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Faith Shapes Views at a Church of Immigrants

Times Staff Writer

For the men and women of Christian Mercy Church, immigration politics are intensely personal. A vote in Congress could separate families or reunite them, lift fear or upend lives.

The congregation is made up of immigrants and the children of immigrants; they live within a few miles of the border, where an enormous Mexican flag juts into the clouds just the other side of the Rio Grande. The stakes are high, but many here do not dwell on how changes in immigration law could affect their families. They ask instead:

What would please God?

Most come to an answer that represents a middle ground: not unequivocal amnesty but not mass deportation of illegal immigrants, either; better policing of the border, but not a wall stretching hundreds of miles. A similar proposal is stalled in the U.S. Senate. The House passed a bill focused on enforcement; it would make it easier to detain and deport the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in this country.

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The debate in Congress tends to revolve around national security, economics and logistics.

Here in this sprawling, Spanish-style mega-church, the arguments are filtered, almost always, through faith.

Tougher measures to halt illegal immigrants at the border are viewed as an act of Christian kindness. Too many men and women die trying to sneak across. Once they’re here, too many are taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers. Too many have nowhere to sleep.

“The illegals, they are abused,” said Eleidy Olivarez, 35, a native of Colombia.

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She can’t accept a proposal to build a wall along the border. “God doesn’t want to divide people,” she said. But she would like to fine every illegal immigrant in the U.S., and use the money to hire more border patrol officers, install more security cameras and take other high-tech measures to police the Rio Grande.

Then, the reasoning goes, the people who come in will do so legally. “They need that protection,” said Librado Gonzalez, 41, a supervisor at an import-export firm. “We need to give them some rights.”

The congregation balances the call for a border crackdown with appeals to put illegal immigrants in the U.S. on a path to citizenship, as long as they work hard, pay taxes, learn English and stay out of trouble.

Sonia L. Garcia, 49, makes the case for amnesty through theology: God demands reverence for life and for family.

That’s why she opposes abortion. And that’s why she disapproves of the proposal to deport immigrants who have long since settled in this country: It could wrench parents from children, husbands from wives.

“To me, abortion and immigration are issues of equal importance. We’re talking about protecting the family,” Garcia said. She came here from Mexico a decade ago to be with her parents and to make sure her two children learned English. She’s now a legal, permanent resident, with the goal of becoming a citizen -- and, she said, God has given her compassion for others who would like a similar chance.

“The blessings of God come to us when we look down and say, ‘I need to help you,’ not when we look away,” Garcia said.

Christian Mercy Church -- known by its Spanish name, Iglesia Cristiana Misericordia -- was founded in 1995 by the Rev. Gilberto Velez and his wife, Zulma, who moved to Texas from Puerto Rico. Their first service drew 15 people to a bare room in a strip mall. Today, the Pentecostal congregation numbers 2,200.

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Garcia, a homemaker, has built her life around the church. So have many others: auto mechanics and hotel clerks, border patrol agents and truck drivers, young mothers who weep as they sing God’s praises and burly men who tremble with devotion as they hold their hands to the heavens.

Last June, the congregation moved into a new $6-million church surrounded by a vast parking lot. There’s a small chapel for English-language services, but nearly everyone prays in Spanish, in a spare, modern sanctuary.

The working-class parents who form the heart of the congregation are modest and soft-spoken; many are ashamed of their halting English. However humble, they may have outsized influence in the debate unfolding on Capitol Hill because their pastor is also the policy director of a national group representing 15 million Latino evangelicals. He has met with Republican leaders of the House and the Senate in recent weeks.

When Velez lobbies in Washington, he makes the moral arguments that come so naturally to him and to his congregation. But he also appeals to political self-interest.

He tells Republican leaders that the conservative, devout Latinos he represents are a natural GOP constituency, eager to back the party in its opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Then Velez issues his warning: Millions of these Latino voters will bolt if the Republicans take too hard a line on immigration. Already, he said, top Democrats in Congress are courting his group, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

“If the Republicans don’t take this issue seriously, they’re going to face a problem in the next election, that’s for sure,” he said.

On a national level, that may be true, but here at Christian Mercy, most members of the congregation say they pay little attention to partisan politics. The few that do are not eager to abandon the Republican Party, no matter what happens with immigration reform.

“I share their values,” said Omar Canizalez, 30. “One wrong deed is not going to cancel that out. I will still vote Republican.”

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The Rev. Rose M. Mijon, an associate pastor, is tougher on Republicans who would treat illegal immigrants as criminals. But she can’t see ever being disillusioned enough to vote Democratic. “It makes you think, I’m just not going to vote for anyone,” she said, laughing.

Velez hopes it does not come to that. “For a long time, we as Hispanics did not let [lawmakers] hear our voices,” he said.

Now, protest marches draw hundreds of thousands to the streets of U.S. cities, and Velez thinks they’ll make a difference. He believes Congress will pass a satisfactory reform, one that makes sense “within the framework of biblical mandates.” He wants this for the nation and especially for his flock. As many as one in five members of his congregation is here illegally. Many others are American citizens, but they, too, have friends and relatives living in the shadows.

“I feel responsible, in a way, to defend their future,” Velez said.

“I’m very proud of my pastor. And I dream that even more churches will stand up and fight with us,” said Emma Garza, 36, a custodian. “It’s important that we don’t hide, but share our convictions.”

Those convictions, rooted in faith, are also shaped by realism.

A few months ago, Velez looked up from his desk at the church and saw three men stumbling through the waist-high brush. He knew at once that they were trying to cross the border without papers.

Inviting them into the sanctuary, Velez gave the men food and water -- and a lecture.

He warned them that America is not the promised land, that they’d face great hardship here. He told them they were wrong to come across illegally; he offered to pay their way back home so they could apply for a visa.

The men did not want to listen. They were headed, on foot, to Houston -- 300 miles northeast -- to live with relatives and to find work. “God will bless you and God will help you,” Velez told them. “Even though it’s illegal.”

He packed them a bundle of food and cash, and prayed as they set out across the scrub.


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