Colorado pastors changing immigration dialogue

July 6, 2015
Photo courtesy of Michelle Warren

By Michelle Warren

Fear. Courage. Restoration.

For the past several years, pastors and ministry leaders in Colorado have been working to change the dialogue about immigrants in our state. Those of us who live and worship alongside immigrants realized that it wasn't enough for us to know about the pain inflicted by the broken immigration system. We needed to actually do something with what we knew. Doing something was not a choice but rather an opportunity to lead.

Public-policy issues share some basic similarities: a problem that needs fixing with an appropriate solution and leaders willing to implement the solution. Immigration reform is a political hot button. Fixing a broken immigration system needs leaders who are willing to lead, regardless of constituents' criticism.

As a seasoned organizer, I regularly call both elected officials and pastors to act on their moral courage and lead on difficult — even polarizing — issues. I meet with political leaders who tell me behind closed doors that they are "with me" on issues but who subsequently fail to act because they are afraid of backlash from their constituents. I meet with pastors who understand what the Bible has to say about injustice but avoid initiating conversations with their congregations for fear of being viewed as too political. Both are leaders in their communities; both wrestle with fears of backlash from those they serve. 

Fear is a trap, keeping us in a broken place. When leaders allow fear to keep them from leading, they not only miss an opportunity to help release people from broken systems, but they also miss an opportunity to be a part of the restoration process.

Last summer, I had the privilege to work alongside a group of pastors who decided to do a city-wide sermon series on God's heart for the immigrant. They all recognized that their congregations needed to look at the issue of immigration through a biblical lens, and as leaders, that it was their responsibility to share this message. 

Right before the sermon series started, election politics were gearing up. Colorado, where the pastors served, was one of the most-watched states for an election upset. The media was brutal. As the primaries across the country ended — with unanticipated and highly reactive results — a story broke about thousands of unaccompanied minors coming across our borders.  National headlines around immigration were politically toxic, not just for politicians but anyone brave enough to engage in the dialogue.

This group of pastors leaned in and led.

As anyone in leadership knows, criticism makes leading more about decisive courage and less about how you personally feel. All of these pastors were put to the test, but their willingness to lead despite fear gave voice to timeless truth and the urgency for change. Dr. John Perkins, founder of the Christian Community Development Association, has said, "Courage is not the absence of fear. It is living one's conviction in the face of fear."

In my work, whether with politicians or Christian leaders, fear can be a driving force. Often we are tempted to back out. However, when leaders decide to take courage in the face of fear, our communities are stronger for it.

These pastors are examples of acting with courage and leading their communities toward restoration.

Michelle Warren is the director of advocacy and policy engagement for the Chicago-based Christian Community Development Association.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Warren.

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