A group of North Carolina ministers gathered on the steps of First Baptist Church on Highland Avenue Tuesday to demand “fair and comprehensive” federal immigration reform.
“We’re calling them to uphold the rule of law and to care for the stranger among us,” said First Baptist’s associate pastor, Rev. Glenn Pettiford. “The Bible speaks clearly and repeatedly (about the mandate) to care for the immigrant among us.”
Spearheaded by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina – a network of more than 360 churches – the gathering drew around 16 Baptist ministers from across the state. CBF Leadership Development Coordinator Ka’thy Chappell said Christians’ value systems oblige them to support and care for others, regardless of their immigration status.
“The greatest commandment is to love God … and then to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves,” she declared.
The issue is personal for Fortino Ocampo, pastor of Centro Familiar Cristiano Church in Siler City. Though Ocampo and his family are U.S. citizens, many of his congregants are not. Ocampo said he is pained by the persecution that he says they endure at the hands of law enforcement because of their illegal status.
“I can see their faces and it hurts my feelings,” said the Guerrero, Mexico native. “I believe if we get together and express how we feel, we can make the difference in Congress.”
CBF Special Ministries Coordinator Laura Barclay said the issue of immigration reform hit close to home for Fellowship members in 2010, when one of its members, Pastor Hector Villanueva of Chatham County, was arrested and faced deportation after applying for citizenship. Villanueva, who was living in the US legally, had been convicted of commercial burglary in the mid-90’s, and when it surfaced in his background check, sheriffs came knocking on his door, despite the fact that he had paid his debt to society years before.
“When they did the background check, they found it and unfortunately, under immigration law, they can choose to not only deny you (citizenship) but deport you if you’ve ever had a felony offense,” Barclay said. “…This started a very meaningful dialogue in our congregations, making it a personal issue about our neighbors and about Hector.”
Villanueva’s case prompted the Fellowship members to educate themselves on ever-changing immigration laws and inspired them to speak out against the inequities they see within them, Barclay explained. The group led an ecumenical group in producing “Gospel without Borders,” a documentary about immigration that was screened outside the Democratic National Convention last year and has been circulated to countless congregations. Barclay says the message of caring for immigrants is deeply rooted in Biblical context.
“Jesus, Joseph and Mary were immigrants – they fled to Egypt to avoid persecution,” she related. “That story has become very real for me as I listen to the stories of persecution of our Hispanic brothers and sisters.”
Tuesday’s gathering was the Fellowship’s latest step in the process of helping to bring about immigration reform.
“I feel like we’ve been heard today and I hope that our elected officials hear us,” Barclay remarked. “I think that’s a huge role of the church, to be a prophetic witness to those who are in power … to challenge them to remember their faith as they create policy.”
First Baptist Church Senior Pastor Darryl Aaron said many parallels can be drawn between African Americans and Hispanics’ struggles for equality in this country.
“I have a personal experience knowing that, as African Americans, we have always been considered strangers,” he said. “…
Theologically and experientially, I connect to their story of wanting to be celebrated, affirmed and recognized to the fullest.”
Lawmakers in Washington are seemingly buckling to pressure to clear a path to citizenship for immigrants. Several news outlets reported this week that a bipartisan group of House members will soon unveil an immigration reform bill. The Senate is also reportedly close to a compromise on the issue.
The Fellowship is encouraging clergy and lay leaders to take the “I was a Stranger Challenge” by reading one biblical passage on immigration each day at www.evangelicalimmigrationtable.com.
For more information about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina, visit www.cbfnc.org or call 336-759-3456.