Richard Land, Southern Baptist policy leader
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The Southern Baptist Convention approved a new resolution at its meeting in Arizona this week advocating a path to legal status for illegal immigrants, in a move that policy leader Richard Land described as "a really classic illustration of gospel love and gospel witness."
The resolution passed Wednesday also calls on Southern Baptists to minister to all people and to reject bigotry and harassment toward all people, regardless of their country of origin or immigration status.
"I think Southern Baptists understand it's just not politically viable to send an estimated 12 to 15 million undocumented immigrants back where they came from," said the Rev. Paul Jimenez, pastor of Taylors First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., and chairman of the SBC's resolutions committee. "It's not humane either."
A motion to strike the reference to a path to legal status was narrowly defeated by a vote of 766 to 723, according to the SBC's Baptist Press.
When the resolution was amended to say that it was "not to be construed as support for amnesty for any undocumented immigrant," it passed by a wide margin with a show of raised ballots.
The resolution calls for "appropriate restitutionary measures" from any immigrants seeking legal status. It also calls on the government to prioritize border security and hold businesses accountable for their hiring.
Many attending the SBC's annual meeting in Phoenix where the resolution was adopted may not have known that it echoes the denomination's official position on immigration as outlined by the SBC's public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
"I've been saying for a couple of years now that this is where a majority of Southern Baptists are at," said Land, the president of the ERLC. "Some people in the media have been somewhat doubtful. ...Then this year we voted 80-20 supporting it."
Land said the fact that the resolution only got broad approval after the addition of language denouncing amnesty showed that many people don't understand what amnesty is.
"Restitution is not amnesty," Land said.
All Southern Baptist churches are independent, so the resolution is not binding on them, but it does represent the will of the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest protestant denomination, with over 16 million members.
The resolution was one of several signs at this year's meeting that the SBC, which has been declining in membership and baptisms in recent years, sees ethnic diversity as one of the keys to a turnaround.
Delegates at this year's meeting also passed a resolution that seeks greater participation among what it sometimes calls its "non-Anglo" members in the life of the convention, particularly in leadership roles. And they elected an African-American to the position of first vice-president for the first time, possibly setting up the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. to be elected president at next year's convention in his hometown of New Orleans.
Jimenez said the two resolutions were not coordinated but both stemmed from the same impulse.
"I think what it does say is that we are now thinking of our convention's reach beyond just ... white Southern churches," he said.
The fact that the convention was held in Arizona, a state that many groups boycotted after it passed a tough immigration law last year, was part of the impetus for the resolution, but not the main part, Jimenez said.
"The most important reason of all is that we see these individuals as people who so desperately need to hear the gospel."