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Keynote speaker Dr. M. Daniel Carroll Rodas, conference organizer Dr. Paul Neufeld Weaver and luncheon speaker Baldemar Velasquez
The national conversation on immigration is stopped in its tracks by all the shouting and inflammatory rhetoric about the issue, Dr. M. Daniel Carroll Rodas told a Bluffton University audience March 19. But if people, particularly those of faith, start the conversation in a different place, the tone is different, too, he said.

Rodas, distinguished professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary, was the keynote speaker for Bluffton’s three-day immigration conference, "Beyond Borders: The Role of Immigration in a Global Community." And he recommended that Christians begin the immigration discussion "at the beginning," with the creation story in Genesis, because it says God created humans in his image and to rule the earth.

That gives every human infinite worth, and potential, Rodas said, and so the question shouldn’t be how to keep immigrants out but rather, if they were created in God’s image, what they can contribute to the common good.

It’s not that he advocates open borders, he emphasized, saying borders must be organized. If the issue is approached from a different point of view, however, organization of borders may be done differently, he explained, arguing for "a bigger perspective" on what is a world issue.

Changing the conversation extends to asking if laws are good or bad, what values they reflect, how they treat the lowly and weak, and how Christians should react to them, said Rodas, who grew up in a bilingual, bicultural home in Houston and spent his summers in his mother’s native Guatemala, where he later taught for 15 years.
"We organize our lives according to our laws, and many of them are arbitrary," he argued, citing as an example the laws governing driving on either the right or left side of the road, depending on the country.

Among other provisions, Old Testament law allowed for rest on the Sabbath for the "sojourner in your midst," as well as timely payment of a fair wage, Rodas noted, pointing out that God’s law was already taking into account the human tendency to exploit outsiders. God also told the Israelites not to forget they had been sojourners in Egypt, nor what the Egyptians had done to them, Rodas continued.

In the United States now, he said, "we have forgotten all the stories" of how difficult it was for our ancestors as immigrants to America. "The only part we remember is the food," he added, saying that while most immigration memories have dimmed with time, those that remain tend to be about traditional food. "It’s part of who you are."
"The Bible’s full of people on the move," he reminded his listeners, and while all Christians are still sojourners, they have forgotten they’re "strangers in a strange land."

Even Jesus began his life as a refugee, Rodas said, and eventually applied the command to love your neighbor as yourself to an outsider in the parable of the Good Samaritan. "That must have been a big hit," the professor said. "What if we did the parable of the Good Mexican?"

"Jesus turns everything on its head," he continued. "Even if you don’t like immigrants, even if they’re your enemy, you feed them" and if they’re thirsty, give them water to drink.

"How’s that for a tough call?" asked Rodas, author of the recent book "Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church and the Bible." "We (Christians) have a different call."

The current, contentious debate about immigration "isn’t anything new," he said, showing an 1890s cartoon in which Uncle Sam stands at a Washington, D.C., gate and holds his nose at an immigrant marked with the labels "Sabbath desecration," "poverty" and "disease".

Fear of people who are different from you is a natural human reaction, he said, but culture isn’t static, assimilation happens—albeit at different rates—and today’s Hispanic immigrants will learn English as part of their assimilation. "We ought to see bilingual people as a gift, not a threat," he added, saying tendencies to either demonize or idealize the immigrant "are both wrong."

"It’ll just take time, but that’s why the church has a role to play."

More than 140 people attended the Beyond Borders conference, which was sponsored by Bluffton and organized by Dr. Paul Neufeld Weaver, assistant professor of education at the university and its 2009-10 Civic Engagement Scholar.

Conference co-sponsors were the Ohio Mennonite Conference and Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes. Co-hosts were Brazo en Brazo Mennonite Church and Ministry, and Lima Mennonite Church, where the conference concluded with a Sunday service on March 21. Also part of the event were more than 25 workshops and panel presentations on the immigration issue, plus a session led by Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and a 1969 Bluffton graduate.

Scott Borgelt, 4/7/10