Outsiders or Neighbors? Pastor Seeks to Humanize Immigrants


Who is a neighbor? Is it the person one knows and understands, or is it the outsider who looks and speaks differently?

Presbyterian Pastor Ben Daniel tackles those questions in a new book he wrote that explores the spiritual reasons why undocumented immigrants should be extended friendship, not shunned.

In Neighbor; Christian Encounters With ‘Illegal’ Immigration, Daniel makes the case that immigrants – no matter their status – are neighbors who should be embraced as newcomers who have the potential to bless the community.

“In my life I have been blessed by immigrants, not because I bless them, but because they bless me,” Daniel said in an interview at a San Jose café. The city is home to a large population of immigrants from around the world, including Mexico.

From harvesting the food Americans eat, to contributing an estimated $9 billion per year into the Social Security system, to the possible “life-giving” friendships for individuals, undocumented immigrants are a blessing, according to Daniel.

The book also brings up a point seldom ever mentioned in debates: many of the undocumented immigrants come north guided by a deep faith in God. The immigrants may come for secular reasons, such as economics or politics, but it becomes a spiritual journey as they ask God to bless them and protect them along the way.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor wrote the book mainly for churches and individual Christians, with the hopes they will leave behind misconceptions and prejudices by humanizing immigrants, not politicizing them. However, anyone interested in the issue will find interesting insights.

“As a people of faith, we cannot compartmentalize our lives,” he said of Christians’ responsibility in how they treat undocumented immigrants. “(Our faith) doesn’t stop when we encounter people we don’t know, or who break immigration laws, or who don’t speak our language.”

Writing the book came out of a life lived with and among immigrants for most of his adult life. Daniel serves as pastor of Foothill Presbyterian Church, in East San Jose; the congregation includes people from more than 20 countries. At home he and his wife Anne are parents to three children, two of whom are immigrants, and they are foster parents to a young woman who came to the United States as a refugee.

As a high school senior on the northern coast of California he helped translate for an El Salvadoran refugee family. Later he served seven years on the fundraising board of Presbyterian Border Ministry, a bi-national organization supported by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico.

Neighbor is not a policy book – although it does discuss policy and policy changes that Daniel believes are necessary – but rather a look at the spiritual and human sides of the immigration debate.

In looking at the spiritual reasons undocumented immigrants make often tortuous, and sometimes deadly, border crossings, Daniel likens them to modern day Pilgrims, spiritual travelers. And because these travelers rely on God for guidance, Daniel argues Christians in turn need to walk with them.

“If God is walking with immigrants as they ford the Rio Grande, if God accompanies undocumented folks through the fiery heat of the desert, them perhaps American Christians need to walk with immigrants as well – not just to influence public policy, but to strengthen our faith and to deepen our spiritual connection to the Divine,” he writes.

The book includes Daniel’s interviews with Representative Zoe Lofgren, D-CA., representing the 16th Congressional District in San Jose, about immigration reform, and conservative New Mexico District Judge Robert C. Brack about the human cost he sees in his courtroom. Although the two are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they shared a common interest in the passage of what Brack called “compassionate and humane immigration laws.”

Daniel also includes many stories of people he has encountered, including Christians involved in border ministries, a woman separated from her children living in sanctuary at a church in Southern California, and an educator making a difference with charter schools that were in part developed by undocumented immigrants living in Daniel’s own neighborhood.

When asked what obligation churches and Christians have when it comes to immigration, Daniel said, “We need to speak up on behalf of immigrants in light of immigration policy and a society that doesn’t see immigrants as fully human.”

Later he said, “Whatever Christians think about policy issues, I hope they will take away the knowledge that immigrants are our brothers and sisters in Christ … As human beings they bear the image of Christ; they are icons of Christ.”

Daniel  – who also blogs for the Huffington Post and regularly contributes to a local NPR affiliate – is not shying away from complex national debates. He’s working on another book due out next summer that he hopes will humanize Muslims as he attempts to do with undocumented immigrants in Neighbor.