On Sunday night, members of Indivisible Houston, a progressive group fighting for immigration reform, proclaimed the message “Jesus was a migrant” throughout the city. During a three-hour stretch, activists projected those words on outer walls of Lakewood Church, Second Baptist Church and Houston Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. The message also appeared on Houston City Hall, the George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green park.
“For the most part, people were very accepting of the message,” says Daniel Cohen, president of Indivisible Houston. “Many people took pictures with the image and greeted us kindly…. People want to help their neighbors and welcome those in need.”
The only incident, he said, occurred at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, America’s largest. While activists projected the image from a sidewalk, two police officers and a security guard asked them to leave, saying, “How would you like it if someone took photos of your house?” The activists left quietly, Cohen says, with no arrests.
“We don’t want stuff projected on the church that we don’t project,” says Lakewood spokesperson Donald Iloff Jr. “Other than that, we have no comment.”
Why the Group Says the “Jesus Was a Migrant” Message Is Timely
On YouTube, Cohen stated, “Jesus was a migrant [who] was fleeing violence, and we see so many other people who are in similar situations. So as people are attending Christmas services this time of year, we just wanted to remind them to embrace people who are fleeing that violence [and to] recognize their humanity, particularly in Houston, Texas, the most diverse and inclusive city in the United States.”
Referring to the impasse over President Trump’s border wall, Cohen adds, “Right now we are in the middle of a government shutdown over a racist fantasy from the president. A lot of families are under fire from the same kind of ideology that is inherent in the story of Christmas, and they are going to church to hear that story.”
Was Jesus Really a Migrant?
Debate about Jesus’ immigration status isn’t new. In December 2016, Pope Francis called Jesus a migrant, saying his birth narrative reflects the “tragic reality of migrants on boats” fleeing Africa and the Middle East. “The sad experience of these brothers and sisters recalls that of baby Jesus, who at the time of his birth could not find a place to stay when he was born in Bethlehem,” the pope said. “He was then taken to Egypt to escape death threats from Herod.”
Father James Martin agrees, based on that account from Matthew 2:12-15. He writes, “A family is forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution. This is the classic modern-day definition of a refugee.” Although Egypt came under Roman control in 30 B.C., Martin notes, it was outside Herod’s jurisdiction and had been a traditional place of refuge.
But the website Pulpit and Pen insists that “Jesus was not a migrant, let alone an illegal one.” Because Egypt was part of the Roman Empire, people could travel freely, just like “traveling from one American state to another.”
Another article on the site acknowledges that Jesus was “a refugee of political persecution” and that his parents “were escaping a first century Holocaust.” It adds, “[They] weren’t refugees in a foreign nation, but lawful visitors and legal residents of a different province in their empire.… Don’t let [Jesus] be used for the purpose of liberal propaganda.”