“Cognitive dissonance” is a psychologically observed phenomenon when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values and experiences psychological stress because of the inconsistency. The discomfort caused by the contradictions motivates the individual to make a consistent resolution. Simply put, humans are psychologically wired to want consistency.
Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to consider the psychology of American Evangelicalism when it comes to the question of a biblical ethic toward immigrants and refugees. An objective observer will be quick to realize that American Evangelicalism — in particular, White Evangelicalism — ought to have a significant amount of cognitive dissonance. A recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows that 77 percent of White Evangelicals approve of President Trump’s job performance in the White House. This job performance approval is in the midst of the administration’s record low cap for refugee administration, policies of family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, promotion of white nationalist and anti-immigrant ideologies by the president’s senior policy advisory, among others.
However, the Bible provides clear teachings about what could be best described as an ethic of welcome and embrace for the vulnerable, the outcast, and the forgotten. This radical neighborly love that originates from God’s own heart for “the least of these” has historically had deep impact in Christian communities. The magnitude of cognitive dissonance in the psyche of American Evangelicalism should be startling. Yet, instead of reconsidering beliefs and values to make them consistent with biblical teaching, many White Evangelicals have downplayed or simply disregarded biblical teaching to make it consistent with the policies of the current administration. Christian nationalism that vehemently defends the actions and policies of the current president is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath the surface is a worldview that continues to reshape Christianity to fit it within the grid of the Trump presidency.
It’s not simply a matter of a change of mind but a change of heart and change of will that is required for American Evangelicalism to be recalibrated toward a biblical ethic of welcome. In the midst of an expanded social media presence that enables disembodied, cerebral interactions between Christians, there is a real need for an incarnational presence. There is a real need for up close and personal interaction behind these arguments over issues and policies.
It is in light of this need that Welcome. produced a film with associated discussion guides titled “Who Is Welcome Here.” The Welcome. movement is a collaborative partnership between World Relief, The National Immigration Forum, and We Welcome Refugees. Welcome. is a community of Christian women committed to creating a movement of Christ-like welcome in the United States.
In the film, three evangelical women — Briana Stensrud, Heather MacFadyen, and Latasha Morrison — journey past the headlines and across the border to engage the complex issues of immigration.
Briana Stensrud is the Director of Welcome. Her passion is to equip the church to think biblically and pragmatically about exercising a holistic, comprehensive pro-life worldview. She holds a degree in Communications from Iowa State University and a Masters of Biblical and Theological Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary.
Heather MacFadyen is the host of Don’t Mom Alone, a podcast that connects listeners with people and resources to remind them they aren’t alone. Each week, tens of thousands of women tune into the podcast to gain encouragement and perspective on their parenting journeys.
Latasha Morrison is a speaker, author, reconciler, bridge-builder, and leader who is committed to educating people on cultural intelligence and racial literacy. She is the founder of Be the Bridge, an organization that was created to encourage racial reconciliation among all ethnicities, to promote racial unity in America, and to equip others to do the same.
Faithfully Magazine interviewed Stensrud, MacFadyen, and Morrison via email about their experiences at the border and what they hope viewers take away from the film. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
All three of you have quite different backgrounds and focus in terms of work. It would be fascinating to hear what ways God may have worked in your life up to that point to prepare you for this journey.
Stensrud: My work in the pro-life space at Focus on the Family as the Sanctity of Human Life Director pushed me to dig into Scripture to create resources and communication pieces. As headlines continued to swirl about immigration, and as I mention in the film, that a particular photo/article remains in my memory about a 10-year-old from Honduras carrying a three-year-old across the border. At the time, I was a mother with a three-year-old at home, and I thought to myself, “What situation are these people facing that they would send their children unaccompanied into a new country?” The Lord continued to stir my heart towards a comprehensive pro-life ethic that included immigrants and refugees.
MacFadyen: For the last ten years, God directed me to encourage mothers as He was encouraging me. Despite a hidden desire to move outside of that space to minister to all women, I continued to feel the pull back to moms. In regards to this trip, I hoped I would get to hug moms and let them them know God sees and values how they care for their children. I didn’t realize how many young moms we would meet. Girls who were eleven, fourteen, sixteen years old. Not only doing one of the hardest jobs, but doing it while fleeing violence and trying to find a safe place to call home.
Morrison: For me, in light of what we do with Be the Bridge, being the bridge is inclusive beyond our borders in America, and it’s important to give account and understand our racialized immigration history.
In what ways were you the most unprepared? When did the issues of immigration become real to you and beyond simply a theoretical discussion?
Stensrud: Growing up a pastor’s kid, I frequently participated in mission trips to impoverished places and shelters, but this trip was different. I’m not sure if it was because I was older, had a broader understanding of the world and Scripture, or if it was because I was now a mother, but our trip to Oaxaca shook me. Pain and suffering put me literally face to face with people fighting for their lives. It put me face to face with people asking for my help.
MacFadyen: My knowledge of the entire immigration process was limited to non-existent. Once we met the moms and families I became desperate to find a way to help them find the security we all desire. I recognized that this was less about America pulling them but more about violence pushing them out of homes they don’t want to leave. In 2019, we have the means and technology to better process those coming to the border seeking asylum. And to do it in a way that sees the image of God in each person. Not as a problem to be solved but a person to be loved.
Morrison: I personally haven’t had to deal with immigration issues, but it became real to me when I began working in youth and children’s ministry in 2007. My administrative assistant was from Nigeria and she had a lot of issues with her legal status. She came to the U.S. as a child due to needing medical treatment for spina bifida. I watched her work hard to do things right and she still faced a lot of injustice along the way — this allowed me to see the brokenness of our immigration system up close. Also, I had students who came to the U.S. when they were children and did not know they were undocumented immigrants until they were teens. Through those interactions, I was able to see the injustices that occur with our immigration system that specifically impacted people of color.
What were your biggest fears about this journey? What were you afraid to see or experience? Or, what were the fears that others had for you about this trip?
Stensrud: Family and close friends definitely made sure I was aware of their fears and all the things that I should be mindful of going into the trip. We’re all adults and know horrible things happen all the time, but when you intentionally put yourself in a position to see and feel pain so personally, it proves hard for people to understand your reasoning for doing so.
MacFadyen: Knowing that the topic of immigration can be divisive, my greatest concern was causing unnecessary division among the moms who listen to my podcast. I was not afraid to travel into Mexico or interact with the people we would meet. Any time you travel to a foreign country and interact with injustice you recognize your heart will never be the same. At some level you fear how deeply your heart will break when you meet people experiencing injustice. And struggle feeling like you don’t know how to help.
Morrison: I didn’t have any fears, I wanted to learn more so I could speak to the issue and empathize with what our Central American brothers and sisters are going through. I wanted to know their history, what they are feeling, and what is happening in their home country. I wasn’t prepared to see how many young children without parents are impacted. I see a lot of people who have compassion for kids in other hemispheres, but these children need us and going on this trip caused me to really see that need.
If it’s fair to say, Evangelical Christians as a whole appear to side with safe borders, family safety, etc. over and against the biblical calls for compassion, dignity, and justice especially for the most vulnerable. Why do you think that is the case?
Stensrud: I think the root of nearly every unbalanced approach is fear. Immigration is no different. People fear losing their culture, they fear a people and culture they don’t know or understand, they fear change, whether good or bad, in their communities. Why we aren’t able to nuance this issue individually is disheartening. We can be a safe country and a compassionate country; these things are not mutually exclusive concepts.
MacFadyen: Part of that is weak theology – not believing in a God who is big enough to care for their needs while caring for the vulnerable. I also think a majority of American Evangelical Christians (myself included) idolize comfort, convenience and control. Anytime those are threatened, we go on the attack. We forget that God never promised a safe, convenient life. He asked us to set aside our wills and to ask for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Morrison: To me, its a cop-out to say “we want safe borders” but we don’t hear people talk about our northern border and we have had more issues with the Northern border than the Southern border. When things are racialized, it creates myths that breed fear in our country, which is what occurred with the Southern border. It’s not that we don’t need secure borders, but we need to have consistency in our policies. Historically, we have seen how racialized our immigration system is and how that has affected our country and has disproportionately affected people of color and favored those of European descent who are not demonized and depicted negatively.
The film is a way for people to come face to face with the realities and humanity that is involved in immigration. How do you encourage people to move from the point of “seeing” into a point of “doing?”
Stensrud: The point of this film is to tell real stories and go beyond the headlines and the politics to see people. People from no fault of their own were born into communities that couldn’t provide safety and flourishing. There are many communities like this in America as well, but how often are we making time to enter into these places — beyond writing checks at galas and fundraisers? If your life is too busy to regularly spend time engaging a need in your community, then something needs to change. Jesus doesn’t call us to be solely consumed with orderly homes, perfect kids and awesome marriages. He calls us to make disciples. His command means we must create time to enter into other’s lives in real and consistent ways — ways that should make us re-prioritize our daily lives.
MacFadyen: The best part of the film is entering into the story of Lorena. When you pause for a second to see the “issue” of immigration from the perspective of the person fleeing, it changes how you approach the doing. Personally I felt motivated to help those in Central America. I heard in Lorena’s story a desire to stay with her dog, in her house with her friends and former life. God pressed on me to consider who is already in Honduras helping stabilize the community. This Fall, I became an ambassador for Compassion International. I’ve interviewed a graduate of the program and have helped listeners connect with the work of Compassion so they can help change the poverty and violence narrative.
What do you recommend for someone to do who has friends or family members who are Christians who are very outspoken about borders and safety and thinks poorly of immigrants like the ones you met? What is an entry point to bring a fruitful discussion on this topic?
Stensrud: Don’t start with politics. Talk about Scripture, and maybe show them this film. This film isn’t political, it’s about people and their stories. It’s an easy entry point for discussion. I recently had a colleague remind me, “We’re not trying to win people over to our viewpoint, we’re simply trying to give them confidence, a solid reassurance, about the compassion they might already feel towards these people or this issue.” Another great resource is Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang.
MacFadyen: I would ask them if they would be willing to watch the last four episodes of the documentary and discuss it afterwards. Invite them into the story and then take the conversation from there. Among my friends I pray beforehand for God to give me discernment on how to listen well and what to say. To also recognize my part is to share my experience. To bear witness. Whether they choose to see and change is within their hoop.