Out of the thorny thicket that is the national immigration debate, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister the Rev. Ben Daniel declares that the issue is not only a political and economic matter, it’s a spiritual one.
In his book, Neighbor; Christian Encounters With 'Illegal' Immigration, Daniel makes the case that immigrants — no matter their status — are to be embraced as newcomers who have the potential to bless the community.
"I started out writing this book thinking 'who is my neighbor?'" Daniel said, referring to the New Testament passage in which Jesus is asked that question. Jesus responds by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The more Daniel studied the passage, the more he realized that the Samaritan — a foreigner and outsider like today's immigrants — is the one who blesses the wounded man in the story.
"In my life I have been blessed by immigrants, not because I bless them, but because they bless me," Daniel said recently, sitting in a café here, home to a large population of immigrants from around the world, including Mexico.
From harvesting the food Americans eat, to contributing an estimated $9 billion per year into the Social Security system, to the possible "life-giving" friendships for individuals, undocumented immigrants are a blessing, according to Daniel.
He said he hopes that churches and individual Christians will open themselves up to that blessing by humanizing immigrants, not politicizing them.
"As a people of faith, we cannot compartmentalize our lives," he said of Christians' responsibility in how they treat undocumented immigrants. "(Our faith) doesn’t stop when we encounter people we don’t know, or who break immigration laws, or who don't speak our language."
Writing the book came out of living with and among immigrants for most of his adult life. Daniel serves as pastor of Foothill Presbyterian Church, in the Presbytery of San Jose, which includes people from more than 20 countries. At home he and his wife Anne are parents to three children, two of whom are immigrants. They are also foster parents to a young woman who came to the United States as a refugee.
As a high school senior in Mendocino, Calif., Daniel helped translate for an El Salvadoran refugee family seeking sanctuary. Later he served seven years on the fundraising board of Presbyterian Border Ministry, a bi-national organization supported by the PC(USA) and the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico.
His goal in writing the book was to shatter "common misconceptions and prejudices, born of ignorance and xenophobia, that are pervasive in the United States today and that drive the national debate around immigration," he says in the introduction.
Neighbor is not a policy book — although it does discuss policy and policy changes that Daniel believes are necessary — but rather a look at the spiritual and human sides of the immigration debate, written in three parts.
Part 1 explores the spiritual reasons that immigrants begin their journeys, through the Bible, church history and modern day. One of the interesting insights Daniel said he experienced while researching the book came as he was searching the Bible for verses.
"I expected to deal with the Biblical witness in the introduction with four to five verses … but then as I thought about it, the Bible doesn’t just include a few verses here and there. The Bible is written by immigrants for immigrants," he said. "I realized this was thematically huge."
Today's immigrants come for many of the same reasons that other immigrants came to America, including reasons of faith, Daniel said. In the book he likens them to modern day Pilgrims, spiritual travelers. They may start their journeys for secular reasons, economics or political oppression for example, but many in faith ask God to protect and bless them.
"If God is walking with immigrants as they ford the Rio Grande, if God accompanies undocumented folks through the fiery heat of the desert, them perhaps American Christians need to walk with immigrants as well — not just to influence public policy, but to strengthen our faith and to deepen our spiritual connection to the Divine," he writes.
In a chapter entitled "On Rendering to Caeser and God", he tackles the questions of the illegality of immigration, and whether Christians should side with the civil law, or a higher calling.
"We need to speak up on behalf of immigrants in light of immigration policy and a society that doesn't see immigrants as fully human," Daniel said in an interview. He cited other times in history when churches spoke for oppressed groups of people and acted as a "voice for the voiceless."
Part 2 of Neighbor is a political journey, in which Daniel shares interviews with Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) about immigration reform, and conservative New Mexico District Judge Robert C. Brack about the human cost he sees daily in his courtroom. Although the two are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they share a common interest in the passage of what Brack called "compassionate and humane immigration laws."
In Part 3 Daniel shares stories of people he has encountered, including Christians involved in border ministries, a woman separated from her children living in sanctuary at a church in Southern California, and an educator making a difference with charter schools that were in part developed by undocumented immigrants living in Daniel’s own neighborhood.
Daniel said he hopes congregations will read the book and engage in discussion; he included study questions at the end of each of the three parts.
"Whatever Christians think about policy issues, I hope they will take away the knowledge that immigrants are our brothers and sisters in Christ," he said. "As human beings they bear the image of Christ; they are icons of Christ."
Daniel — who also blogs for the Huffington Post and regularly contributes to the local NPR affiliate — is not shying away from complex national debates. He’s working on another book due out next summer that he hopes will humanize Muslims as Neighbor does for undocumented immigrants.
Pam Marino is a free-lance writer in Sunnyvale, Calif., and a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.