It was 2011 and I was over a decade into pastoring a really great Baptist church in Alabama, the heart of the Bible Belt. I had traveled around the world engaging in “missions,” but at this point, the sum total of thought that I had given to immigration issues basically boiled down to, “I am all for immigrants coming to America legally, but if they come illegally, they should return home, and failing that, be detained and then be deported.” I could strongly defend my position by throwing out something about the “rule of law,” and move on. It was a settled issue, and I thought my position was rock solid.
Then, the Alabama state legislature passed the anti-immigration bill, HB56. Initially, I thought it was a good law. But then the protestors came.
I live and ministered in Montgomery, the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where Dr. King preached and where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, where the Freedom Riders were beaten by an angry mob, and where the Selma to Montgomery March culminated. Our city still tells those stories, and you cannot pastor here without understanding that context, especially if you want to reach all people. So, when the protestors of HB56 came to Montgomery, I wanted to hear what they had to say, even though I did not understand or sympathize with their issue. Historically, it just seemed interesting.
But I listened to the protestors. I heard their appeal. I saw children and families and pastors and leaders. I learned about what was happening to immigrants in our state, why they came to America and the conditions that they were facing. I learned that even if they were brought here as children and had no home to which they could return, there was no avenue for them to apply for legal status. I did not know that.
I learned that millions were basically in a legal limbo, with no country to call home. I began to see how this law trampled on religious liberty issues by effectively criminalizing ministry to people in need if those people were undocumented immigrants. I was bothered that evening. These speakers stood on the same capitol steps where Dr. King once spoke. I was bothered so much that I had began studying the immigration issue for myself.