MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
That immigration debate in Congress this week is being followed closely by Christian leaders who say their churches could not survive without immigrant worshippers. NPR's Tom Gjelten has more.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Fairmeadows Baptist Church on the south side of Dallas, Texas, was on the verge a year ago of going out of business. As few as a dozen people were showing up each Sunday. But then a new group arrived and asked to rent the church for their own worship services. Their congregation is now thriving.
ELIA ARRIAGA: Father, we want to serve you. Use us as instruments, Father, to honor you and glorify you, Father. And as we pray, Father..
GJELTEN: Each Wednesday night, several of the people who founded the new congregation gather at the church to pray together. Elia Arriaga is among them. All are Hispanic, immigrants or the children of immigrants. When they pray, they go back and forth between English and Spanish.
ROLANDO RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
GJELTEN: Pastor Rolando Rodriguez organized the congregation, which now has about 30 families. This is what's called a church plant, a congregation organized from scratch. Church planting is a Rodriguez specialty. He has started more than a dozen in the last 20 years. He now coordinates Hispanic ministries for the whole Texas Baptist Convention.
R. RODRIGUEZ: The convention is not asking me, well, you have to plant churches. I mean, I do it because that's my calling.
GJELTEN: Rodriguez says it takes him about six months to get a new congregation up and running. He follows a step-by-step process.
R. RODRIGUEZ: Number one, to find my core group - two, three families - to train them, to find a place, to raise some money because a church plant - you need funding. You need resources.
GJELTEN: This is how faith spreads. New churches get established, and then they grow. And in America, it's immigrants - Hispanic immigrants in particular - who are leading this movement. Across Texas, Rodriguez says, between a quarter and a third of new Baptist churches have been founded by Hispanic immigrants.
R. RODRIGUEZ: When they come and when they see that somebody is lending a hand when they need it the most, you know, they become very receptive to the gospel. And this - it's a great opportunity for us to not just tell them about Christ but show them.
GJELTEN: The phenomenon is evident across Christian denominations. The Pew Research Center says about 40 percent of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the U.S. are immigrants, as are one-fourth of all U.S. Catholics. Bishop Michael Olson leads the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas.
MICHAEL OLSON: In times of crisis, we become much more acutely aware of our needs. And immigration is a time of crisis. Coming to a new nation, it is very important and critical that people find safety and something familiar so they can encounter God and their neighbor.
GJELTEN: But if immigrants need churches, it's also true that churches need immigrants at a time when church affiliation among the U.S.-born population is declining - thus the alarm among Christian leaders over the absence of an agreement to protect those immigrants known as DREAMers. And then there is the Trump administration plan to return as many as 300,000 immigrants who have fled violence or disaster and step up deportation efforts in general.
SAMUEL RODRIGUEZ: Mass deportation of current immigrants in America will do nothing less than cripple American Christianity for generations to come and, arguably, in a definitive manner.
GJELTEN: Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. When you deport immigrants, he says, you are deporting the future of American Christianity.
S. RODRIGUEZ: This is the fastest-growing element of American Christianity across the board - Catholicism, evangelicalism, mainline denominations. If you're a follower of Christ, then you would want to embrace the immigrants.
GJELTEN: Rodriguez is one of about a hundred Christian leaders who last week signed a full-page ad in The Washington Post advocating a generous immigration policy. They cited the biblical instruction to love one's neighbor. But their concern is also existential. Without immigrants, they fear the U.S. church as we know it may not survive. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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