One Church’s Journey on Immigration

For the past 10 years, our church has been on a journey, trying to understand how the gospel should shape our response to the contentious issue of immigration.

Redemption Church is a multi-congregational church in metropolitan Phoenix that seeks to show that “All of Life Is All for Jesus.” The issue of immigration is almost unavoidable for a church in Arizona that strives to be “gospel-centered” and “outward-focused.”

Immigration has presented incredible opportunities and complex questions. We have asked questions like:

  • What does it look like to love our immigrant neighbors?
  • What does it look like to respect our state and federal government?
  • How can we, as a church, seek the shalom of our city?
  • What does it look like to glorify God as we engage this issue?

The complexity of these questions has driven us to prayer. We’ve found that God rarely presents us with great opportunities without mixing them with significant challenges. This seems to be God’s recipe for keeping us dependent, for apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5).

Getting Started

We first sensed that God was calling us to respond to the self-giving love of Christ by tangibly loving our immigrant neighbors. As we encountered the Lord in the Scriptures, we were convinced that God sovereignly determines when and where people will live for the sake of his redemptive purposes (Acts 17:26-27). We awed at our omnipotent God who determines the placement of peoples and is bringing the nations to our city. Compelled by the love of Christ and the sovereignty of God, we concluded that our church’s approach to witness should be shaped by our geography, the needs of our community, and obedience to Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.

Desire to love and serve our immigrant community notwithstanding, we didn’t have the experience or expertise to move forward on our own. We didn’t want to make hasty decisions and carelessly start programs that might ultimately be detrimental to our church and the people we were seeking to serve. So we called and sought counsel from our resident expert, Kit Danley, and Neighborhood Ministries.

Three Areas of Service

Kit has served faithfully in Phoenix for the past 30 years. She advised us to look for what God is already doing around us and to join in on it, rather than starting our own ministry. This led us to engage in three primary areas of service.

First, we connected with a Baptist ministry in our community already serving migrant workers. We approached this ministry as learners and servants. We did not take on leadership roles but consistently served in whatever capacity was needed. We made meals, shared meals, and devoted ourselves to prayer for the gospel work happening within the community.

Second, we partnered with a local food and clothing bank. Our church started a monthly collection of food and clothes to stock this ministry. It wasn’t long before our people began donating more than food—they started to donate their lives. They served in many capacities, including such roles as collectors, workers, and board members.

Finally, we connected with a Latino church that had a big dream of starting a day labor center. A decade ago, just south of our Gilbert, Arizona, congregation, the streets were lined with immigrants looking for work. Sadly, many of these men were picked up and put to work only to be returned without pay. Some were even abused by their so-called employers. Something needed to be done to protect these workers, so we partnered with the Latino pastor of this church to bring to life his bold vision of using the church parking lot to provide a safe place for a day labor center. The center would provide a unique level of protection for the day laborers by requiring potential employers to register with the center by giving a license plate number and ID. This would ensure they upheld their commitment to payment and fair treatment.

This initiative was supported by a broad coalition of people from many domains of society, including local businesses and the city government. Our partnership with this local church was both financial and relational. We provided construction workers to build, financial support to sustain, workers to operate, and advocates to promote the center.

Taking It to the Next Level

The work that began a decade ago continues today. Some of our partnerships remain, and some have changed, but our commitment to the immigrant and refugee populations only continues to grow. Three years ago we started a community center in the heart of a Latino neighborhood about five miles where we offers English classes, after-school programs, Young Life meetings, Bible studies, and life-skills training. When the center opened in 2009, we were ministering to about 15 Latino immigrants each week, and now that number has grown to more than 85.

We always intended for our work within this community to lead to the planting of churches, as it is the church that will have an ongoing, sustaining effect on the community. Our work among Latinos has led to two church plants in the last five years. One is a Spanish-speaking congregation, and the most recent is a bilingual, multi-ethnic congregation. Through these two churches, we are starting to see the multi-dimensional power of local ministry.

We’re also working in similar ways with the Somali Bantu and Uzbek refugee populations throughout our city. Hundreds of people from the church have served as volunteers. They have welcomed newly arrived refugees at the airport, helped with English tutoring, volunteered with the Women’s Refugee Health Center, taught entrepreneurial skills, and participated in monthly dinner clubs called “Peace Feasts” to financially support restaurants owned by our refugee friends. We have enjoyed hundreds of opportunities to engage in conversations about Jesus with the refugees, and we’ve seen God change lives. They have told us that they have felt so welcomed, so served and cared for, that when they are able to return home, they want to implement the same practices they have experienced here as Muslims—to treat the Christians in their homeland with as much love as they have received from Christians in Arizona.

Kind Words, Harsh Words, and the Word that Became Flesh

Immigration is a deeply polarizing and contentious issue, both nationally and locally in Arizona. Our work has been affirmed by many but has also been met with criticism from both inside and outside the church. This weighty issue has both real life consequences, and has also become a symbolic issue in our struggling political discourse.

At times feedback from outside the church has been constructive and helpful, but at other times it’s been harsh and scathing. Because of our support of these communities, we’ve been accused of contributing to the breakdown of and economic drain on our educational and medical systems, and even to violent crimes like rape and murder by undocumented immigrants.

It’s easy to brush off irrational phone calls, but we’ve found that it’s important to pause and listen to the critiques of respectable people with legitimate concerns. We especially need to listen to those who challenge us on the grounds that our work counteracts the common good. If their concern is valid, we should respond and adjust accordingly. If, however, they are misguided, we should clarify our intentions and continue the work to which we have been called.

How do we deal with this type of critique and complexity? We listen, reflect, and pray. We take it seriously but also balance it with the substantial affirmation we’ve received from within the church, local ministries, the immigrant community, and local and state government leadership. Many governmental leaders know they are not the final answer to the communities’ problems, and they often welcome participation from the church. In a recent conversation with a state employee, he told me the community is essential to the process of addressing and answering the problems of immigration. The government helps foster a system that enables the common good, but it cannot do it alone.

We have also received positive feedback from the recipients of our service. We have been intentional about working with a “hand-up” rather than a “hand-out” philosophy. The people we serve are gaining greater competency in English, computer, and other life skills, all of which help to propel them forward in pursuit of employment, citizenship, and the ability to take greater ownership of their community’s issues.

We recognize these immigrants are made in God’s image, and therefore should be treated with the same dignity and respect due all of God’s children. We listen to them and walk with them, as they take responsibility for their communities. We frequently hear stories of gospel transformation that comes about through service, love, and empowerment.

Much of the affirmation we receive and the gospel transformation we witness is actually coming from within our congregations. The gospel-motivated love for our neighbors is pushing us across the boundaries of culture, comfort, and convenience. We frequently hear testimonies of how prejudice is being crushed, idols are being confronted, and joy is being made full. The people who serve these communities are finding that when they interact with members of the immigrant community—face-to-face in relationship—it personalizes the immigration issue. We, as a church, are learning the meaning of these words from our Lord Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

As we serve, we’re growing in a deeper understanding of God’s love and our admiration of Jesus. He was the young child who lived as a refugee in Egypt, was treated unjustly by the authorities, smashed sin through his suffering on the cross, was resurrected as a first fruits of the New Creation, and pointed to the day when the nations will be healed and tears will be wiped away. He also knows what it means to be a King among a rebellious and sinful people.

In a follow-up article, we’ll discuss some of the key lessons we’ve learned on this journey.

  • 4CELTA

    “Immigration is a deeply polarizing and contentious issue…” And, yet both the authors engage in speciousness by distorting the language surrounding immigration. This they do by lumping all immigrants under one umbrella. For example, the Somailian Bantu and the Uzbeks are immigrants who came here legally as either war or religious refugees. On the other hand, many Latino immigrants are illegal immigrants. So, why do neither Tyler Johnson nor Tim Mullins adhere to truth in language? After all, even the New York Times continues to refer to immigrants without proper papers as illegal immigrants. If either Tyler Johnson are Tim Mullins are to be taken seriously, they better start by using truth in their language.

    • Nile

      I agree that the reader would have benefited from the authors writing more clearly about the diversity of immigration. Not all immigrants are the same. I highly doubt that the authors believe that or are trying to mislead the reader. Please give them grace.

  • Wave Runner

    Encouraging and inspiring example of how the local church ought to engage with real issues and people in need in their communities, all the while in prayer and without compromising the gospel message. Thank you.

  • Robert

    @4CELTA “the authors engage in speciousness by distorting the language … This they do by lumping all immigrants under one umbrella.” – this is an error of omission, not commission. The focus of the article was on serving the immigrant community, not on the immigration debate. True, they could have discussed their approach to law enforcement, but this would have made the article longer. I think they need to write an additional article, perhaps entitled “Dealing with Illegal Immigration and Law Enforcement Issues when Serving Immigrants”.

  • Michael

    I, too, have wrestled with this issue. Certainly compassion and justice must be included in any conversation, but I also want to know how they wrestle with the issues of legality. And since they mentioned respecting law in their opening remarks (the four questions), They, at least, imply that part of the focus of the article deals with this issue and they certainly led me to think that I would get more biblical interaction than just Acts 17.

  • Marilyn Williams

    Thank you so much for blessing me with this article. After reading so many negative things from “Christians” about this thorny issue-this is a ray of light.
    We are all aliens in this world if we know Jesus Christ as Lord and He is the only one who can make us “citizens” of our true final country of destination.
    I know this is a terrible issue for our government-to know how much to do and what to do-but if the body of Christ leads out in this way, surely it will do much good to help with this issue.
    May the Lord continue to richly bless this ministry.

  • Brian

    Why is it that when people want to ignore plainly stated laws they are “on a journey” or want to “dialog” or have “conversation”?

    Also, why is it that these same folks who talk about justice ignore one side of it completely? If we really seek justice we will seek to have criminals, such as people who are in this country illegally, prosecuted.

    Two edged sword: “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers”. Proverbs 21:15

    • Mike

      Asking for harsh penalties to light crimes does not follow the old testament of “an eye for an eye.” We have come a long way from cutting off peoples hands of those who steal bread.

      As for the new testament if you were to ask Jesus, he has already stated very clearly, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Remember, NONE of us obeys all of the laws all of the time. Asking to persecute others for their petty crimes while we indulge our own sins is not a very Christian thing to do. I get very sad when I read so many people doing this. I begin to lose faith in mankind. If you wish to see how guilty you are of this ask yourself (and you cannot lie to yourself) do I feel self-righteous when I talk about this? We should not feel pride when we condemn someone for an offense. A good christian should feel compassion and try to find a way to make God’s word work to redeem the offender, and heal the offended.

  • Caleb

    Very thoughtful article on a tender, complex issue. Thanks for your courage in sharing how Redemption is trying to be comprehensively faithful to Jesus!

  • John

    Compassion is a vital part of the ministry. But I also see a clear message from Jesus; give unto Caesar that which is Caesars along with the Apostles clear message of obeying the law. To help those breaking the law is what it is. Aiding the breaking of the law. I can not see the breaking of the law in Jesus name as valid. I believe this Church needs to look at more Scriptures than what validates what they want to do.

    • Kevin

      @John: Obey all laws, even unjust, hateful, and dehumanizing ones? That argument has been used to support atrocities throughout history. Jesus was accused and convicted as a criminal, and hung between two thieves, unjustly. The issue is complex, but what I see here is a church trying its best to work within that complexity and courageously and self-sacrificially bring the healing love of Christ to a broken world. You raise the valuable and valid question of how does Scripture comprehensively speak to the issue of immigration and exile. As noted in an above post, Paul uses the phrase “citizen of the Kingdom” to describe what we are now through Christ’s mercy. We were once aliens, but now made citizens through Christ’s blood (Ephesians). We are not called to be law breakers, but law fulfillers as Jesus was, to fulfill the purposes for which all law exists – to honor and glorify God. I am not convinced by your post that this church is in the wrong on that account.

    • Brian

      Well said, John.

      • Nile

        How would you recommend a Christian respond to laws that he believes are biblically unjust?

  • John Lynn

    I can understand showing compassion by offering food and shelter and protection from those who may abuse the illegal immigrants. I have a problem with aiding and abetting the crime of illegal entry. Ministries should not be educating illegals on how to access the US Welfare system both from Federal, State and Local Government. Our resources should be focused on stopping the problem at it’s origin and that is illegal entry into the US thus preventing the issue all together. My hunch is that both Evangelical and Catholic Churches see this as an opportunity to grow their churches rather than prevent illegal entry from taking place. Allowing this to happen only further strains our resources and ultimately results in further spending or taxing of US citizens.

  • John

    Kevin, please don’t add words I did not say. This is not unjust. Every nation including Mexico and Latin America has immigration laws. For the purpose of security and they are enforced. There is a difference between ministering at a prison, and holding the door open for the burglar and giving him sanction after the crime. It is an unnecessary crime. There is an immigration program. If you feel it is not the proper one, work to change the law. We still live in a Republic. But I do not buy that we need to work criminally because someone validates it by bringing up words like atrocities that doesn’t fit. Smacks of politically correct to eliminate free speech from the “other guy”.

  • Rachael Starke

    I’m afraid I have to largely agree with those who are concerned about the lack of distinction between legal and illegal immigration, and even between willingly illegal immigration (adults) and unwillingly illegal immigration (children of illegal immigrants). This does not mean that we simply uphold law, and diminish justice and/or mercy. Lawbreaking is not just the purvue of the illegal immigrant – it’s also an entrenched part of many business who care about profit more than people. And we know that idolatrous American materialism makes it difficult to convince voters to accept higher prices in exchange for “above the table” hiring practices. Christians need to see how the gospel must and can be brought to bear on all aspects of this issue, not just parts of it.

  • John Lynn

    Many Illegals willingly come to the US with the express purpose of giving birth so as to “anchor” themselves to the this country. That is expressly using a right that was never intended to be used in this way. To confuse the central issue with many ancillary issues seeks to confuse and play upon the emotions of Americans which in and of itself is deceitful. There is mainly only one issue here and that is people are being allowed to enter this country illegally. That is what needs to be addressed. Once that is addressed we then need to tackle the issue of what we do with those who came here and in some ways assimilated.

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  • David Volsky

    I think there are a lot of broad assumptions being made in the criticisms of this church’s efforts to reach out to others in need. The writer has acknowledged the complexities involved and indicated a follow-up article which will go into to greater detail as to what they have learned along the way. The writer has not suggested that they have all of the answers.

    It is also indicated that the church is touching base with the local government within this process. I’m sure legal concerns are on their mind, as well. There may be occasions when doing what is right biblically may come into conflict with secular laws, but the writer has not suggested directly defying any laws.

    I think the writer’s purpose in not distinguishing legal immigrant from illegal immigrant in the context of this writing is to emphasize that there are people in both communities who are in need, that we are all created in the image of God, loved by God, and it is the church’s duty to reach out to anyone in need within its reach. I find nothing wrong with what this church is doing. In fact, I see everything right about it. And the writer has stated that they have adjusted their approach as they go along, in order to do what is right.

    I have very conservative political views, but see a lot of complexities regarding immigration. As a Christian, I find it difficult to find all the answers to those complexities within the political system. I’m glad to see churches addressing these issues as Christ would and not just discussing and voting on them. This church community is a shining example of Christ-likeness.

  • Tad

    Maybe as Christians we should be fighting to make immigration always, completely and totally legal as an act of love?

    Is civil disobedience right? Was the underground railroad right? Maybe helping immigrant (legal or illegal) is right as well.

  • Vincent

    Encouraging article. Discouraging comments per usual. Most, certainly not all who will read this post and respond condescendingly have probably spent little to no time at all with the immigrant population. Rather, you’re filled with random stories and “an article you read once” that showed to you the utter drain that is the immigrant population.

    The authors here present a fallible, yet gracious attempt to love thy neighbor. Imperfect certainly, because nothing is this side of a new heaven and new earth. They themselves acknowledge that, and it sounds like they are working through the legal implications of this complex issue. (not alone mind you, but aside city and local officials). How quickly this article moved from what it was to what it was not intended to be.

    (Also, there is a follow up that was posted late last night that speaks to the issues in more detail –

    Should the immigration discussion include legality and the Church’s response to it, yes! However, the moment we cannot celebrate the work of God through the hands and feet of His bride, the Church I fear we’ve missed it. I often find that those who staunchly hold up the “but they’re illegal” banners often are not perfect people/citizens themselves. It’s just the laws they break are simply that, laws ‘they’ break. It appears to me that all the comments simply reveal a deeper issue of the heart. We care little for people who are not named “me”.

  • Charlie Johnson

    Question for you all…

    There is an illegal immigrant in your church, avoiding all taxes, etc.. He is a believer, growing in his faith, deep connections with family and friends in the community.

    Do you practice church discipline on a man who disobeying human government, the government we ought to obey? Do you confront the sin and take it to the church?

    I’d love to hear your replies!

    Charlie Johnson, CPC

    • Bekah

      I’ve really struggled with this question…not as a church staff member, but simply as a fellow believer who works closely with immigrants at a professional capacity. I think the answer may be different for each immigrant. If a pastor is considering church discipline, he should examine why and how the immigrant came to the US. Perhaps the immigrant was fleeing a dangerous situation, perhaps there was no other way for him to feed his family, perhaps she had no choice in coming, perhaps they were brought over when they were babies, or perhaps she was a victim of a crime here. For some of these, options may be available to gain legal status, although slow and lengthy. As a church, I believe we should help our eligible brothers and sisters apply for legal status so that they can fulfill their obligations to the government and avoid further legal problems. For those “growing believers” who commit tax fraud, identity theft, etc., these issues should be addressed. However, I struggle with where to draw the line. Most are driving illegally, too. As a pastor, are you going to ask them not to drive? Driving means putting food on the table. Many are working illegally. Again, working means putting food on the table. My questions run even deeper when there is no legalization option, no danger/risk in moving back home, etc. Does a church encourage these to move back home? What if they don’t have the financial resources to make the move? What about if they have US citizen children? What if these children are already adolescents who would have greater difficulty with such a move? Some don’t find out their illegal until they try to apply for college and their parents have to break the news to them. How shocking for a 17 year old! How do we help these make decisions that honor the Lord? Immigrants bring a lot of different issues that are often not addressed within the church, not just legal issues but also animistic practices that some refuse to give up. A church who reaches out to them should prayerfully and humbly take steps to address these issues so that no one is hindered in his/her faith.

      • Charlie Johnson

        To an extent I am playing devil’s advocate here — I’m trying to figure out my position as well, but we do have a man in our church who immigrated illegally many years ago. He has always worked under the table, his kids go to public school, they are US citizens, but he is fearful because the government would deport him if they found out. He cashes checks through his wife’s family members (who are all US citizens)…

        So we’ve got tax evasion, illegal immigration, etc. He is from Mexico and came here for a better future. There was no violence, no danger where he was. He could make more money in America.

        Do we ignore it because of the damage it would do to his family, his kids in middle school and elementary school? He is clearly breaking laws…

        Charlie Johnson, CPC

    • EricP

      Hard to answer as a hypothetical. How did you determine his documentation status? Was it told in trust? In what other circumstances have your church employed discipline?

      • Bekah

        I do not work with immigrants within a church setting, but within a professional setting. If they share their status with me, it is out of trust. Otherwise, I usually pick-up on their status. As far as church discipline is concerned, I’ve not been privy to any of these instances within my present church.

      • Charlie Johnson


        In my situation, this gentleman’s (il)legal status is somewhat known within the church leadership (both formal leadership and informal). He is married to an American woman, and word has just gotten out a little.

        But does that matter? If someone comes to me (as the pastor) and tells me in private they are having an affair/committing tax fraud/robbing banks/fill in the sin and they are unrepentant, do we not take that to the church?

        Sin has consequences, right? Sometimes those consequences tear us apart. Is the consequence of his sin that he will need to face up to American authorities, or go back to Mexico and apply for citizenship?

        Why would that not be the pastoral answer?

        Thanks for struggling through this with me!

        Charlie Johnson, CPC

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  • Bekah

    Thank you so much for writing on this topic. I found it refreshing that others within the church are working faithfully and unapologetically with the immigrant population (both legal and illegal). I, too, work with this population and receive criticism from within and outside of the church, and even from my own family. It is especially disconcerting to receive criticism from within the church when I invest so much to share Christ with the immigrants. My reply to my critics is usually that they (the immigrants) need Jesus, too!

    Thanks again for the article!

  • EricP

    If you are convinced in your own heart that illegal immigrants should be reported, then help the legal ones.