Preachers Call For Compassion In Dealing With Immigrant Surge

Host Michel Martin speaks with religious leaders about how faith organizations are responding to the recent surge of immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We begin today with a story we've been following which is the huge increase in unaccompanied minors, mainly from Central America, who've been crossing the border into the United States. You've seen that the issue is very much on the minds of political leaders. Tens of thousands of kids are expected to make the crossing this year if current trends continue. But this is the kind of story that captures the attention of people from all walks of life and across the political spectrum because it touches on so many complicated emotions. And we've observed that faith leaders, even more than political leader sometimes, are the people who learn of a crisis and are called upon to respond in some way and they are. But how? Some say it's a humanitarian crisis and it is the faith community's obligation to step in.

Others are hearing that issues like poverty here at home should be an even bigger priority. We wanted to call upon two faith leaders who are involved in issues of public concern to see how they are responding and what there congregants are telling them. So we've called Pastor Rudy Rasmus, he's senior pastor of St. John's Downtown in Houston, Texas. His congregation is a very active urban ministry and He's with us from member station KUHF in Houston. Pastor Rasmus thanks for joining us once again.

PASTOR RUDY RASMUS: Hey, it's good to hear from you today.

MARTIN: And Russell Moore is the President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. That is a group that's been very active over the years in matters of public concern and he joins us from their offices in Nashville. And Mr. Moore, thank you so much for joining us once again as well.

RUSSELL MOORE: Great to be with you today.

MARTIN: So, let me start with you, Pastor Rudy Rasmus, you lead a large church in Houston. You're known for your - congregation is known for its active outreach, for example to the homeless. You're very involved in ministry to that group for example and like building a housing center as I understand it, trying to address homelessness and that issue. I wanted to ask what your congregants are telling you about this, this issue of these undocumented children coming across. Is this an issue that's on their minds and what are they saying?

RASMUS: You know, Michel, this is an issue on their minds and it's very reminiscent of an event that happened about 10 years ago when a storm came through New Orleans. A lot of people ended up in Houston, Texas, about a 300,000 in 48 hours. And this City responded in an amazing way to that particular human crisis. And this crisis is equal to us. I've been asking my congregants over the last couple of weeks and - as a matter of fact, yesterday in service we lifted up not only prayer but a question, as to what should our response be in this moment. And I'm hearing some interesting responses but all of the responses I have heard were coming from the vantage point that we should care.

MARTIN: Well, what do you mean by interesting? Tell me more about that.

RASMUS: You know, its - these are children and many of the crisis that we have faced here in Houston before have been mostly centered around adults. You know, over the last 22 years the mission - the minister that I'm a part of has provided care to mostly homeless adults. And now here's a crisis with children and what we do know, an unaccompanied child in this region is pray. Houston is one as leading cities in this country for sex trafficking and human trafficking. And in that the level of alert goes up another decibel because of the potential harm to - to really innocent children, regardless to how these children got to the border, regardless to how they ended up in our state and in our city we do have a moral response.

MARTIN: I'm going to press you on what exactly you think that response should be or what at least you're thinking about. But I want to hear from Russell Moore. Mr. Moore thanks for joining us once again. You - many people might remember that you, along with another of conservative Christian leaders has been pressing for immigration reform. For example you wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal, an opinion piece with Ralph Reed back in March, where you called upon Congress or the House to pass legislation that reflects conservative values of strong and secure borders, the rule of law, economic opportunity and strengthening of the family. Basically pressing conservatives to take a more active role in advancing immigration reform. What are your thoughts about the current crisis and what should happen? And I'm curious about what people are telling you.

MOORE: Well, I think it's a moral crisis and I think what's happening is the awakening of a conscious in this country because people are seen images of children, these are children who are in harm's way, they're being in many cases crammed into detention facilities. This is a humanitarian crisis, it's a moral crisis. It ought to invoke a conscious that says, this is not the way that things ought to be. At the same time I find that some of the responses that are coming back would love to see an easy quick fix. And so there are many people in congregations for instance, when they see these images on television would say, well let's just send some mission trips there and fix this crisis and in reality until the government comes in and fixes an incoherent policy and also deals with the root problem of people who are fleeing from a drug war going on in Central America, we're not going to be able to get a fix on this.

MARTIN: Are - do you have - does the commission have some guidance for individual congregations at this point about how they should respond or what they should do?

MOORE: Well, there's a limit on what individual congregations can do because congregations can't simply show up at the border and start dealing with the refugees that are there because they're in - they're in government holding patterns waiting for a hearings to determine what the refugee status of the children would be. There are groups and Christians and churches who are ministering as best they can but until the government comes in and takes responsibility for the government's own failed policies here, there's a limit on what we can do. What I've been seeking to do is to speak to our people, to the people of Christ and to say we need to make sure that we understand that the response to this cannot be what it is in some sectors of American society, which is fear and loathing against immigrants and against refugees. We need to recognize that we have a moral responsibility to love neighbor and Jesus tells us the story of a man who passes by someone who is beaten on the road, a Samaritan and he cares for that man. We ought to listen to that message and recognize that our response to this crisis can't be as simple and easy fix but it also can't be, to say who is my neighbor in Spanish.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us we're talking about how faith communities are responding to this increase in - huge increase in undocumented children who are crossing the border. I'm speaking with Russell Moore, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Public Policy Commission and Pastor Rudy Rasmus of St. John's Downtown in Houston. Those are both prominent faith leaders involved in issues of public concern. So, you know, to that end you were talking about this whole question of fear and anxiety that this is provoking on the part of some people. I just want to - the video of one Houston resident, a woman named Bernadette Lancelin went viral last week. She was responding to the Department of Homeland Security officials who were touring an old middle school to see if it could house unaccompanied children and here she is speaking to the Fox station KRIV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNADETTE LANCELIN: Now billions of dollars want to be borrowed from the White House to help feed and house them. What about the [Bleep] [Bleep] kids here? In our neighborhood and our country. Don't bring them here, we don't have nothing for them. They already are taking away from my kids. I understand President Obama that it's a humanitarian issue but look right within your own house, look in your backyard man.

MARTIN: Pastor Rasmus I'm sure you've seen this, you're also in Houston. Are you hearing that...

RASMUS: Yes.

MARTIN: ... As well?

RASMUS: Well, you know, I understand how scarcity works in the broader context. And in the midst of an impoverished community that's probably not an unusual response from a person who feels as though they're own needs aren't getting met but we do have looked beyond the - our own needs to the needs of these children. You know when I think about the challenges that these kids must be facing, I'm reminded of - also the words of Jesus, who really reminds each of us that the kingdom of God belongs to kids. And when we reflect on the importance of providing a safe place, you know, the government agencies I believe will work through the challenges that are - that are facing from a diplomacy standpoint. But in the midst of that there's still a human need and a victim that is right now standing in the - at the crossroads.

MARTIN: Are you preaching on this and if so what are you saying?

RASMUS: You know, we're talking about it. And we talk about the needs of those who have a safety concern, a lot in our ministry context because of our work in and around the homeless and hungry community in Houston. You know, every week we distribute about 18 tons of food to families. And many of those families I would say, you know, are without documentation but in the midst of that crowd every week, twice a week, I'm finding some incredible human beings who are adding value to the city as well. So, there is a, you know, our neighbor - when we're responding to our neighbor the question is always who is our neighbor and for me it's always the person in front of me.

MARTIN: Russell one final thought from you? What about you, I don't know if you're preaching at the moment, or if you're pasturing a congregation, this kind of is your ministry at the moment. What's your word on this?

MOORE: Well, I think that the responses some people have is to blame the victim because of fear, this is a fearful situation, it's a situation out of control but we cannot express rage toward these children who are seeking to escape from very dangerous situations. We ought to be angered by what's happening but we ought to be angered at the cartels, at the terrorist networks in Central America that are trafficking in drugs and trafficking in human persons. And we also ought to say to our government officials, you have a responsibility, given to you by God, to maintain public order and justice and you need to step up and do that.

MARTIN: And what are you going to do?

MOORE: Well, I plan to work with elected officials to say we need to work on the humanitarian crisis first of all and then we need to work on providing a system that's coherent and actually works. And then calling on the people of God to pray and to make sure that our consciences are compassionate and reaching outward toward those in need.

MARTIN: Russell Moore is a President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission. He joined us from his office in Nashville. Rudy Rasmus is the senior Pastor of St. John's Downtown in Houston. He joined us from member station KUHF in Houston. Pastors, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MOORE: Thank you.

RASMUS: Thank you, Michel.

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