Growing up as a Christian, my parents and church community taught me to value compassion, love, equality and justice. My family abided by the textbook evangelical Christian lifestyle – church every Sunday, youth group every Wednesday, serve the homeless, pray before dinner. My politically conservative parents home schooled us kids, were deeply immersed in ministry and even named my brother after Ronald Reagan.
When I moved halfway across the country for college, I clung to my Christian values. However, I also took classes that taught me about the injustices I grew up blind to. This new knowledge drove me to become more politically active on a path different from others in my small, conservative and largely evangelical hometown.
So, I was surprised to find that the evangelical Christians that I knew overwhelmingly opposed President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration.
My circle certainly doesn’t speak for all. Nationwide, the vast majority — 3 out of 4 — of evangelical Christians supported Trump’s immigration bans. But that study also showed that 22 percent of evangelicals didn’t agree with Trump’s executive order. And although more than 80 percent of evangelical Christians voted for Trump, his actions against immigrants elicited a significant outcry of opposition from this traditionally conservative community.
There were a few evangelical leaders, including Reverend Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham, and Jim Jacobson, the president of Christian Freedom International, who supported the ban. But more than 500 other evangelical leaders — many who typically stay quiet on political issues — signed a letter published in the Washington Post decrying the executive order.
This response left me wondering why this faith community, which stood silently through Trump’s hateful campaign rhetoric, were not shy about advocating for immigrants and refugees.
I feel that my faith has informed my activism, rather than discouraged it. I found similar sentiments among other people of faith who embrace the relationship between Christianity and progressive values, including Riz Rollins, a DJ at KEXP Seattle, and a life-long Christian.
“The words of Jesus directly inform social activism,” Rollins said. “Jesus, for better or worse, was a social activist. So that’s what we’re supposed to do. Why the church at large has consistently danced around that has always been a curiosity to me.”
Rollins sported a pink sideways pussy hat during our interview. He said that his headphones fit better that way while he’s working. “It was either the black pussy hat or the pink pussy hat,” Rollins chuckled, “just in case I need to go out and march for something.”
Rollins grew up as a Baptist in urban Chicago, where the music was rockin’ and the church was fighting for civil rights. “I grew up in a typical Black church. The service would start at around 10 a.m. and maybe, maybe by 2 p.m. it would be over. Lots and lots of singin’, preachin’, and dancin’.”
When he started attending a small, conservative and mostly white evangelical Bible college north of Chicago, he found that not all Christians felt the same. “I was surprised to hear that people didn’t believe or worship the way I do, but they believed the way I worshiped was suspect,” Rollins said. “First on a political level, but also on a personal level.”
When it comes to immigration, Rollins finds it easy to understand why many evangelicals showed up for immigrants. “Missionaries,” Rollins said plainly. “The evangelical church has often championed immigrants and refugees for the idea of conversion. When it became apparent that immigrants were being vilified by Trump, they were resistant to that.”
Evangelicals have a directive to go out into the world and preach the gospel, and many do so at the price of their families and their livelihoods. Embracing the refugee or immigrant is part of this outlook.
But Rollins doesn’t believe he can limit his activism to just immigration while living his faith out truthfully. “What the Bible says about gays, 90 percent of it is speculation,” Rollins said. “But Jesus saying if a man asks you for a coat, give him your shirt also, that’s in your face. When Jesus talks about how difficult it is for rich people to go to heaven, that’s in your face. When he’s upturning the money changers in the temple, that’s in your face. That’s not an interpretation. There are a lot of things that are, but the basic life of Jesus as set forth in the New Testament is pretty straightforward.”
Another prominent Seattle Christian, Alice Woldt, believes faith and activism go hand in hand. “To live out my faith,” Woldt said, “I have to be an advocate for social justice.”
With 17 years on the executive staff of the Church Council of Greater Seattle and her leadership in the Faith Action Network, Alice Woldt is a true Bible-thumper. But her career in Christian leadership is juxtaposed by her life of political and social activism.
“I’ve never been accused of being a Jesus freak,” said Woldt, “But I have been criticized for being too left-leaning.”Woldt, like Rollins, attributes evangelical support of immigration to her dedication of sharing her faith with foreigners.
“The evangelical community has, for its existence, been committed to converting people all over the world,” Woldt said. “They do really practice a welcoming of refugees.” Many refugee-aid organizations, such as World Relief, are evangelical.
There aren’t many areas where evangelicals and progressives agree, Woldt said. “But with Immigration, there is this mutual appreciation for what the other has done.”
An evangelical leader in Seattle, Joseph Castleberry, attributes his support of immigration to his family values and more practically, the influx of immigrants in churches.
“There’s not a denomination or form of Christianity in the United States that doesn’t have a growing immigrant population,” said Castleberry, who is the president of Northwest University, a private Christian college in Kirkland. “Most denominations are losing members, even with the immigrant influx.”
Castleberry grew up in Alabama at the height of the Civil Rights movement. “I was a child racist,” Castleberry said. “Going door to door to keep schools segregated. The rejection of the nation of that perspective and the shame that came with that gave all of us the privilege of challenging the twisted values that were held before.”
He recently published a book on the evangelical immigrant population, “The New Pilgrims: How Immigrants Are Renewing America’s Faith and Values.”
“When immigrants join churches, it doesn’t take people long to realize they’re wonderful people, that they have beautiful families, that they share similar values and that they make churches better,” Castleberry said.
However, this understanding doesn’t extend to some other marginalized communities that progressive groups tend to support, such as gay and trans people.
Castleberry said the reasoning is based on the Bible. “Immigration is easy for evangelicals to understand because immigration doesn’t have an inherent connection to Biblical morality,” Castleberry said. “There’s nothing that evangelicals would see as immoral about being an immigrant.”
Christians’ motivations for supporting immigrants vary widely and certainly aren’t universal throughout the faith. But for those who agree that Christians have a duty to support immigrants, there’s evidence that faith can — and should — inform activism.