- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Non-Western Christian influences are causing U.S. churches to shift their roles from worship centers to community advocates, amid an unprecedented increase in the number of immigrants entering the country, a panel of religious experts said Wednesday.

Churches in the Evangelical, Pentecostal and even Southern Baptist faiths have “lent their voice to assisting” the fight for immigration reform, said Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, a visiting scholar at the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress.

“In their congregations, they have encountered those who have come as immigrants who are undocumented, strangers and aliens,” he said. “They realize that the Old Testament says 36 times to love a stranger, and once to love your neighbor.”

Mr. Granberg-Michaelson was the keynote speaker for a Kluge Center symposium on how the influx of Christian immigrants from Latin America, Asian and Africa are swinging the pendulum of religious representation in the U.S and how that affects the country.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 43 million residents were foreign born, and of those, about 74 percent were Christian, he said.

Jehu Hanciles, a scholar of Christianity and globalization, said African Christian churches in America are places where members find their calling when it comes to advocacy.

Rather than serving as a resource center for immigrants in America, these churches “tend to give them the resources for being a voice back home,” he said.

Catholic churches, meanwhile, tend to serve as a clearinghouse for information.

“The Catholic Church has been pretty straightforward in speaking of immigration reform,” said Virginia Garrard-Burnett, professor of history and religious studies at the University of Texas-Austin. “I think people feel a certain protection from the church and can have a certain voice through that to get certain information about immigration reform.”

Wednesday’s panel covered a range of topics, including the shift of Christianity out of Europe and into the Africa, the influx of Pentecostal Christians, the challenge of churches with different — and even similar faiths — to work together, and the phenomenon of religious “nones” in the United States.

But even the discussion on the growing number of people who do not identify with a specific religion circled back to immigration.

Denominational leaders have a responsibility to address how to keep this group in their fold, said Mr. Granberg-Michaelson, but “while the ‘nones’ are walking out the front door, immigrants are knocking on the back door.”

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