The Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice is working with national groups to bring about immigration reform. (ROD VEAL, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER)
A 2008 meeting created a "safe place" to talk about an evangelical response to problems that divided congregations; today their ideas seem more mainstream
It started with disappointment, but it grew to become a national movement.
Five years ago, a group of local evangelical Christian pastors and other faith leaders quietly gathered over breakfast at a Costa Mesa church to talk about an issue many of them had long avoided: immigration.
It was not an auspicious time for such a conversation. A national effort to reform immigration laws by providing a pathway toward citizenship for those living in the U.S. illegally had recently failed amid intense opposition. Hispanic faith leaders were dejected. Pastors at mostly white congregations were scared of the issue.
And yet the coalition that emerged from that 2008 breakfast, which now numbers 50 evangelical congregations across Orange County, went on to become a national leader in a renewed and, following last year's presidential election, increasingly successful campaign to overhaul America's immigration policies.
Last week, President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators separately unveiled comprehensive reform proposals with pledges to pass laws as early as this summer. The proposals include strengthened border security and a pathway toward citizenship for the approximate 11 million living in the U.S. illegally.
Part of the reason for the sudden momentum: Evangelical Christians, a major Republican voting bloc, for the first time have publicly declared their support for immigration reform.
The Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition formed last summer that includes virtually every major evangelical organization in America, has been organizing pastors in three key states - Florida, Texas and Colorado. The coalition has informed members of Congress that evangelicals support "a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify," according to an official statement.
Focus on the Family, long a powerful force in Republican politics, has declared its support for the Evangelical Immigration Table, as have the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the heads of major evangelical denominations and seminaries.
At the heart of the Evangelical Immigration Table is that group of 50 Orange County churches. Called the Loving the Stranger Network, the group includes some of Orange County's largest and most influential evangelical congregations and helped launch the Evangelical Immigration Table, serving as a model for its national organizing efforts.
"What's happening now is conservatives are pressuring conservatives," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that has lobbied for immigration reform since 1982. "In places like Orange County, where the evangelical community is so prominent, the impact is unavoidable."
Just six years ago, the last time lawmakers attempted comprehensive immigration reform, advocates got a "chilly reception" from evangelicals, according to a Religion News Service report at the time.
"Fear of looking weak or too liberal permeates a lot of the discussion," a staff attorney for an organization called World Relief told the news service. Organizers at World Relief, a faith-based international aid group, had tried unsuccessfully to rally evangelical support for reform.
What changed? The answer begins, in part, with that 2008 breakfast at The Crossing church in Costa Mesa. The breakfast was organized by a group called Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, a statewide faith-based organization that has long worked with Jews, Muslims, Catholics and mainline Protestants on efforts to alleviate poverty.
Among CLUE's Orange County members are several Hispanic evangelical churches, including Templo Calvario in Santa Ana, an 85-year-old Pentecostal church whose 6,000 members constitute one of the nation's largest Hispanic congregations.
Following defeat of the 2007 immigration-reform effort, Hispanic pastors felt "alone" and "disappointed" that fellow evangelicals hadn't rallied to their cause, said Lee de Leon, executive pastor of Templo Calvario.
The pastors appealed to Wendy Tarr, CLUE's Orange County director. "How could more evangelicals be brought on board?" they asked. Tarr and the pastors drew up a list of evangelical leaders in Los Angeles and Orange counties. They invited the leaders to breakfast.
The breakfast was not publicized. "We knew we needed to create a safe space," Tarr said.
For many at the breakfast, the conversation was eye-opening and heart-wrenching.
Hispanic pastors told of families in their congregations torn apart by deportations. Anglo pastors spoke of feeling too afraid of their congregations to preach about immigration. Many confessed ignorance about an issue they knew was vitally important in Orange County, where nearly a third of residents are foreign-born.
The breakfast attendees agreed to continue talking, to study Scripture and, eventually, to act.
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SOURCE: The Orange County Register