Faith and the Politics of Immigration

I was a stranger and you welcomed me


Jesus was a migrant. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with their infant son to escape political persecution. Similar stories happen today. Families with boys named Jesús flee poverty, war, and persecution to find sanctuary across national borders. What does our faith say about this?

Politics is divisive, particularly at the intersection of racism and immigration. We acknowledged that many people harbor a common fear: How are immigrants going to change us, our culture and society? One participant remarked, “Immigration policy can be racism at its boldest.” Perhaps because of widespread divisiveness and fear, we came with a shared desire to hear real stories.

In the third of a series of workshops on the theme “Becoming an Antiracist Community,” the Orders of Deacons of the Peninsula-Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conferences discussed “The Racial Politics of Immigration: Dreamer Story Sharing,” February 20, 2021.

Discussion leader, the Rev. Carlos S. Reyes Rodríguez, is the Racial Equity & Community Engagement Manager for National Justice for Our Neighbors.

Our workshop proceeded from head to heart to action. We sought to learn from the bible, Social Principles, resolutions of The United Methodist Church, and US law and policies. We heard from a “dreamer”—a young woman born abroad, seeking refuge in the United States. And we were challenged to put our faith into action.


The US is a country of immigrants. Today, over 44 million people in the United States were born beyond US borders. The Rev. Carlos S. Reyes Rodríguez shared this statistic and other information about US and worldwide immigration as he invited us to consider the politics of immigration in light of our faith. (Powerpoint Slides)

The Dream Act was a particular focus of conversation. According to the National Immigration Law Center, “On June 15, 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it would not deport certain undocumented youth who came to the United States as children. Under a directive from the DHS secretary, these youth may be granted a type of temporary permission to stay in the U.S. called ‘deferred action.’ The Obama administration called this program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.” This program has been in flux during the past four years under two different administrations.

We also studied what the church says about immigration. The UMC supports the DREAM Act. The UMC also speaks to “Welcoming the Migrant to the US” in its Book of Resolutions.


The political became personal when we heard from B, a student at Delaware State University. DSU is one of only five public schools in the US that has scholarships for undocumented immigrants to attend. B shared about growing up in the US as an immigrant. Her parents brought her to the US when she was three years old. She did not learn she was undocumented until she was ten or eleven, after being chosen for the youth olympic soccer team. It was then that her parents told her that her olympic dream was impossible.

B also told us about growing up with nightmares about the border crossing. She experienced hostility in school as early as first grade, encountering racism from teachers. Teachers told her not to speak Spanish in school; when she spoke to a classmate who could not speak English, she was sent to the principal’s office and subsequently expelled.

B shared many other experiences of life in the US for an immigrant, stories better heard directly from her and others. She is preparing to graduate from college this year and hopes to go to law school.


Carlos asked, How has faith and community played a role in her life? B answered,

“My parents are very religious. This has helped me because I feel God has been with me every step of the way.”

—B, an undocumented immigrant, a DREAMer

Information and statistics informed our heads; B informed our hearts and moved us to action. B’s personal story moved us in ways that statistics of millions of dreamers could not. Her perseverance, courage, and witness prompted us to consider how we might put faith into action.

Each of us will bear witness to B’s reality in different ways. I invite you to listen to the story of a dreamer, to bear witness to the immigrants in your community, to welcome the stranger. How will you be motivated to put your faith into action?

If you feel called to a lifetime ministry of love, justice, and service, consider exploring the several avenues of diakonia available in The United Methodist Church: deaconess, home missioner, and deacon.

Previous events in this series: “The Role of Anger in the Work of Justice and Love,” November 2020; and “Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?” January 26, 2021.

Suggested Readings and Resources

American Immigration Council, Fact Sheet

Deaconess Cindy Andrade Johnson

General Board of Church and Society

Immigrant Neighbors Among Us: Immigration across Theological Traditions, edited by M. Daniel Carroll R. and Leopoldo A. Sánchez M.

Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), Delaware-Valley,

Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), National,

Letter from Justice for Our Neighbors, January 2021.

M. Daniel Carroll R. Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, & the Bible

Maruskin, Joan M. Immigration and the Bible: A Guide for Radical Welcome (also available in Spanish)

Migration Policy Institute. “Data and Analysis Related to Trump Administration Actions on Immigrant and Refugee Policy”

Migration Policy Institute. “Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency,” July 2020.

Rajendra, Trisha M. Migrants and Citizens: Justice and Responsibility in the Ethics of Immigration

UM Global series on immigration:

UMC Social Principles para. 162.H.

UMC Resolution #3164, DREAM Act.

UMC Resolution #3281, Welcoming the Migrant to the US.


    The Unafraid

    Trails of Hope and Terror

    Kill the Messenger

Bearing Witness to Antiracism

Bearing witness is not about immediately trying to fix things. It is not another version of the white savior complex. Rather, bearing witness involves attentive presence and deep listening by those with relatively greater social power. When we talk about peace with justice, we cannot skip immediately to the comfort of peace. The path to justice disrupts unjust structures. Antiracism work does not allow us to remain comfortable. Bearing witness to antiracism is a necessary aspect of the work of justice.

In this interview, I share about bearing witness as a spiritual discipline of attentive presence with our neighbors. Social justice work is something we have to train to do well. It is a spiritual discipline.

Interview, “Faith Talks: Black History Month,” United Methodist Women podcast hosted by Jennifer Farmer. February 11, 2021.

Grandview Methodist Connection Launched

February 10, 2021. Grandview United Methodist Church announced final plans to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church today. With a 90% affirmative vote by the congregation’s membership, the church leadership celebrated its anticipated new beginning through a 30 minute worship service livestreamed. Grandview Church Lancaster will become an independent congregation and launch a new denomination, Grandview Methodist Connection. The process of disaffiliation will be completed with payment of $607,000 to the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the UMC, due by March 31, 2021.

For the full text of the disaffiliation resolution and history of Grandview’s justice ministries, see:

Podcast Interview Thur, Feb 11

Host Jennifer Farmer writes: As we celebrate Black History Month, I want to invite you to our February 11 Faith Talks podcast at 2:00 p.m. ET when’ll interview:

In this episode we’ll discuss why working for justice is part of our biblical faith, why the declaration that Black lives matter is controversial in the 21st Century, and ways to build community within the body of Christ.

Register Faith Talks here:

Mission Study Now Available in Spanish and Korean

Bearing Witness in the Kin-dom: Living Into the Church’s Moral Witness through Radical Discipleship by Darryl W. Stephens

2021 Spiritual Growth Mission Study

In Jesus’ own words, he came to bring good news to the poor, release the captives, restore sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free. What is the responsibility of the church to follow Christ’s example in word and deed? While these times might feel particularly turbulent, society has always confronted the church with challenging issues where she has had to discern how God was calling her. The church’s track record in these moments is far from perfect. The purpose of this study is to help the church and its members discern our call and bear witness to the will of God for a more just world.

Now available in Spanish and Korean editions. Free PDF download.

To Teach Beyond Trauma

Newly awarded grant!

Lancaster Theological Seminary faculty will study the effects of trauma on learning and develop ways to better teach students who have experienced trauma in their lives. The graduate school of theology has received a one-year $5,000 grant from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion for this project. Read more.

“Trauma-informed Classroom Teaching at Lancaster Theological Seminary” is a twelve-month, strategic initiative funded by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning. Grant period spans May 2021 through May 2022.

Project Director: Darryl W. Stephens

Press release.

Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Amos 5:24

United Methodist Deacons are at it again, stirring the waters of justice. In the second in a series of workshops on the theme “Becoming an Antiracist Community,” the Orders of Deacons of the Peninsula-Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conferences dove into a study of intersectionality. We began with basic questions: What is intersectionality and how can this concept help us address racism? Even though the idea of intersectionality is part of critical race theory, we refused to let fear be our guide as we navigated these dangerous rapids.

Many people, including many of us, did not know much about critical race theory beyond the fact that some US politicians and faith leaders are vehemently against it. In September, the Trump Administration banned federal agencies from using critical race theory in anti-bias trainings. Subsequently, prominent white leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention garnered national headlines for rejecting critical race theory and intersectionality as “secular ideologies” incompatible with their faith. However, these white faith leaders did not offer a description or explanation of what they spoke against.

Critical race theory views our struggle for racial justice through the lens of history. Simply put, we cannot fully address racial injustice today without understanding the laws, customs, and events that led up to this moment. Law professor Priscilla Ocen observed, “Our government at the moment is essentially afraid of addressing our history of inequality and if we can’t address it, then we can’t change it.” Critical race theory is a disciplined way of learning the underside of our social, legal, and cultural history of racism for the purpose of redressing those injustices.

Intersectionality is a key tool of critical race theory. Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum, coined the word “intersectionality” in 1989 to describe how discriminations based on race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics overlap. For example, Black women may face workplace discrimination in ways that neither white women nor Black men face. Intersectionality helps us see that there are forms of discrimination not based on gender or on race alone. Crenshaw explained,

“Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there.”

There are multiple ways in which power can be wielded unjustly.

To help us understand intersectionality, we turned to one of the videos in the “Dismantling Racism Panel Discussions” series sponsored by the General Commission on Religion and Race in partnership with the Council of Bishops, United Methodist Women, the General Board of Church and Society and United Methodist Communications. We discussed the video, “Intersectionality: Dismantling Racism Panel Discussion,” in which Erin Hawkins facilitated a conversation between professors Miguel De La Torre and Traci West. Both promote liberation theology, which considers “the consequences . . . for the most vulnerable” persons in our communities the priority in making ethical decisions.

Who is the most vulnerable, though? One of the challenges of justice work is to avoid the temptation to engage in comparing oppressions or sufferings. Critics sometimes depict intersectionality as a “hierarchy of victimhood.” Whose oppression is worse? Which form of discrimination should be prioritized as the most unjust? However, Traci West asserted,

“intersectionality is about power . . . not about identity. . . . Intersectionality is about systems of power and the ways in which those systems of power operate in multiple ways at the same time.”

We do not have to choose to address one discrimination over another, as if there were a waiting line for justice. Intersectionality exposes the ways in which systems of privilege foster competition among oppressed groups as a way of maintaining those privileges. De La Torre observed that justice for other ethnicities is often pitted against justice for African Americans, as if there were a limited supply of justice to go around. He countered,

“My Latino life will never matter until Black lives matter. It’s connected. It’s intersectional. The success of the current power structures is to keep us divided.”

Erin Hawkins was forthright in her assessment:

“The tactic of keeping these matters [of oppression] siloed is a function of . . . white supremacy.”

An intersectional lens on injustice quickly becomes uncomfortable for institutions that systemically discriminate against certain classes of persons.

The United Methodist Church currently discriminates against gay and lesbian persons in the church. Discriminatory practices have been embedded in church law for decades. The Traditionalist Plan enacted by General Conference, February 2019, further heightened the severity of penalties for dissenting clergy and congregations. West identified the UMC’s “deep hypocrisy of naming a commitment to racial justice” while enacting the Traditionalist Plan. She and De La Torre were in agreement: “If we’re going to claim racial justice in the church, it has to include the full equality and inclusion of LTGBTQIA+ peoples.” These are challenging words to many members of the UMC.

We found ourselves entering the deep waters of justice. How should we use the tools we were learning? Hawkins described the conversation about intersectionality as “the invitation to decolonize our faith.” Critical race theory provides a way to see the history and origins of our current systems of injustice. West encouraged, “We must draw from our resistance history,” a theme in her most recent book, Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality. Our faith tradition is full of resources for and examples of justice-making. Most importantly, to address racism and other injustices, we must be willing to change. De La Torre challenged white majority congregations:

“If you’re going to invite me to be part of your church . . . you’re inviting me to radically change how you do church.”

Racism cannot be addressed through token representation. The structures of racism are too deeply embedded in our institutions. Becoming an antiracist community requires true transformation.

Drenched in these words of justice, we considered the panel’s call for us to work on communication, listening, and building relationships. One of our deacon sisters, Christinah Kwaramba, reminded us, “What is important is the human condition”; empathy for persons suffering should guide our response. United Methodist Women’s 2021 Spiritual Growth Study, which I authored, offers an in-depth discussion of empathy in the work of justice. Listening deeply to others is a profound act of love. Encouraged by Kwaramba, we concluded our discussion by considering how we can use our power to empower others to speak up for themselves.

If you feel called to a lifetime ministry of love, justice, and service, consider exploring the several avenues of diakonia available in The United Methodist Church: deaconess, home missioner, and deacon.

Previous event in this series: “The Role of Anger in the Work of Justice and Love.” November 2020.

Next event in this series: “The Racial Politics of Immigration,” led by Carlos S. Reyes Rodríguez. February 20, 2021.

Suggested Readings and Resources

Biewen, John. 2017. “Seeing White.” Scene on Radio, 14-part documentary podcast.

Breakdown Whiteness. Resources to Dismantle White Supremacy, Brick by Brick.

Stephens, Darryl W. 2020. Bearing Witness in the Kin-dom: Living into the Church’s Moral Witness through Radical Discipleship. New York: United Methodist Women.

The United Methodist Church. 2020. “Intersectionality: Dismantling Racism Panel Discussion.” Erin Hawkins, Miguel De La Torre, and Traci West. Video, October 26.

Welch, Skot, and Rick Wilson, with Andi Cumbo-Floyd. 2018. Plantation Jesus: Race, Faith, and a New Way Forward. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald.

West, Traci C. 2006. Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Collaborating to End Racism

Faith seeking understanding must not be confined to scholars seeking an audience. If we desire to transcend the “fantastic hegemonic imagination” of racism, as described by Emilie Townes, we cannot proceed alone, either as scholars or as a group of scholars. We must expand the conversation of the feminist study of religion beyond the academy.

Elizabeth Soto and I describe our theological method in this blog post: Colaboración as an Antiracist Methodology in the Feminist Study of Religion (@theTable: “Racism and the Feminist Study of Religion”). Read more here.

Scholarship conceived as the lone academic expert seated behind an isolated oak desk continues to limit our ability to address systemic, social oppressions. We argue that antiracist scholarship cannot be achieved by reproducing the structures that brought us here. Liberatory methods are required to achieve liberatory ends. To effectively address racism, we advocate an antiracist methodology of colaboración (collaboration) arising from and transcending our past and rooted in a broad-based community extending beyond the academy. . . .

Defining Bivocational Ministry

The term “bivocational ministry” connotes different things to different people. For persons in non-white or immigrant communities, it may be the usual way ministry is done. For persons in white-majority settings, it may indicate falling short of a goal, namely, the model of a full-time pastorate. For others, it may represent the cutting edge of leadership for the missional church, reaching out into the world in creative, entrepreneurial ways. For many, it begs definition. The range of possible meanings and connotations of this term provide an opportunity for religious education, leading Christian congregations to imagine new ways of being church.

In this newly published article, I view the ambiguities and uncertainties about defining bivocational ministry as an opportunity for theological reflection and religious education. In it, I propose intentional bivocational ministry as a practice of the entire faith community. Bivocational ministry can become the congregation’s curriculum.

Read more: 2021. “Bivocational Ministry as the Congregation’s Curriculum.” Religions 12 (1), 56. Special Issue Practical Theology & Theological Education — An Overview.

For related writings, see my current research page on Bivocational Ministry and Missional Vitality.

From Vital Congregations to Healing Congregations

Since the 1970s, North American mainline denominations have monitored and measured the markers of congregational vitality in an effort to halt if not reverse denominational decline. The Vital Congregations Initiative of The United Methodist Church (UMC) serves as an illustration of the metrics of vitality, exposing the limitations of a quantitative approach to evangelism and congregational health. Viewed in the context of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, it becomes clear that congregational vitality requires healing and transformation, not simply church growth. A congregation must recognize its own woundedness as the body of Christ to receive the transformative healing offered by the Great Physician. Only then might this healing congregation offer Good News to a world hurting from corporate and social sin. This article, therefore, offers the idea of healing congregations as a corrective to the metrics of congregational vitality that has taken root within North American mainline Protestantism.

Read more: “Healing Congregations: A Corrective to the Metrics of Congregational Vitality,” Witness: The Journal of the Academy for Evangelism in Theological Education 34. September 2020. (This article is freely available, but you have to create a username and password on the site to open it.)