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Law and orders

"Law and orders" Continued...

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

Killian was ready to share his feelings outside in the relative balminess of a February evening in Alabama. In the room with the other pastors, "I was either Daniel in the lion's den or a fly in the ointment, depending on your perspective." He supports the law because he sees the government's role as that of an enforcer. "They called it a hate law. ... It's not a racial issue," he said. "Should I treat an illegal immigrant right? Absolutely. ... But that doesn't mean [they] don't pay the consequences of the law." Ideas like those proposed by Land's commission and others-a "Marshall Plan" for Mexico, a national identity card, and the like-Killian waved off as just more government: "I wanna know, how you gonna pay for it?"

In Washington, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which examines how the church can biblically interact with public policy, is preparing a mailing of "The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens, and the Bible" by Trinity International University professor James Hoffmeier. Copies of the book will go out to 150 Southern Baptist clergy in Alabama with a cover letter from Killian. He writes, "Various denominational leaders have challenged the compassion of the [Alabama] bill, stating that Christian conscience demands a policy that would not wish to discourage massive illegal immigration into our state. Frankly I am proud that our Alabama Baptist leaders did not jump on the bandwagon criticizing HB 56. ... I do NOT believe that a pro-open borders policy is consistent with biblical principles."

Land said the state convention had asked the national convention leaders to get involved on previous state legislature issues, like fighting the state lottery. But in the immigration debate, the Alabama churches never asked national leaders for help.

Thomas Ackerman, the vicar over the Hispanic ministry at Prince of Peace Catholic Parish, has delivered several homilies to his congregation that mention immigration, on "the attitude we should have in approaching it, not so much the politics," he said. "There needs to be charity."

He personally opposes the law but described his parish as "pretty conservative. ... We're not as conservative as other parishes in Alabama, but-we're in Alabama." Prince of Peace is a sizeable church with an attached school in Hoover, Ala., a Birmingham suburb that has new blacktop roads and new strip malls filled with new cars. The church has about 2,200 families, as well as 500 to 600 Hispanics at an afternoon Mass every Sunday.

On a Friday at the school down the hall from the church, classes changed and kids came pouring out of their Spanish class. The kids all greeted Ackerman, who looks like the cool adult on campus, excitedly in the hallway. Some of the children from Hispanic families in the church go to the school, but "cost is a big problem," Ackerman said.

A sign outside the Prince of Peace sanctuary said "No food or drink," with a Spanish translation below it, and Spanish and English literature was sprawled out on tables. The church hosts ESL classes, medical screenings, and parenting courses. Since the law passed, Hispanic attendance at events at Prince of Peace during the week has dropped off, but the Sunday Mass has burgeoned. "People are worried so they're turning to God," explained Ackerman.

Nine miles to the northeast, Briarwood Presbyterian Church, a Birmingham congregation with about 4,300 members, has planted a Hispanic church. Briarwood's leaders heard enough rumblings after the immigration law passed that they feared it would interfere with the church's ministry, so they along with the church's legal counsel met with state officials.

Senior pastor Harry Reeder said he told officials, "My job is a pastor, your job is to take care of the state. We're not going to be checking citizenship papers for ministry. ... Do you have a problem with that?" He said the state officials assured him that the state would not interfere in the church's work, and so far that has held true. "I don't know of a single instance where we've been stopped from anything. ... I haven't seen the state come in and look over our shoulder or make us their enforcement agency," he said.

The law "has affected the number of Hispanics in the state for us to reach," Reeder said, but the Hispanic ministry is growing. World Relief's Soerens concurred. "We're seeing the church grow really dramatically in immigrant communities. ... That doesn't mean this is an easy issue, it means we can't say, 'This is not my problem.'"

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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