Vox | Meet the evangelicals trying to make the GOP care about refugees

Twelve days after Donald Trump halted the US refugee program with his controversial executive order, Jenny Yang traveled to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress to challenge it.

“We have a lot of concerns with the executive order,” Yang said, with quiet understatement. She was standing in the hallway of the Cannon House Office Building breaking down those concerns for Harvey Sparks, the legislative assistant to Oklahoma Republican Rep. Steve Russell.

A marble hallway is not an ideal spot in which to lobby for a cause. Sound reverberated everywhere, from the endless click of heels to the cacophonous clank, clank, clank of hundreds of bottles of soda being wheeled on metal carts. Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, didn’t seem to notice.

She was surrounded by a phalanx of other senior officials from pro-refugee groups, including the International Rescue Committee, US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and Vets for American Ideals. Some 90 other advocates were in other offices across Capitol Hill doing the exact same thing at the exact same moment.

World Relief is one of the nine officially sanctioned organizations that resettle refugees in the US. And it has been in the driver’s seat of a push to rally evangelicals to challenge Trump’s ban on moral, practical, and biblical grounds.

“When you look at the parables in the Bible about how Jesus carried out his ministry, Jesus didn’t just talk about who he was,” Yang will argue. “He tangibly met people’s needs.”

Yang is part of a growing movement within the evangelical community that focuses on “living out the gospel” — that is, acting as Jesus would have acted — over partisan politics. Refugees, as they see it, should not be a political question but a humanitarian one.

For a movement long associated with following the GOP’s party line, talk of privileging what evangelicals refer to as the “kingdom of God” over party doctrine is no small thing. Yang’s work — welcoming refugees and guiding the faithful to do the same — represents that theological and political perspective.

The newest flashpoint is the refugee issue, which has created a cleavage between the Trump administration’s position and evangelicals — and possibly a fissure within the evangelical movement itself.

Either way, the fallout from this could be a reckoning moment for a Trump-run Republican Party. Though a small minority of prominent evangelical leaders — including, notably, Franklin Graham, founder of the advocacy group Samaritan’s Purse — expressed support for the ban, the vast majority of evangelical leaders had turned against it less than two weeks after it took effect.

“If we are not able to see this refugee issue as part of a pro-life ethic,” says Todd Deatherage, a former Bush administration staffer who works with evangelicals on Middle East peacemaking, “it exposes a thinness in our theology and practice.”

Advocates are on the front lines of the refugee issue

That day on Capitol Hill, Yang argued that the executive order fundamentally altered the US refugee program by slashing back the numbers expected on our shores, and potentially excluded the most vulnerable people, in its mandate to privilege religious minorities and by misplaced security fears.

“There is no historical evidence that we have let in any refugee that has committed any act of terrorism,” she said emphatically.

Standing next to Yang, Stacie Blake, of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, pointed out that she and other advocates were the ones meeting the refugees at the airport, putting them in their cars, and bringing them into their living rooms. If the refugees posed a risk, she said, then she and other advocates would be the ones confronting it.

For Yang, the refugee ban is a question of basic morality. “The power of God to demonstrate his love to a broken world will ultimately be displayed in the church’s response to this crisis,” she explained in a recent op-ed for Christianity Today.

“Jesus taught us to love radically, unconditionally, and sacrificially,” she wrote. “Our enemy is not someone who is of a different religion or culture or ethnicity; the real here enemy is fear.”

Act justly, and love mercy

After more than a decade of working as an advocate for immigrants, Yang has won admirers across the political and religious spectrum, from the most liberal to the deeply conservative. In the past few weeks, her work turned, suddenly and almost exclusively, to refugees.

Yang’s Christianity calls for a practical application of what evangelicals call the “knowability of God,” or what some call the “personal nature of God.” This is not a missionary-style, top-down brand of evangelicalism. It is, instead, a means of living out the Christian Gospel — literally acting as one understands how Christ would act. It is a social justice ministry.

Evangelicals have been associated with progressive action in the past — notably abolitionism in the 19th century. There was a dip in overt political activity for part of the 20th century, but from 1980 to 2000, white evangelical voters shifted from divided between the two major parties to nearly exclusively pulling the lever for Republicans.

In the final few years of the 20th century, evangelical political participation became closely associated with the idea of “values” voting — supporting politicians who oppose issues such as abortion and, often, LGBTQ rights. Evangelicals and Republicans were so in sync that, over time, evangelicals became a reliable and essential cornerstone of the GOP voting bloc.

The 2017 presidential election was no different. According to exit polls, 80 percent of white evangelicals supported the Trump/Pence ticket.

But that number, to some degree, misses where the rest of the spectrum of the evangelical church actually sits. It leaves out people of color, immigrants, and many young people, all of whom are vital parts of the future of the evangelical American church. It misses, in other words, people like Jenny Yang.

Yang’s is a voice within the evangelical movement insistently pointing out the moral inconsistencies of supporting policies that simply do not fit with following Jesus. That means it doesn’t matter which political party you are from, as long as you are consistent in following the word of God. Yang fully believes the Bible is a manual, with practical application in our world. And she embodies a growing sense among young evangelicals that being pro-life cannot simply mean life in the womb.

All of that means Yang is also increasingly in demand. In the days surrounding our February 7 meeting on Capitol Hill, she flew to Austin to speak at the IF gathering of evangelical women, a conference hosting 2,000 women in person and beamed out to 22,000 satellite sites, then spent two full days lobbying on Capitol Hill in Washington, punctuated by a lecture on refugees for a live webinar for the Global Immersion Project, a ministry run by pastor Jon Huckins that hopes to use the church as an “instrument of peacemaking.”

With barely time to swap clothing, Yang then flew to Chicago for a full day of meetings with Vickie Reddy, the Australian-born director of the massive annual evangelical Justice Conference (which focuses on social issues), hosted a press call with leaders of the evangelical movement to protest the refugee ban, and then flew, late at night, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a talk at Calvin College. By the weekend, she was back at home in Baltimore with her 18-month-old son.

She is a “rock star,” says Ed Stetzer, a popular author and church leader who now directs the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton (often called the “Harvard” of evangelical colleges). Yang, he says, “represents a discovery among evangelicals of societal concerns and social justice, and that’s across the evangelical movement.”

As that Tuesday meeting with Russell’s staffers wound down, Yang mentioned that World Relief was running a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post. It was an open letter condemning the refugee ban, with signatures of more than 600 pastors from all 50 states.

“Our care for the oppressed and suffering is rooted in the call of Jesus to ‘love our neighbor as we love ourselves,’” the letter read. “As Christians, we have a historic call expressed over two thousand years, to serve the suffering. We cannot abandon this call now.”

By the weekend the number of signatories on the web version of the letter had reached 5,000.

Kingdom of God

Yang, who is 36, believes in something called “kingdom principles” — that means, according to her, living as Jesus would on earth. It is an increasingly attractive idea to young evangelicals, who believe obedience to God’s laws is a higher calling than loyalty to politicians or political parties.

“I believe in what the Bible teaches about the vulnerable,” Yang told me when we first met, in the Longworth Office Building cafeteria, “so of course I care about refugees.” I had run right past her into the room. She was cramming in a moment to eat between meetings.

“I think the conversation has turned really dangerous, in that we have always said we can either be compassionate or we can be pro-security. It’s an either/or rather than a both/and,” she said. “My concern is that we as evangelicals shouldn’t be feeding into a false narrative that refugees should be feared.”

The fact that this position is becoming an increasingly mainstream evangelical position speaks in part to the work Yang has done over the past several years. But it also speaks to tensions that have existed within the evangelical community for generations: It comes down to who runs the show, so to speak. Are evangelicals answering to God? Or to the GOP?

Jon Huckins, of Global Immersion, explains the shift as more of “a movement which is less concerned about endorsing a political party and more concerned about endorsing policies actually reflective of the Jesus we follow. I could care less if a Republican or a Democrat is elected.”

Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, began our conversation by insisting: “Let me start by saying: don’t conflate evangelicalism with Republicanism.” That kind of statement is pretty dramatic, given polling numbers.

But it may be borne out by looking at the generational shift: In a poll published by the Public Religion Research Institute last spring, the generational divide among evangelicals was stark: 55 percent of younger white evangelicals said that “newcomers from other countries strengthen American society.” But 57 percent of older white evangelicals said that “immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values.” Education levels also altered opinions on welcoming immigrants.

“I find white evangelicals who have been married to the [Republican] Party since 1980 are finding themselves in uncharted territory,” said Lisa Sharon Harper, chief church engagement officer of Sojourners, a group on the left of the American evangelical spectrum.

Some, like Harper and historian Diana Butler Bass, see a coming rupture within the American evangelical world. Bass points to the rapidly rising numbers of evangelicals of color, who are far more likely to be skeptical of the GOP. “There will be another kind of evangelicalism and you are seeing the outlines of it,” she says. “It is pluralistic, and it is being driven by women, and that is amazing.”

Others, like Michael Cromartie, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, see this as less a split among evangelicals than a potential turning point between evangelicals and the GOP that is distinctly linked to the refugee crisis.

“They have seen what has been happening with the refugee problem for years, and they see it as a calling, and a ministry, to help these people. Then all of a sudden, the door gets slammed and they say, ‘What? We’ll take these people in. Let them come,’” Cromartie says. He calls it an “untold story” of “deep compassion” rooted in biblical commandments that affects conservative and liberal evangelicals alike.

I mentioned to Cromartie that Franklin Graham, founder of the charitable organization Samaritan’s Purse, had come out in support of the ban and said it’s “not a Bible issue” to create laws that control immigration.

Cromartie barked, “Franklin Graham has no leg to stand on — in his support of this — theologically, at all. And you can quote me on that.”

“This is unfaithful to clear biblical commands,” he continued. “People want to be faithful to the command to take in the persecuted and the stranger, and they were being prevented to by this draconian ban.“

Two days later, Cromartie emailed me a story from Christianity Today, the conservative magazine of the movement, noting the ever-climbing number of evangelical pastors stepping into the public light against the ban.

What is not clear, points out Todd Deatherage, the former Bush staffer, is whether this is a separation from the Republican Party as a whole, or merely from Trump’s version of the Republican Party.

A similar fight over immigration happened before

The crisis over the refugee policy among evangelicals has a precedent: the 2013 immigration reform debate. It led to the creation of something called the Evangelical Immigration Table, a push to engage evangelicals in support of immigration reform from a place of theology — a policy that Jenny Yang was instrumental in creating.

That battle, which brought together leadership from the progressive and more mainstream sides of the evangelical community, brought white and Latino evangelicals to an alliance closer to the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, rooted, like the refugee debate of today, in the idea that the Bible insists on welcoming the stranger.

“I think the Republican Party is finding voices rising from corners of their own party pleading not to denigrate the stranger. I think the refugee crisis is finding even more salience among evangelicals than maybe even the immigration argument — the sense that these people are absolutely destitute and we have a strong evangelical tradition of welcoming the refugee,” says Harper, of Sojourners.

Yang explains that when she began to work on immigration, refugees were almost an apolitical non-issue but immigration was a hot-button one. She grew bothered by the large number of evangelicals who were actively opposed to immigration reform.

“I thought that we should have been the most pro-immigrant. That’s what Jesus wanted us to do,” she says. “It was my personal passion to change how evangelicals approach immigration — I started talking to pastors and churches and telling the personal stories I had come across through my work.”

That led her to writing a book with her colleague Matthew Soerens of World Relief in 2009, called Welcome the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate. After that she and Soerens shifted into the role of experts in the community. By 2013, Yang was actively lecturing and advocating a faith-based argument for immigration reform.

She has been surprised by the recent, negative, focus on refugees. “They came legally; they’re fleeing persecution,” she says. She worries that inchoate fears of Islam and terror have been inappropriately directed at refugees. Refugees bear the brunt, she says, of the “fear that they are the perpetrators of terrorism when they are in fact the victims. Even if there is a risk, Jesus calls us to live into that risk and literally give up our power and privilege to enter into the brokenness of others.”

A child of immigrants, fighting for immigrants

One of the reasons Yang was initially uncertain about playing a role in the immigration conversation was, counterintuitively, because of her own background. “I thought they would discount me and my voice because I was an Asian American,” she says. “I didn’t want people to think I was talking about immigration because I’m daughter of immigrants.” At first she never talked about her own story.

Yang’s Korean-born father saw his own father pulled from the family home by communist soldiers. Orphaned, he was converted by American Christian missionaries. He immigrated to the US, then briefly returned to Korea and met Yang’s mother. They raised Jenny and her brother, Charlie, in a Korean Presbyterian church outside Philadelphia.

As a student in Madrid on her junior year abroad, Yang witnessed a group of teens scrawl racist graffiti on a subway train while an immigrant mother looked on. No one spoke up. It led Yang to join the European anti-racism organization SOS Racisme and started her on the path of social justice issues.

These days, Yang works on the ground with churches, as well as lobbying. “People need to know these are real lives impacted; these are not just numbers,” she says. She encourages pastors to preach from the pulpit on these issues.

In nearly every talk she gives, she explains that she has gained much more, as a person, from the refugees than she feels she has ever given them.

If God is real, then what?

The Austin-based “IF gathering” of evangelical women started in 2014 with the idea “If God is real, then what?” It has consistently drawn thousands of women to the event itself, in Austin, and to satellite broadcast sites around the country where women host other gatherers in their homes, or larger event sites.

For three days women take the stage in Austin. It’s rustic and hip, like a Jesus-based music awards ceremony. The women wear ripped jeans and thick glasses, their arms laden with bracelets. The music is catchy and uplifting. Everyone is cool.

Onstage at IF this year, Jenny Yang introduced herself as a child of immigrants. The moderator, Shelley Giglio, a founder of the Passion City Church in Atlanta, turned to Yang and asked her to explain her work. Yang launched into two stories: one of a Jordanian pastor, taking in Syrian refugees by the dozens, and one of an impoverished woman in Burundi, herself desperately poor, who took in an orphan and raised him as a twin to her own son.

“Now, this is the work of the church alive and well. They are living out the gospel in the simplest and truest forms,” Yang said, speaking too fast as she became increasingly impassioned. “These are churches [that are] completely underresourced and persecuted. And yet they are not afraid to live into the risk and be inconvenienced for loving the vulnerable in their communities.”

By “serving refugees and welcoming them,” she declared, “they are demonstrating that when we, as a church, welcome and love the people the world wants us to hate, we advance the mission of God.”

There was a moment of quiet as the enormous room of women took in Yang’s message. And then Giglio boomed into her mic, “Come on: Clap for that!” The room erupted.

Read more at Meet the evangelicals trying to make the GOP care about refugees.