VIENNA, Va. — A former Muslim-turned-pastor who came to the U.S. during the Iranian Revolution told those gathered at the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2019 Evangelicals for Life conference that he feels some evangelicals are misguided in their rhetoric on immigration.
Pastor Afshin Ziafat of Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, gave an impassioned sermon at the annual gathering hosted by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and North American Missions Board on the eve of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.
Ziafat, who was born in Houston but moved with his family to Iran at age 2 and then back to Houston four years later toward the end of the 1970s, warned that some Christians in the United States today seem more concerned about their comfort and safety rather than the missional opportunities that come from welcoming immigrants and strangers.
As issues of illegal immigration and border security funding are at the heart of the partial federal government shutdown, Ziafat assured that he does desire there to be government protection in the form of screening and vetting to decide who can and cannot come into the country.
But he stressed that some of what he is hearing from evangelical believers of Christ on the immigration issue seems to indicate that they think “America is the Kingdom of God.”
“People say, ‘You know what, Nehemiah built a wall,’” Ziafat explained before the audience gathered at the McLean Bible Church last Thursday. “Guess what, America is not the promised land. [They’ll say,] ‘Well, Heaven has walls.’ Guess what, America is not Heaven.”
“Sometimes I think evangelicals mistake America for the Kingdom of God,” the pastor reiterated, adding that he's a proud American who loves this country. “But before I am an American, I am a Christian. I have got to think not just ‘America first’ in everything. I have got to think ‘Kingdom of God first.’”
Last month, Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas argued in support of President Donald Trump's border wall plans by citing biblical references to walls in heaven.
Ziafat's remarks come as a poll last October found that most white evangelicals feel that immigrants are a "threat" to American values and see the country's increasing racial diversity as a bad thing. However, a study released last year suggests that white evangelicals support immigration more when they're active in church and theologically conservative.
In his message, Ziafat cited numerous biblical passages showing that Jesus Christ demanded His followers show love and care to the stranger, the poor, the immigrant, the orphan and the widow.
One passage was from Matthew 25.
“I don’t know how you could miss this. Jesus says when the son of man comes, He is going to separate the sheep from the goats — those who belong to Him and those who don’t,” Ziafat said.
“And He is going to look to the sheep on His right and say, ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you for I was a stranger and you welcomed Me. I was naked and you clothed Me and I was hungry and you fed Me. I was thirsty and you gave Me a drink. They are going to say, ‘When did we do these things for you.’ And He says, ‘When you did it to the least of these, you did it to Me.’ It proves you belong to his sheep when you love the least of these and your welcome Jesus when he was a stranger.”
As an American, Ziafat said he wants the government to do what they have to do to make sure terrorists don’t come into the country.
While Ziafat may love and want to protect the U.S., he recognizes that America is only his “temporary home.”
“We need to be reminded and we need to remember that today we are sojourners,” he explained. “The Bible says, your citizenship is in Heaven.”
Ziafat added that Jesus is clear in the fact that His followers are to be “sent into the world.” However, he contended that today, followers of Christ don’t necessarily need to go into the world to make an impact because “the nations are coming to us.”
Jesus also did not promise His followers comfort and safety, Ziafat added.
“So American Christians, hear me say this. Before you are an American, you are a citizen of the Kingdom of God,” he continued. “The Bible says in Philippians 3 that some walk as enemies of the cross with their mindset on earthly things. But our citizenship is in Heaven and from that we await a Savior who is Christ Jesus the Lord.”
The Christian Post sat down with Ziafat following his sermon and asked him to elaborate on his remarks.
“I think sometimes there is a tendency to forget that we are aliens and our Kingdom is in Heaven,” he said. “Whether you are in America or overseas, you are meant to be an ambassador for Jesus Christ, to go into harm's way to love people who maybe would hate Christ, to reach out to them and share the Gospel with them even in America. Sometimes people, they would never say it, but the other things they say make it sound like they think America is home. It is our temporary home as citizens but we are only sojourners passing through. Our home is the Kingdom of God.”
“Again, I do want protection. I don’t want terrorists to come and live across the street from me,” he said. “I do want protection but it sounds like they believe safety and comfort is the most important thing in life. Jesus never promised that. In fact, he promised the exact opposite.”
When it comes to rhetoric on the border wall, Ziafat explained that he feels like some evangelicals suggest that “If you think walls are bad then you think God is bad because there are a couple places where He has built a wall.”
“We do need to be careful on how immigration happens. I am not saying to just close our eyes and come one, come all. That is not what I am saying,” Ziafat clarified. “But to use the Bible in those instances to say that therefore we should support a wall being built in Mexico. Don’t use that as the reason. You can use other things but the Bible is clear. …
"I think using that analogy makes it seem like America is Heaven. America is not our home either. Yes, I want protection but my point is that we are here for a limited amount of time and we need to be thinking about getting these people behind the wall that is in Heaven and there is only one way to get into.”
Ziafat said that Christians should take hold of the missional opportunities immigration presents.
He explained his family was marginalized when they came back to the U.S. during the Iranian Revolution. His family returned to the U.S. right before Americans were taken hostage in Iran for over a year.
He recalled what it was like being picked on at school, how his dad’s tires were slashed and how rocks were thrown through his family’s window only because they were from Iran.
Ziafat said he was even kicked off a soccer team when he was a child for being an Iranian-American.
Thankfully, Ziafat had an English-language tutor in the second grade who cared enough about him and poured love into him. That tutor eventually gave Ziafat a Bible.
It wouldn’t be until 10 years later that Ziafat would dig that Bible out of the bottom of his closet and really begin to question his beliefs and eventually become a Christian. It was a decision that damaged the relationship he had with his father, who was the former head of the Islamic Medical Society.
“I know what it is like to be from a place where we are on the hated list,” Ziafat told the conference. “All the high school kids threatened to beat me and my brother up. ... I am thankful that one American Christian lady looked at me and didn’t see threat but saw opportunity. She loved me and poured herself into me and today, I am a pastor and a Christian because of her.”