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We didn’t memorize the Bible verses about immigrants

As a child attending a private evangelical elementary school and a non-denominational “Bible” church, I memorized hundreds of Bible verses. I was trained to view every issue – science, literature, history, definitely politics – through a biblical worldview.

President Donald J. Trump is considering to extend the deadline for congress to come up with a permanent fix for undocumented immigrants. | Reuters/Stephen Yang

I do not ever recall being told to memorize any Bible verses about immigrants. But with recent developments in immigration reform under the Biden administration, many more refugees will be arriving in America in the coming years. They will need the care and support from local churches. And we will need to teach our children what the Bible has to say about them. 

Most Christians can produce some generic biblical reasons to be compassionate, but many share the assessment of a prominent evangelical leader that immigration is “not a Bible issue.” I can understand why that would be: For most of my life, I had never heard a sermon about immigrants.

I was not alone. A LifeWay Research poll found that just one-fifth of self-described evangelicals recalled hearing a message about immigration at church. Just 12% said that their views on the arrival of immigrants were primarily informed by the Bible – a particularly underwhelming figure when you consider that “the Bible” is almost always the “right” answer for evangelical survey respondents, regardless of the question.

The Bible actually has a lot to say about immigration. Just in the Old Testament, there are 92 references to the Hebrew noun ger, which I found translated variously as alien, foreigner, stranger, sojourner or (the English translation that Tim Keller argues best fits the Hebrew term) immigrant. As evangelical scholars like Daniel Carroll explain, nearly every major character in the Bible was a migrant of some sort, from Abraham to Ruth to Daniel to Jesus himself.

“Hospitality,” in the Greek of the New Testament, does not mean having friends over for a fancy meal, but rather is philoxenia, literally the love of strangers. While today, we associate the term “stranger” with “danger,” the Bible actually suggested strangers could be angels (Hebrews 13:2).

Now, when I read the Bible, it’s hard not to see migration as what missiologist Sam George calls “a mega-theme of the Bible.”

We should make immigraiton a topic of biblical teachings because, frankly, white evangelicals like me tend to have more negative views of immigrants than most Americans, when our commitment to the authority of Scripture should logically make us the most pro-immigrant religious demographic. The problem is not our commitment to Scripture – it’s that, on this particular topic, many evangelicals do not seem to know what the Scriptures say.

This is why the Evangelical Immigration Table launched a 40-day Scripture reading guide known as the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge, drawing its title from Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35. Each Bible verse is also available as a shareable graphic. We’re asking evangelicals to post one passage daily for 40 consecutive days. 

My evangelical childhood wasn’t perfect, but the evangelical subculture that formed me got a lot right, including that the Bible can be a lamp for our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105) – including illuminating how we welcome and advocate with our immigrant neighbors.

Matthew Soerens is the U.S. Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief and the coauthor of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate.

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