Originally published by The New York Times
When we think about where immigrants head once they arrive in the United States, we usually imagine them piling into border states like Texas and urban areas along the coast. And many do.
But many others are headed to the Southeast: A recent analysisshowed that a significant number of Guatemalans move to central Alabama, while Muscle Shoals, in the state’s northwest corner, is a popular destination for El Salvadorans. The state’s total immigrant population nearly quadrupled from 43,500 in 2000 to 169,000 in 2017.
Alabama? This reddest of red states has a reputation for hostility to immigrants — the home of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the infamous HB 56, one of the harshest anti-immigrant laws in the country. Thanks in part to his xenophobic rhetoric, Donald Trump won all 67 counties in the state’s Republican primary.
But there’s something else afoot in Alabama. Time and again during my work as a pastor, I have encountered people with strong anti-immigrant policy positions, who nevertheless open their homes, churches, wallets and arms to immigrants in their communities.
Alabama can be a difficult place to understand, but the role of faith is clear. On policy, people may take their cues from anywhere — their party, their president, Fox News. But in their daily lives, their religious beliefs are their guide.
“I minister to immigrants because I am called to do so through Scripture,” said Rhonda Thompson, director of the Nehemiah Center, which works with immigrants in Montgomery. “As a follower of Christ, I am commanded to welcome the refugee, care for those in need, and be the hands and feet of Christ to all God sends our way.”
Increasingly, I see people struggling with the tension between their political views and their faith. They’re not about to change their politics; Alabama isn’t turning blue. At the same time, many say they have erred in politicizing their faith. Alabama evangelicals who love and welcome immigrants seem to consciously make a decision to not start with politics.
Dana Hall McCain, a conservative columnist in Dothan, in the state’s southeast corner, wrote an article last year defending DACA recipients. When I asked why, she said: “We had so commingled our faith with our politics that our faith had become politicized. I had to become thoughtful about disentangling those things, to treat the precepts of my faith as primary and let our politics flow out of that.”
I saw a similar approach at Faith Community Church in Enterprise, near the Florida line. The church works with some 100 families from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other Latin American countries, many who came to work in nearby poultry plants and in the agriculture industry. Two of its volunteers, Brenda Hemp and Brenda Harris, both retired, tutor children on Wednesday nights.
“Our country is made up of people from all different countries,” Ms. Hemp said. “I don’t know what the answer is to the bigger problems, but this is something I can do on a local level to make a difference.”
Eastside Baptist Church, located in Union Springs, an old cotton town around 45 miles southeast of Montgomery, began reaching out to the town’s immigrant community eight years ago, providing tutoring, mentoring and other assistance. Gene Bridgman, the pastor, told me that it all started when a woman in the congregation brought by 10 children whose families came from southern Mexico, part of a large influx of agricultural workers. She was already doing what she could to help them — and soon the rest of the church was, too.
What gives me hope is that this openness isn’t just on the individual or congregational level; it is spreading across communities, as their faith overtakes their fear.
Earl Hinson, a former mayor of Union Springs and a member at Eastside, said that while the arrival of so many immigrants had taken some adjustment, the town’s residents have come to accept them. “Once people get to know them, their hearts change,” he said. “The perception that people have against them mostly comes from the news.”
Bruce Smithhart, a retired prison guard and veteran, said: “The Union Springs economy depends on immigrants. Immigrants are why Union Springs is as good as it is.” Everyone I talked to from the church agreed.
Brad Williams, pastor of New Covenant Baptist Church in Albertville, northeast of Birmingham, says that the town’s Latino immigrant population has gone from practically zero in the 1990s to nearly 40 percent today. At first, he said, residents reacted negatively, but the animosity has dissipated.
“We’re working it out,” he said. “What we do in our churches is to teach that Christ loves the sojourner. He loves the immigrant in our midst. We try to help them live here in peace as best they can. My hope for Albertville and my hope for other towns like ours is that we just learn that we are people made in the image of God and therefore have great value, eternal value.”
I often ask evangelicals I know how they square their openness to immigrants in their communities with their support for tougher actions along the border. I frequently hear some version of: “I want a secure border and don’t want people coming here illegally, but I don’t think we should treat these people poorly and run them down. They work hard and I respect that.” For them, the answer involves upholding the law without dehumanizing their neighbors.
And of course, regardless of how an immigrant got there, many people believe their faith compels them to welcome them into their communities.
But I also see things changing. Politics operates downstream from culture; it lags behind. And I believe that the groundswell of welcome, love and acceptance developing in Alabama’s evangelical churches may herald, if nothing else, an eagerness for compassionate compromise on one of the most divisive issues of our day.