Aug 14, 2012

Reaching “Samerica”

by Dr. Alejandro Mandes

This article originally appeared in the Cedarville University Torch, Spring-Summer 2012.  The article is adapted from the address Dr. Mandes gave at the G92 Conference at Cedarville in October, 2011.

When Jesus says, “Open your eyes and see the harvest,” that’s your invitation to join Him in His work.

To understand my response to immigration, you need to understand a little more about me. I was born in Corpus Christi, Texas (I had the boots to prove it), and raised in Laredo, just across the border from Mexico. When we were young, my friends and I would swim across the river to play with the Mexicans on the other side. When we skipped school to go watch movies, we’d cross the border into Nueva Laredo so we wouldn’t get caught. I spent an important part of my life living on the border, and I can’t see the Mexicans I played with as anything other than cousins and friends.Another stream that flows into my life is The Navigators. I came to Christ through that organization, and to this day I bleed the Gospel and the Great Commission. In college, I studied social work — justice and compassion run very deeply in me. And then I went to Dallas Theological Seminary for both a master’s degree and a doctorate in ministry.

I am convinced that justice and compassion go hand in hand with the teachings of the Bible.

A Compassionate Example

Nothing is more instructive to me than seeing how Jesus demonstrated justice and compassion. John 4:7–40 helps us understand His theological point of view as He ministers to the Samaritan woman at the well.

“How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” she said. At that time, everyone knew Jews had no dealings with Samaritans.

Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God.”

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus told his disciples on their way to Galilee that he had to go through Samaria (verse 4). And this is where He intentionally began breaking every cultural rule. He’d sent the disciples into town to buy food, so He alone was waiting at the well to speak with this woman — a Samaritan … a sinner.

When the disciples returned, they seemed annoyed that Jesus was talking to her. In verse 35, Jesus rebuked them saying, “Lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest.”

A Divine Call

Are we any better than the disciples? Do we have a point of view that causes us to overlook people?

There are several reasons — theological, sociological, cultural — why the disciples couldn’t see what Jesus saw. One key consideration was geography. Samaria was in their promised land. “We are the chosen people, and they’re on our land.” Beyond that, God had instructed His people to be separate from the cultures around them that worshipped other gods

But Jesus saw the Samaritans and said to the disciples, “Open your eyes.” Remove your filters. Recalibrate your thinking. His request is a shockingly tall order, overturning generations of elders’ teaching and nationalistic pride.

The disciples didn’t fully get it until Acts 11:18 when they said, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” The call of the Great Commission in Acts 1:8 was for believers to send out the Gospel message to Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth.

What happens when the “ends of the earth” won’t wait there, and the people come here? The result is a growing population — call it “Samerica”— that the Church is not reaching. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that by the year 2050, multiethnic people will be the majority in the United States. In 2006, they accelerated that prediction twice to 2046 and then 2042.

A Clear Vision

Like the disciples during the time of Christ, Christians today have filters when it comes to immigration. There are four theological lenses through which we should see the harvest:

1. Christology. Jesus is Lord. He is the Savior. When He says, “Open your eyes and see them,” we’d better obey. There’s little need to explore the topic further if we can’t grasp this fundamental truth.

2. Anthropology. So much of the rhetoric about immigration in the media is dehumanizing. Former presidential candidate Herman Cain declared at a campaign rally that we should “electrify the fence.” Whether immigrants are here legally or illegally, they are eternal souls made in the image of God. I am not saying that we need to let all immigrants come into this country. I am saying that their God-given humanity should be enough to give us pause to check the integrity of our speech.

3. Missiology. Matthew 28:19–20 says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” This directive includes undocumented people. When we get detached from this mission, the Church loses its heart and soul. The mission to disciple is clear. This is what defines, focuses, and unifies us.

4. Ecclesiology. The Church is God’s representative on earth to equip people to accomplish His mission. Jesus loved the Church, yet its effectiveness over the ages is a direct result of its obedience to His call. The Church at its best is God’s Church triumphant — expectant, sacrificial, multiplying. In Matthew 28, Jesus says He is with us always. I don’t ever want to count the Church out.

A Discerning Spirit

Along with the four theological lenses, we must also ask the question: where does the government fit in? Human government, while it is God-ordained (Rom. 13), has the power to fulfill or obstruct the Great Commission. How should we respond?

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not saved in Europe. He traveled to America in the 1930s and came to Christ in an African-American church. He heard firsthand accounts about racial inequality and the suffering his African- American brothers had endured. Bonhoeffer returned home thinking, “I’m glad we don’t have anything like that in Europe.” Five years later, Germany was exterminating its Jewish citizens. Bonhoeffer had to decide how he would respond to both the government leaders and Lutheran leaders who were supporting Hitler.

Bonhoeffer acted on these three principles:

1. Help the state be the state God has ordained. In other words, speak to the issues that must be spoken to with biblical compassion and biblical justice.

2. Aid the victims of the state. In Bonhoeffer’s context, it meant standing by the Jews. In our context, it’s acknowledging that an immigrant, even an undocumented worker, is my brother. It means recognizing that the immigration system is unevenly applied. While most recognize the need for a new law, politicians argue over who should get the credit. As a result, politicians have failed to pass laws that give immigrants some legal status. This vacillation exposes immigrants to abuse. Organizations like Immigrant Hope assuage the pain by sharing the Gospel, providing legal advice, and showing compassion.

3. Put a stick in the spokes. Don’t simply bandage the victims under the wheel, but put a stop to ongoing injury. Bonhoeffer chose to oppose the state by becoming part of a plot to kill Hitler, which ultimately got him killed. We are nowhere near this point on the immigration issue, but Bonhoeffer’s actions show he was willing to defend with his life what he knew was right.

A Ready Harvest

The United States is already the world’s third largest mission field. In 2006, the 300 millionth American was born. According to statisticians, it was a Hispanic male living on the border of Texas. Seventeen of the 20 largest American cities, and our four largest states, are already majority-minority. The American Church can no longer afford to ignore the “Samerica” that is growing around us.

People often ask me, “Why are the immigrants coming?” The Bible tells me exactly why: “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26–27).

For all of the missions effort in Mexico — for the billions of dollars given, lives invested, buildings raised — the percentage of professing evangelicals in that country is 4 percent, according to Christianity Today. Yet a 2012 Pew Hispanic Center report suggests that when Mexican immigrants come here, that percentage increases to 13. Imagine the increase if the Church began to intentionally reach out and show them Christ. God is at work.

In the book of Philemon, Paul encounters a runaway slave. Paul responds by loving him, sharing the Gospel with him, and discipling him. He sends Onesimus back with a letter — part of God’s eternal Word — that exhorts Philemon, because of love, to treat this man like a brother (verse 16), and to charge Paul’s account to repay the man’s past debts (verse 18).

When the Church has shown this type of love, then we truly can say we have done all that we could do.

Dr. Alejandro Mandes is director of Hispanic ministries for the Evangelical Free Church in America and the executive director of Immigrant Hope. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, with his wife, Julie. He received his B.A. and M.S. from The University of Texas at Austin and his Th.M. and D.Min. from Dallas Theological Seminary.