Power of pulpit inspired immigrants to protest
Breaking News from the Hispanic Church
March 29, 2006
On gospel radio, behind pulpits and in the streets, pastors from Latino evangelical churches have been advocating immigration reform and urging members to take part in a series of demonstrations, rallies and marches that culminated in Friday's 20,000-person protest, the largest in Phoenix history.
Immigrant advocates and march organizers point to Latino evangelical pastors, whose churches are filled with thousands of undocumented immigrants, as playing a major role in drawing such a huge crowd and with fueling the pro-immigrant movement in Arizona and across the country.
The Phoenix march set the stage for a series of massive protests. Organizers believe the demonstrations influenced the Senate Judiciary Committee's approval Monday of legislation that includes a provision to allow undocumented immigrants to earn legal status.
Latino evangelicals in the Valley are part of a fast-growing conservative voting bloc that numbers 15 million strong. They want humane immigration reform that would allow members of their churches to earn legal status and keep families from being torn apart.
As many as 30 to 40 percent of the marchers in Phoenix were evangelical Christian Latinos and pastors, organizers said. Some churches sent entire congregations. Others passed out fliers after Sunday services or promoted the rally from behind the pulpit or on Spanish-language Christian radio stations, among them Radio Manantial (91.1 FM) and KASA-AM (1540).
In the past year, more than 40 evangelical Latino pastors have joined the movement, said Jose Gonzalez, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Nuevo Nacimiento, a Latino evangelical church in west Phoenix.
There are about 300 evangelical Latino churches in the Valley. About 75 percent of the 15,000 members are undocumented immigrants, and many have seen family members deported or die crossing the border.
"Once we saw the families suffering, being separated, that's really when we started becoming involved in this movement," Gonzalez said.
Starting out small
In April, Gonzalez agreed to allow his church off 27th Avenue and Van Buren Street to be used for meetings of Immigrants Without Borders. The group is one of those instrumental in organizing a series of protests, rallies and marches in recent months to call for immigration reform and protest a bill passed by the House in December that would have reclassified undocumented immigrants as felons.
Shortly after, Gonzalez began calling other evangelical pastors and asking them to get involved.
Many were wary.
"At first, churches saw this as a political movement, but then we could see our people needed our support. It was a community need. It was beyond politics," Gonzalez said.
On the Sunday before Friday's march, Gonzalez said members of his church passed out fliers promoting the protest. He said nearly all his 100-member congregation turned out for the rally.
Magdalena Schwartz, a pastor at Iglesia Palabra de Vida in Mesa, said many evangelical Latino pastors were motivated to get involved by the House bill, which in addition to turning undocumented immigrants into felons, would have made those who assisted them vulnerable to prosecution.
Many pastors offer rides to members of their congregation who don't have transportation, she said.
"They were afraid that if a pastor gives a ride to the people they could be arrested," she said.
Schwartz, one of the leaders of Immigrants Without Borders, is one of three evangelical Latino pastors from Phoenix who flew to Washington, D.C. on Monday to lobby the Senate Judiciary Committee to abandon the House bill and push legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to earn legal status.
Passing the word
A flier on the bulletin board at Iglesia Linaje Escogido in west Phoenix caught Christina Reina's attention. She had heard about the planned marches on three Spanish-language radio stations; one Latin pop, one Mexican regional, the other KASA, a Spanish-language Christian station.
"They were praying for the march, that everything went peacefully, that people would be united as one," said Reina, 36, a Peoria loan officer. "I felt that it was time for me to go."
Eduardo Madrid also heard about the rally on KASA. A pastor was urging listeners to attend the demonstration.
"He told people to go to the march because the proposals are bad, that we could become criminals," said Madrid, an undocumented immigrant from Chihuahua who lives in Buckeye and has been in the United States for a decade. He attends services at Iglesia Linaje Escogido, a Pentecostal church in west Phoenix "They were praying. He told Mexicans that it was very
A growing group
Latino evangelicals are fast becoming a formidable force in the debate over illegal immigration.
The 15 million member National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, including thousands in Arizona, has called on President Bush and members of Congress to pass immigration reform that allows the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to earn legal status, creates a guest-worker program, and reduces wait times for immigrant families to be reunited.
"This issue has provoked . . . the evangelical Hispanic church to lead a civil rights movement in America that has not been seen since the days of the Southern Leadership Conference led by Martin Luther King," said Samuel Rodriguez, the conference's president.
Latino evangelicals are the fastest-growing voting demographic and tend to support conservative Republicans, he said. But he warned that failure to support comprehensive immigration reform could alienate Latino evangelicals.
"The Republican Party has the opportunity to either engage the fastest-growing demographic group, Hispanic evangelicals, or alienate them for generations to come. It's their call," he said.
Hispanic evangelicals quickly are making enormous inroads with Mexican and Latin American immigrants and political groups, said Raul Yzaguirre, a national Hispanic civil rights leader.
Immigrants often are attracted to those churches because they are more activist in nature, he said, and the ratio of members to pastors is low.
"They have very personal contacts with their parishioners," said Yzaguirre, former chief executive of the National Council of La Raza.
"They know them by name. Generally, Protestants have one pastor per 40 parishioners, so they're able to communicate often, and the degree of loyalty, and affinity, is much greater with ministers."