This is the third in a series of reflections on the Social Messages adopted by the ELCA Church Council over our history. The messages can be found at www.elca.org/socialmessages, and these reflections will be archived at www.montanasynod.org.
In 1998, the ELCA Church Council adopted a social message on immigration. Although it is almost 20 years old, it is remarkably relevant to today's immigration debates. Immigration is not a new issue. It is a faith issue. Scripture is full of admonitions to care for the stranger in our midst. "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." (Leviticus 19:34)
The vast majority of ELCA Lutherans are descendants of immigrants. We are an immigrant church in an immigrant country. Stephen Bouman and Ralston Deffenbaugh write in They are Us: Lutherans and Immigration:
"The United States is one of the few nations in the world-Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and some of the Latin American countries also come to mind-that understands itself as a nation of immigrants. America celebrates and symbolizes its immigrant heritage with the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor." (p. 39)
Immigration is not only in our DNA. It is in our story. At the end of World War II, one out of every six Lutherans in the world was a refugee. In 1939, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service started as a way to resettle war refugees. Six thousand Lutheran congregations in the US resettled over 57,000 refugees from Europe. Again, after the Vietnam War, US Lutherans resettled over 50,000 refugees from Southeast Asia. LIRS has expanded its mission from resettling European Lutherans to resettling and advocating for refugees and immigrants wherever there is need. (To learn more about LIRS, go to www.lirs.org.)
There are now more displaced persons in the world than at any time since World War II-60 million is a rough estimate. And yet the political climate in the US has turned against our welcoming stance. It is not the first time that the United States has tried to limit immigrants and refugees. But it is the time we live in. It is the time to be the church at our best.
Our 1998 statement says:
"Immigration, refugee, and asylum policies express who we are as a nation, influence the nation's future character, and affect the lives of millions of people. We encourage our members, in light of our history and our ministry with newcomers, to join with other citizens in our democratic society to support just laws that serve the common good."
Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has joined faith leaders from across the globe exhorting us to work and pray "on behalf of those who seek refuge on our shores." She invites congregations and individuals to contact members of Congress to express support for refugees. And she reminds us of the ELCA's AMMPARO strategy with unaccompanied Central American minors, and of our ministry through LIRS. She writes:
"We must offer safety to people fleeing religious persecution regardless of their faith tradition. Christians and other religious minorities suffer persecution and rightly deserve protection, but including additional criteria based on religion could have discriminatory effects that would go against our nation's fundamental values related to freedom of religion."
In 1998 our church stated:
" This is a fitting time for us to examine anew our attitudes toward newcomers, to strengthen out church's ministry among, with, and for the most vulnerable of newcomers, and to continue to advocate for immigration, refugee, and asylum laws that are fair and generous."
It was true in 1998. It is true in 2017.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
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