Eye on the pul­pit

With im­mi­gra­tion in spotlight, con­gre­ga­tions hear mes­sages of in­clu­sion


The liturgy read in churches across Amer­ica on Sun­day said: “Blessed are those who are per­se­cuted.”

What clergy said in many pul­pits, re­act­ing to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s most re­cent ex­ec­u­tive or­der: “Blessed are the refugees.”

The words of the Beat­i­tudes — the nine bless­ings re­counted in Je­sus’ Ser­mon on the Mount — hap­pened to be pre­scribed in the litur­gi­cal cal­en­dar used by Catholics and many Protes­tants for this week’s read­ings.

Af­ter Trump is­sued an or­der a week ago tem­po­rar­ily bar­ring refugees from seven Muslim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries, clergy across the na­tion scrapped ear­lier ser­mons to build on the les­son and urge parish­ioners to stand up for what they see as a bib­li­cal call to care for “the stranger.”

But at some con­ser­va­tive churches, pas­tors and parish­ioners also voiced con­cerns about how to bal­ance wel­com­ing the stranger with pre­serv­ing Amer­i­can se­cu­rity.

“We don’t want Chris­tians to be afraid of reach­ing out to refugees,” said Brad Whitt, the pas­tor at Abi­lene Baptist Church, a 2,800-mem­ber South­ern Baptist church in Martinez, Ge­or­gia. Whitt said that Trump’s vow to im­prove the sys­tem for vet­ting refugees might even­tu­ally make churches more com­fort­able with help­ing them.

He said he sup­ports Trump’s or­der “as long as it’s not a re­li­gious test.”

Mean­while, the Rev. Roger Gench at the his­toric New York Av­enue Pres­by­te­rian in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., echoed other pas­tors across the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum in treat­ing the or­der as a Chris­tian call to re­sist.

“It seems to me that as fol­low­ers of Je­sus, we can do noth­ing but to re­sist the ac­tions that have taken place this week that tar­get Mus­lims, im­mi­grants and refugees,” he told his con­gre­ga­tion.

“When (Je­sus) talks about peo­ple who are mourning, think about the Syr­ian refugees whose lives have been dev­as­tated. When Je­sus talks about those who are striv­ing for jus­tice, think about the moth­ers and fa­thers stand­ing over the dead bod­ies of chil­dren,” preached Gench at the church in the de­nom­i­na­tion Trump af­fil­i­ates that stands just three blocks from the White House.

The ex­ec­u­tive or­der calls for bar­ring Syr­ian refugees from the United States in­def­i­nitely, and pro­hibits ad­mit­ting any refugees from any na­tion in the world for 120 days. For 90 days, no ci­ti­zen of seven ma­jor­ity-Muslim coun­tries — even those who hold Amer­i­can green cards and have been liv­ing in the United States for years — will be ad­mit­ted with­out a waiver.

In Roswell, Ge­or­gia, the Rev. Eric Lee joined Gench and oth­ers, preach­ing at the United Methodist Church Chapel Roswell that fol­low­ers of Je­sus “can’t just turn away and say I don’t care, or it’s not my prob­lem.”

“Granted, for some peo­ple, that whole con­cept of be­ing hos­pitable to strangers can be un­nerv­ing, scary . ... Are we will­ing to take risks on be­half of our faith?” he asked. “Be­cause prac­tic­ing in­ten­tional, even rad­i­cal hos­pi­tal­ity to­ward strangers is in­her­ent to the Chris­tian ethic.”

At Man­hat­tan’s River­side Church, one of the most prom­i­nent pul­pits in the coun­try, the Rev. Amy But­ler’s ser­mon on the Chris­tian call to wel­come im­mi­grants drew re­peated ap­plause and a stand­ing ova­tion at the end. “In the king­dom of God, we open our hearts and our hands; we make ex­tra room at the table; we let the boat dock and the trav­eller clear cus­toms and the chil­dren find safety,” she said, urg­ing mem­bers to at­tend an af­ter­noon protest in Man­hat­tan.

While some clergy in the evan­gel­i­cal de­nom­i­na­tions that voted heav­ily for Trump in Novem­ber crit­i­cized the ex­ec­u­tive or­der, oth­ers re­mained sup­port­ive.

The Rev. Franklin Gra­ham, son of evan­ge­list Billy Gra­ham, said in an in­ter­view last week that the vet­ting process for refugees com­ing into the United States is not strong enough.

“It’s not a bib­li­cal com­mand for the coun­try to let ev­ery­one in who wants to come. That’s not a Bible is­sue,” he told the Huff­in­g­ton Post.

Evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers — in­clud­ing the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Evan­gel­i­cals’ World Re­lief or­ga­ni­za­tion and more than 100 prom­i­nent evan­gel­i­cals who gath­ered at Wheaton Col­lege to dis­cuss refugee is­sues in De­cem­ber — have largely de­nounced Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der.

But many rank-and-file evan­gel­i­cals prob­a­bly sup­port Trump’s plan even if their pas­tors do not, said Jerry John­son, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Re­li­gious Broad­cast­ers.

“The mi­nor­ity op­po­si­tion is be­ing led by the elite po­lit­i­cal class or pro­fes­sional re­li­gious work­ers,” John­son wrote in an email. “Not only are they out of touch with the Com­mon Man, they are out of touch with the peo­ple in the pews.”

Evan­gel­i­cal at­ti­tudes are per­haps best re­flected by a 2016 South­ern Baptist Con­ven­tion res­o­lu­tion that urged churches and fam­i­lies to wel­come refugees while also call­ing on the gov­ern­ment to “im­ple­ment the strictest se­cu­rity mea­sures pos­si­ble” in screen­ing them.

Scott John­son, who teaches a Bible fel­low­ship class at Abi­lene Baptist and said he voted for Trump be­cause the pres­i­dent op­posed abor­tion, agreed. “I don’t think there’s any­thing wrong with tak­ing in peo­ple who love our coun­try — and that’s what he’s try­ing to do. If they don’t love the coun­try, why should we bring them here?”

Se­nior pas­tor Bill Hulse of Put­nam City Baptist Church in Ok­la­homa City noted that times have changed since the 1970s when the church wel­comed Viet­namese, Korean and other refugees with open arms. “Those fac­tors that are in the refugee ar­gu­ment then are dif­fer­ent from today,” he said.

Trump said that the new vet­ting sys­tem he plans to put in place dur­ing his 120-day stay on refugee ad­mis­sions would pri­or­i­tize re­li­gious mi­nori­ties. In an in­ter­view with the Chris­tian Broad­cast­ing Net­work, he said he wanted to em­pha­size ad­mit­ting more Chris­tians from Syria and other ma­jor­ity-Muslim coun­tries.

In a Wash­ing­ton Post/ABC poll in 2015, 78 per cent of re­spon­dents favoured equal con­sid­er­a­tion for refugees re­gard­less of re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion, while 18 per cent backed spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion for Chris­tians.

Many Chris­tian lead­ers re­it­er­ated this week that while they have long been con­cerned about per­se­cu­tion of Chris­tians in the Mid­dle East, they do not want Chris­tians pri­or­i­tized over Mus­lims.

“Any pro­posal that pref­er­ences Chris­tians over Mus­lims as refugees makes Catholic lead­ers ner­vous be­cause it feeds that nar­ra­tive that this is a war be­tween the Chris­tian West and the Mus­lims,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a mem­ber of the U.S. Com­mis­sion on In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom.

Ace Stafford, a pas­tor at the non­de­nom­i­na­tional Church of the High­lands in Har­ri­son, Ten­nessee, said he was both­ered by the idea of pri­or­i­tiz­ing Chris­tians over Mus­lims.

“To be dis­crim­i­na­tory like that, it’s def­i­nitely tread­ing on thin ice,” he said. “As a be­liever, I don’t think I should will­ingly say, ‘My doors are closed to you.’”

But mem­bers at his church ques­tioned whether the United States should wel­come Muslim refugees.

“They claim Is­lam is a re­li­gion of peace. But it’s not,” said David El­lis. “We are called to love … but we are also called to be wise as ser­pents and gen­tle as doves.” He said he felt the coun­try needs “to be smart.”

A Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey in Oc­to­ber found that 54 per cent of Amer­i­can vot­ers said the United States does not have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to ac­cept refugees from Syria, while 41 per cent said it does. Of those polled, 87 per cent of Trump sup­port­ers said Amer­i­cans don’t have to ac­cept Syr­i­ans, com­pared with only 27 per cent of Hil­lary Clin­ton sup­port­ers who said the same.

In Birm­ing­ham, Alabama, Bishop Harry Seawright is in the lat­ter camp. In his ser­mon, he com­pared the plight of today’s refugees to the Is­raelites flee­ing Egypt in the Bible and of civil rights ac­tivists who were de­mo­nized in the 1960s.

“Moses and the chil­dren of Is­rael were op­pressed just be­cause they were dif­fer­ent. God hears the cries of those suf­fer­ing,” said Seawright, who preached at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. “We can’t for­get the church bomb­ing and the deaths of four lit­tle girls in this town just be­cause they were dif­fer­ent . ... The only way you can drive out ha­tred is with love.”

Gench, at New York Av­enue Pres­by­te­rian, said Sun­day’s ser­mon was not the first or the last mo­ment his con­gre­ga­tion will fo­cus on open­ness to­ward im­mi­grants and refugees.

Mem­bers signed a let­ter af­ter the ser­vice ad­dressed to of­fi­cials who iden­tify them­selves as Pres­by­te­rian — that in­cludes Trump plus eight Democrats and 27 Repub­li­cans in Con­gress, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s tally.

For Gench, it all comes back to Scrip­ture, which tells the sto­ries of peo­ple driven from their homes again and again, from Abra­ham to Moses to Je­sus. That’s why he’s not sur­prised that the mes­sage of wel­come for all refugees came from pul­pits of all po­lit­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal per­sua­sions on Sun­day morning.

“The bib­li­cal her­itage is re­ally strong on this is­sue, prob­a­bly as strong as al­most any is­sue could be,” he said. “Any­body who reads the Bible knows that this is a huge is­sue.”

The Rev. Roger Gench preaches at New York Av­enue Pres­by­te­rian Church in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., about the need for Pres­by­te­ri­ans to wel­come refugees to the United States.

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