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Does Christian Charity Reach 'Illegals'?

By the Rev. Howard Bess
July 20, 2010

Editor’s Note: New Arizona laws cracking down on illegal immigrants present a variety of challenges to the U.S. political system, including the issue of constitutional responsibility for controlling the borders.

However, the targeting of “illegal aliens” confronts Christian churches with their own moral dilemma because hostility to sojourners runs counter to the teachings of Jesus, as Baptist minister Howard Bess argues in this guest essay:

When the early Christians faced the challenge of bowing down to Caesar and obeying the Roman government or living by the teachings of Jesus, they followed the teachings of Jesus, becoming a persecuted people. Many lost their lives because of their commitment to their Christ.

This Christian defiance of rulers and governments – when those temporal powers impose laws that violate Christ’s teachings – has been repeated in generation after generation with the latest challenge now taking place in Arizona. 

The state of Arizona has passed harsh anti-illegal-immigration laws, including one that requires police to demand a person’s legal papers if there’s reason to believe the person is in the United States illegally. The state government hopes these laws will stem the flow of illegal Mexican immigrants across the Mexico-Arizona border.

Though the Arizona “legal papers” law can be criticized for fostering racial profiling and illegal searches, the growing demand to target “illegal aliens” represent another kind of challenge to Christians.

Christian churches in Arizona of every kind – Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, liberal and conservative – offer services to people in need and seldom ask about immigration status. Typically, the churches provide services with a full knowledge that some recipients are in the U.S. illegally.  

As Christians, we are not and can never be an arm of the law. In offering help to people, I would never ask about a person’s legal status. Further, if a government agency asked me to report people who are undocumented, I would deny the request.

Christian ministry to the newly arrived in Arizona is huge and involves thousands of helper/Christian people. Aiding and abetting law-breakers easily becomes a part of our Christian responsibility. 

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine asks a serious and well-informed question: “Is Christian ministry illegal in Arizona?”

Offering shelter and meeting the needs of the sojourners of the world is a fundamental part of the Bible’s teaching. Many American churches regularly offer their buildings as a safe haven for people being pursued by law enforcement officials. 

When we Christians offer services and shelter to undocumented immigrants, we are acting out our best selves.


Over the years I have accumulated models for my life practices as a Christian pastor. One is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German theologian of the World War II era who had the opportunity to remain in the United States where he had been a guest professor at an American seminary. 

Instead, Bonhoeffer chose to return to Germany, where he became part of the resistance to Adolf Hitler, organizing and operating an underground theological seminary. Eventually, he became a party to an unsuccessful plot to kill Hitler and was hanged.

Bonhoeffer had been dead for a few years when I encountered him through his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship. It remains a staple in my library and a prod every time I think that my commitment to Jesus can be compromised.

My American model is Martin Luther King Jr., another law breaker, indeed a persistent law breaker, who spent significant time in prison. Each January in celebration of King’s birthday, I reread his profound “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which he sets a standard for all American Christians and for Christian ministers in particular.

King said, “An unjust law is no law at all!” After being released from jail, he kept on breaking unjust laws as was his Christian duty.

My understanding of Jesus is that he, too, was a practitioner of civil disobedience. The stories that he told and the sayings that he left behind inform us of just how radical his social and religious beliefs were.

Jesus's activities reinforced what he taught. They were tangible indicators of his deeply held convictions.

His so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem was a carefully crafted protest that mocked and ridiculed the ruling powers. The mayhem that he created at the Jerusalem temple was a display of how adamant he was in resisting the religious leaders of his day.

It is worth noting that my great heroes all suffered untimely deaths because their pursuit of truth and justice ranked very high with them.

The harsh anti-immigration law enacted in Arizona is our own critical political issue. The law’s constitutionality will soon be tested in our courts. The controversy also may bring pressure on the U.S. Congress to revise/reform the national immigration laws.

But more is needed from Christians. In the face of what is developing in Arizona, the question becomes: Will Christians act like followers of Jesus and make room for persecuted strangers?
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is             

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