Immigration Issue Within the Church

Nov 7, 2011

All you have to say is the word ‘immigration’ today and it’s likely to spark some debate.  The growing population of immigrants, both legal and illegal, has also prompted lengthy discussions inside Kentucky’s churches.  Many believe they should welcome strangers into their communities  Many congregations across Kentucky may be divided when considering the proper response to illegal immigration.

Most recently, the issue surfaced during an assembly of Christians for the Kentucky Council of Churches.  In the audience was a group from Lexington Catholic High School.  For senior Sarah Sprole, it’s not a purely theological debate… has touched her personally.

“I’ve always thought it was very important…especially of my good friend’s mother was deported several years ago so it’s always been something that’s been very integral to my thinking,” said Sprole.

Lexington immigration attorney Marilyn Daniel told them their responsibility to immigrants extends beyond what’s legal and what’s not.  Daniel says churches should bring people together.

“There are lots of immigrants that we as American Christians need to get to know…and need to be able….not just to offer services…but to really begin to communicate with one another,” said Daniel.

Many Kentucky churches do indeed minister to Hispanic immigrants.  Father Joe Graffis, who pastors Saint Edwards Catholic Church in Jeffersontown, says some 70 Spanish-speaking families attend Mass at the parish.  Reverend Graffis has found many undocumented immigrants are not interested in making America a permanent home.

“Most of them are like…no we want to go back home…that’s our home..we’re just here trying to have some money…to send money back to our families back there and be able to earn enough money so that we might be able to go back and live with our own families so they’re not really look for a path to citizenship” said Graffis.

Father Pat Delehanty, with the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, says Catholics have a long history of ‘welcoming the stranger.’  Delahanty says Catholics are taught to see the face of Jesus in everyone,  including undocumented workers.  Delehanty adds the nation’s current immigration policies amounts to an injustice.

“We’re not required to follow unjust laws …and when somebody simply crosses the border without the proper papers.. or comes into the country legally and stays too long….they don’t become something other than a human being,” added Delehanty.

Delehanty admits there are differing opinions among parishioners about the best way to address illegal immigration.  But he adds, there can’t be differences of opinion about human dignity and rights…to simply dismiss those issues and ‘go home.’

Pastor Jeff Fugate leads the Clays Mill Road Baptist Church in Lexington.   The independent Baptist church is not affiliated with the Kentucky Council of Churches.  Saying he is a ‘strong American,’ Reverend Fugate believes illegal immigrants should return to their native country and then re-enter the nation legally.  The pastor says he can’t condone breaking the law. 

Still, Fugate says his church welcomes everyone and efforts have been made to evangelize within the growing Hispanic community.

“We’ve had folks to come to America…come to Lexington…and become Christians here..and then when they go back home they work in evangelizing their own city, town, family…where ever they come from…that’s happened several times,” said Fugate.

Pastor Fugate says Clays Mill Baptist offers church services for Spanish speaking visitors.

Even within a church’s hierarchy, there can still be differences over immigration….illegal and legal.  The Reverend Bimen Limbong, who’s a Lutheran immigrant from Indonesia, has faced such prejudice.

“The church doesn’t acknowledge that they have a problem with racism…They think they don’t have a problem…and actually I myself went through difficult times through my candidacy process to become pastor here…because I am different.”

 So, with immigration issues continually up for discussion in the political realm, it’s likely Kentucky’s Christians will be increasingly drawn into the debate.  And, their religious leaders will be asked to further define a moral response to the illegal immigration of undocumented workers and their families.