the letter these words would be scrawled: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord…It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.” By coming to Pullen as a minister and affirming your decision to become a church that blessed and welcomed homosexuals and their covenant relationships, I was now a shepherd who was destroying and scattering God’s people—an evil doer whom God would more harshly judge because of my role. I have kept some of those letters as a reminder of how Christians can knowingly and willingly pervert our holy scriptures.

While I’m quite sure that this Jeremiah passage doesn’t have anything of relevance to say about my decision to come to Pullen, it does, however, have something to say about one of the most significant social justice issues of our day—that of immigration. As you well know, immigration and immigration reform is one of the most debated political and social justice issues facing America. In recent months, the conversations on the issue of immigration have reached a boiling point—in some places, such as Arizona, the debate has turned violent. Political campaigns have been won and lost on the platform of where candidates stand on this particular issue. Certain states, North Carolina being one, have instituted new laws targeting the most vulnerable among us: those whom we call illegal immigrants.

As with most social justice issues, sadly Christians are not “in one accord” when it comes to a “Christian” perspective on the issue of immigration and immigration reform. Despite the fact that our Christian scriptures teach:

  • that Christ came to break down the dividing walls of hostility between people;
  • that we are to extend hospitality to strangers;
  • that we are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves;
  • and that we are all sojourners in this life.

Indeed, “at the core of Christian belief is the profoundly radical vision of God lifting up the poor, the destitute, the homeless and the reviled over the comfortable and wealthy. Immigrants—strangers—are included in the vision of those that need mercy and justice.  Jesus was homeless, ate with lepers and sinners, and taught in the Sermons on the Mount and on the Plain that the last shall be first. In the Book of Matthew, Chapter 2, Jesus’ family flees to Egypt as refugees from persecution and the threat of death in their home country” (For You Were Once A Stranger, NC Council of Churches). But still, despite all of this that we know from our faith, we remain divided over how we should respond to the immigrant among us. We don’t act as one people and one community.

There is no doubt that the issues related to immigration and immigration reform are complicated. Our history as a nation reflects this to be true. Immigration to North America has been a primary source of peopling the continent ever since European sailors “discovered” the New World. But it has not been a constant stream. Historically important waves of migration have altered the make-up of North American society and changed the face of the nation that is now the United States. And each time, immigration has not occurred without racist or nativist reaction, even though the only true native Americans were American Indians. Immigration waves included:

  • English pilgrims and those that followed, including Germans, Scotch, Dutch, and Africans brought to North America as slaves.
  • 19th century immigrants including Irish Catholics arriving on the east coast and Chinese workers on the west coast.
  • Waves of internal migration include large numbers of African Americans migrating north after the Civil War and into the 1960’s.
  • In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rural southern black migrants were joined in the burgeoning industries of the North by Eastern and Southern European immigrants, who were considered and treated as racially and religiously inferior to those of Northern European ancestry.

Today’s wave, with large numbers of Latin American immigrants, is one of unprecedented numbers and is unique in that it is the first time in the history of the United States that a huge mass of free immigrants lack the status to legally work in this country.

As we face these issues surrounding immigration, I want to come back to the Jeremiah text and reflect on a question embedded in the prophet’s words that has significance for the conversation; and of all institutions the church should have something to say on the issue of immigration. It is the question of who is doing the scattering—who are the shepherds scattering God’s people and then not attending to their needs?

There are some in this debate who would suggest that the category of “illegal alien” is a profoundly useful and profitable one that effectively serves to create and sustain a legally vulnerable reserve of labor. In other words, some would say, that the United States has become a shepherd who has scattered people from their homelands in order to make a profit at the expense of another’s well-being. Through trade policies and business laws and even constitutional laws we have welcomed, even encouraged, the immigrant to work in our county while protecting ourselves from the responsibility to care for them or protect them or claim them as a part of who we are.

So in light of this truth, what is one possible Christian response to immigration? One response would be to acknowledge that we have been and are the “scatterers” and that we have the opportunity and the responsibility to be the shepherds—to be the ones who attend to the needs of God’s flock. The image of scattering in this Jeremiah text is a powerful image. But equally powerful is the image of shepherding. I wonder what it would mean to the immigration reform debate if Christians saw it as their mission and vision to take in the scattered flock and create a community—a community of belonging and acceptance and compassion—a community where all God’s children are “in.”

James Forbes tells the story of his childhood home where there were three bedrooms and many beds, but only one dining room table. He writes, “We used every leaf in the table to seat us all. At dinner, Mama often began with a little ritual. When we were finally ready to say grace she would ask, ‘Are all the children in?’…If we observed that somebody was missing, we were to speak up. Then, we were permitted to say the grace, but we could not fill our plates with food until we first prepared a plate for the missing member. That extra plate of food went into the oven of the old wood-burning stove to keep it warm until the missing person arrived.” Forbes reflects on this ritual, “My mother raised us to know that the first act after grace—the first thing we must do as our expression of gratitude for the blessings of God—was to prepare a plate for those not yet at the table. Her ethic of love, of preparing a portion of the feast for others before we could enjoy it ourselves, became a part of my consciousness before I even thought about it, before I went to seminary, and before I was a minister.”

A Christian response to immigration—one of the most significant social justice issues of our day—is to ask the simple question, “Are all the children in?” For it is this question that may best reflect God’s desire for us to be shepherds—to gather all God’s flock in and attend to their needs. In verse 4 of our text, God speaks and says, “I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.”

It may very well be that our hope lies in our ability to find our way back to being God’s shepherds who bring together God’s flock. Indeed, if we can practice being shepherds, we may then live out the vision of Emma Lazarus whose poem is engraved on the Statue of Liberty, a poem that articulates one of the quintessential statements of a U.S. ideal of open immigration, and that sounds an awful lot like Jesus’ teachings on shepherding.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”­

There it is my friends…A Christian perspective on immigration!

This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith.  We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality.  This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.

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