You Shall Love the Stranger

This morning, the Reverend Michael Rineheart, Bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, released a statement on the completed deportation of Synodically-Authorized Minister Betty Rendón and Carlos Hincapie. Despite the prayers of thousands and the efforts of hundreds, Rendón and Hincapie have been sent back to Colombia, from which they fled when guerilla fighters threatened to kill Rendón after she refused to allow them to recruit children from her school into their paramilitary army. Because their daughter is a DACA recipient and unable to leave the country, and her US citizen daughter is only five years old, it is likely at this point that they will never see each other again.

Their story is not special because of Rendón’s status as a SAM and doctoral student (one of “the good ones” by any assessment). Nor is it somehow worse than other stories of people kidnapped and deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. This story, in some form or other, is repeated every day across the United States out of the eyes of the public, unnoticed. This time, we just happened to notice.

We noticed because she was one of our own, a Lutheran and a pastor. We noticed because our bishops published numerous statements on the situation and made the church aware. We noticed because we assumed someone like her was safe. We noticed because for us, this time, it was personal. We noticed because we chose to notice, when every other time we have the privilege to choose not to.

There’s not a whole lot I can say. I repeat my conviction that from a Lutheran Christian perspective immigration law in the United States does not recognize the imago Dei of human beings and is immoral; that the tactics used by ICE in apprehending its targets are terrorism; that a person’s immigration status is an artificial barrier I will not recognize; that a person’s immigration status does not justify betraying our mandate as Christians to feed the hungry, nourish the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, visit those imprisoned; that as an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament living out his call to “speak for justice on behalf of the poor and oppressed” it is my duty to call for change in our nation’s immigration laws and enforcement so that no more people have to suffer from them.

But it is also my duty to speak to the church. And while I appreciated the rallying of support from all quarters of the church, laity to congregations to rostered ministers to bishops, there is an overlooked detail that cannot go unaddressed:

Betty Rendón had completed her Divinity studies. She was still a synodically authorized minister and not an ordained pastor because the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America does not ordain or consecrate undocumented people in the United States. This was stated outright in one of the many statements issued regarding her detention. In order for the church to recognize and validate God’s call to the ministries of Word, Sacrament, and Service, a person must be a legal United States resident or citizen.

This finally shocked me. It is no secret that, like most large national churches in the United States, the structure of the ELCA has thoroughly enmeshed itself with the accepted standards and structure of secular life to the point that, on an institutional level, the church far more resembles a run-of-the-mill corporation than it does a community of people struggling to follow in the footsteps of Christ Jesus. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that a person’s immigration status would have a significant impact on their ability to live out their vocation in the church. But I never had to think about it before. And now that I do, I can’t stop thinking about it.

This is wrong. Refusing to ordain Betty Rendón was and is wrong. I’m sure it makes complete and total sense from a legal perspective, given how we’ve made the office of pastor is equivalent in form and structure to management in a secular corporation. Even though, as a synodically authorized minister, she was already in the employ of the legal entity of the congregation. But I hate it. I hate that we treat any ministers, rostered or otherwise (including all lay people who are ministers according to the baptism) as employees instead of people called and chosen by God for mission and ministry in the world. I hate that in so many cases we allow secular norms and expectations to govern and hamper our baptismal callings.

The church can and should call on the state to align its laws and policies with better morals and ethics. But it cannot do so with the same integrity and sincerity unless it does so first.

This is that call, church. This needs to change. If we cannot listen to Holy Spirit when she calls us to action without first asking “Is this person a legal resident or citizen?”, then our priorities are upside down and we are focusing more on our status in society than on our baptismal vocations. This is unacceptable.

Change it. Pull the log from our own eye. Only then will we be better able to see.

Featured Image: “Abolish ICE Protest” by Master Steve Rapport is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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