From the pew to the pulpit

March 4, 2011

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The pulpit at First Lutheran Church in Fremont, Neb.

Story by Ellen Jean Hirst, photo by Kyle Bruggeman

Nebraska’s Christian leaders are all hitting the same note in this year’s popular song: “Stop Sen. Charlie Janssen’s immigration bill.” But many of the church faithful aren’t singing along.

Statewide, the immigration issue has emerged as the most significant – and controversial – message to come out of the pulpit this year. And church leaders across denominational lines have embraced it like never before, said Marilyn Meecham, director of Interchurch Ministries Nebraska for the past 11 years.

“In terms of social issues it would be the leading topic coming out of the pulpit,” said the Rev. David Lux, senior pastor at St. Paul United Methodist in Lincoln. “It is one of those issues that is clearly addressed in the Bible and in our religious tradition.”

Nebraska’s immigration bill, LB48, proposed by Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, would give law enforcement officers the right to check the legal status of anyone they thought reasonably suspicious. The Legislature’s first judiciary committee hearing for LB48 was March 2.

Most Nebraska pastors have embraced the issue, because they fear the law would promote racism, whether intentional or not, with the “reasonable suspicion” justification dangerously unclear. Christian leaders fear the bill does not show compassion and love to those who come to the United States in search of a better life.

But Janssen, who grew up Catholic, said he believes that sometimes it is OK to disagree with one’s church, since churches have supported immoral acts, such as slavery, in the past.

“We can’t just pick and choose which laws that we are going to enforce or not enforce,” Janssen said. “I think there’s some times when it’s OK to disagree with your church.”

The Rev. Lux has directly addressed immigration in his sermons. Although many are receptive to these sermons, a few have stopped attending his church. Lux said one man walked out of a Saturday night service at which Lux advocated for more compassionate laws.

Lux said the Bible instructs Christians to be open to sojourners – modern day immigrants. Even illegal immigrants, he said.

“What I believe politically comes from my faith,” Lux said. “That influences all of my life including what I believe and how I would vote on political issues. Our faith teaches compassion, so if an issue has to do with how people are being treated – compassion, justice, righteousness – they speak to how we behave politically. Politics is just how we get things done. I don’t see how you separate those.”

But some Christian congregation members believe a bill like LB48 is just what Nebraska needs.

“I don’t know what they mean by more compassionate and loving,” said Tony Primavera, a Catholic principal at Cathedral Elementary School in Lincoln. “Is it loving when we just give people things and don’t help them to learn how to take care of themselves?”

The real world, Primavera said, has rules.

Rules that sometimes, must be broken, religious leaders say.

“When Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus, that was illegal,” Lux said.

The Catholic bishops in Nebraska agree in their 2009 statement on immigration.

And Meecham said many Christians who disagree with Christian leaders on this issue, do so quietly.

“We call it the dirty little secret, because people that are really supportive of the bill not going through are very vocal,” Meecham said. “You don’t see a lot of rallies the other way, but if it went to vote in the state right now… the bill would pass.”

Meecham said many LB48 supporters aren’t vocal about their support for the bill because they don’t want to appear racist.

“What you hear… you’re a racist because you’re going against people that are not Caucasian,” said Jerry Hart, 63, a Fremont resident, Christian and proponent of the bill. “I’m not a racist.”

He said people should be treated humanely, but “trying to find a better life,” does not justify breaking the law.

“People rob banks to have a better life. There’s all kinds of things people do to break the law to have a better life,” Hart said.

So what would Jesus do?

“I don’t think he’d stand at the border with a gun,” Cathedral Elementary Principal Primavera said. “But I also don’t think he’d say come on across and break the law.”

Andrew Mock, 21, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior studying psychology, believes without a bill like LB48, continuing immigration will ultimately making everybody’s quality of life – including illegal immigrants’ lives – worse.

“Adding millions of people who pay very little taxes and burden the emergency rooms will not help anyone’s situation,” Mock said. “And if illegal immigration actually hurts people, then it cannot be moral.”

The Rev. Chuck Bentjen, senior pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Beatrice, believes Christians who are for LB48 misunderstand their faith’s perspective, partly because some pastors fear the congregation will become upset if they discuss immigration and give less to the church.

The bottom line, according to both Bentjen and Lux, is that Christians’ political beliefs should have their roots in religion.

“How we view political issues ought to be driven by our faith. They’re not separate at all,” Bentjen said. “None of us in the Christian community who are opposed to this law say we don’t need to change things – we do. Just, let’s do it wisely.”

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