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Transformed by a Stranger

Not every pastor would say to his congregation, “And then I felt stupid, and I had to ask his forgiveness,” but Pastor Dave Beelen did. On August 25, 2013, Pastor Beelen of Madison Square CRC began his sermon with a confession: a confession of his misjudgement, which resulted in a mistake.

Pastor Beelen confessed that he had wrongly judged an undocumented immigrant within his own congregation. The undocumented immigrant, Jeremiah*, was a part of Madison’s worship team. Once Pastor Beelen found out Jeremiah was undocumented, Pastor Beelen asked him not to lead church worship anymore.

When people of the church have committed a sin, it is often Pastor Beelen’s policy to ask that person to repent and to turn him/herself in to law enforcement. Pastor Beelen believed that Jeremiah was committing an ongoing sin by living in the U.S. without status, but he knew it was too much to ask him to turn himself into immigration services as an undocumented immigrant. However, Pastor Beelen believed Jeremiah was not setting a good example for the church.

However, Pastor Beelen openly admitted to his congregation that he was wrong to ask Jeremiah to stop leading worship. Pastor Beelen said, “I felt foolish for the way I had treated him [Jeremiah] without knowing exactly what he was facing. This made me try to understand the immigration system in our country, and review biblical passages about why God calls us to love the foreigner.”

Jeremiah’s story caused Pastor Beelen to change his mind. Pastor Beelen found out that Jeremiah had been trying to become documented for over six years. His paperwork was stuck on someone’s desk within the system, and it was nearly impossible for Jeremiah to acquire an experienced immigration lawyer. Pastor Beelen also found out that Jeremiah could not go back to Uganda; he would be a burden to his family there, because he would not be able to get a job. Furthermore, if he went back to Uganda, he would never be able to come back to the U.S., because of the current immigration system. Jeremiah was stuck, with no option but to live as an undocumented immigrant.

After hearing Jeremiah’s story, Pastor Beelen began to find out more about the immigration system in the U.S. He realized how incredibly broken the system is, and how much it needs to be fixed. Yet Pastor Beelen did not stop at that. He also began to look again at the Gospel, and tried to find out what God said about welcoming the stranger. Pastor Beelen wasn’t surprised to find that God called his people to welcome the stranger multiple times in both the Old and New Testament.

Pastor Beelen wrote the sermon he gave on August 25 along with Ricardo Tavarez, the director of outreach at Madison CRC. Ricardo shared his story of growing up in a home with little money. He shared his experience of waiting in line for food at a food pantry, and feeling shameful. Ricardo needed dignity, and while waiting in that line he felt as though he had none.

Ricardo emphasized that as sinners, all people are strangers to the kingdom of God. Ricardo said in the sermon: “Christ came, and he made himself the stranger, because all of us here are without dignity. We are strangers to the kingdom of God and on our way to a burning hell, but then Christ invites us to the table of God.”

Ricardo emphasized every person’s status as a stranger to the kingdom of God, as we are separated by our sin. Yet Christ welcomed us, and so Christ calls us to welcome the stranger.

Along with Ricardo, Pastor Beelen also emphasized every person’s status as a stranger. He said, “We were rescued by a Savior who was, so to speak, an immigrant from heaven to earth. The message of immigration is continually grounded in that story. If you truly believe you are rescued from sin, then you must realize that you were once a stranger. I was an alien, and so was Jesus, and so when I see the illegal or the undocumented, that’s who I am.”

Pastor Beelen’s experience of changing his mind, admitting he was wrong, and sharing his story is a beautiful example of the change of heart that can occur when we encounter another’s story. Pastor Beelen’s experience also shows that not every good, Christian person will automatically recognize the need for immigration reform. However, it’s a learning process, and Pastor Beelen openly admitted that.

Pastor Beelen said, “So the whole point of the sermon was, when it’s one of your own family members, as it is in the family of God, it changes your level of interest, understanding and commitment. We become more committed to holding our politicians accountable to find a way to do immigration reform.”

We were a stranger, Jesus was a stranger, and we are surrounded by strangers. Let us open our arms to the stranger and promote immigration reform.

Pastor Beelen and Ricardo’s sermon is available in the sermon archives of Madison Square. You can listen to the sermon here.

*The undocumented immigrant’s name has been changed to protect privacy.

[Image: Flickr user bslavinator]

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