Our office at the Immigration Service and Aid Center (better known as the ISAAC Project) was swamped by immigrants barely a week into the new U.S. presidency.
These were mostly people from Africa – green card holders who until now did not think they would ever become citizens of the U.S. – who had been living happily in the country under their legal permanent residence status.
But now they sensed that things had changed. They were fearful of being deported from the country they had learned to love, which gave them asylum a decade ago. We helped them with their applications, and they are now on their way to becoming U.S. citizens.
My work as an accredited representative of the Office of Legal Access Program of the U.S. Department of Justice allows me to give legal counsel to immigrants as if I were an immigration attorney, but without the law degree. It also entitles me to represent them in their applications before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
How is it possible that someone who does not have a law degree or passed the bar exam is permitted to give legal counsel and represent anyone as an immigration attorney? Isn’t this against the law?
The truth is that it is both possible and lawful. In facing the shortage of immigration attorneys in the country, the U.S. government created a process by which religious, social and charitable nonprofit organizations can apply for recognition and the accreditation of their staff to provide sorely needed legal immigrations services at low cost.
And make no mistake: Honest and professional legal immigration services at low cost are probably the greatest need among the strangers among us in the United States. Those of us who have provided these services for years through immigration ministries know full well how vulnerable they are to blackmail, abuse and exploitation.
The ISAAC Project is a ministry for immigrants created by the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 2006. It has been hosted by Baptist University of the AmÃ©ricas in San Antonio since 2010, and it is a recognized organization with two accredited representatives since 2013.
ISAAC has helped hundreds of immigrant families each year obtain legal status through family petitions, U.S. citizenship, religious worker visas, relief for victims of crime and domestic abuse and other forms of legal relief.
Our mission is to show the love of Christ to the strangers among us by keeping families together and helping everyone we can find a legal way to stay in the country.
We love immigrants. We value them and we choose to stand with them in Christian love and serve them through Christian ministry.
Many churches and believers today think of Christian ministry exclusively in “spiritual” terms. For them, social ministries have no room in the church.
They are happy to volunteer occasionally at a food pantry, put money in their budgets to sponsor the local Good Samaritan or Salvation Army ministries, but do little else.
They fail to see that social ministries are very much the responsibility of the body of Christ to our communities and a form of evangelistic work.
I had the privilege of meeting Stanley Grenz many years ago as he came to lecture at Howard Payne University.
Hearing him speak was a great inspiration, and I started reading his works, especially his “Theology for the Community of God,” which is a very contemporary, and quite enjoyable-to-read, systematic theology.
I devoured it, took copious notes and reflected on it over a long period of time. It changed my mind about the role of social ministries in the Body of Christ and set my life on a different ministerial course.
Far from being outside of the bounds of Christian evangelism, social services as ministry are a must for the body of Christ. They are at the core of Christian ministry.
Grenz’s writings remind me that the biblical gospel is eminently a social gospel.
Whereas it is true that the gospel seeks the reconciliation of all human beings to God, it is also true that reconciliation is a social reality.
If we seek to restore people to God, we must also bring each other into right relationships. Seeking social justice is very much a spiritual endeavor.
In these perilous times of social and political polarization, immigrants need more people who can help them find legal relief. But they also need someone who can stand in the gap and be their advocate.
Every immigrant we serve by finding legal relief for him or her receives a social service.
But this social service is true Christian ministry, and therefore, part of the work of the kingdom of God.
It is a continuation of the redeeming work of our Lord Jesus, and a concrete action by which we seek to serve as instruments of the Holy Spirit to model the love and grace of Jesus Christ and advance his lordship over all of life.
Asking if ministries like the ISAAC Project are spiritual enough endeavors is asking the wrong question.
As the body of Christ, we should ask ourselves what kind of involvement the Lord expects from us in seeking to reconcile people by expressing a concern for compassion, social justice and righteousness.
What injustices do you see around you that make you feel a holy indignation, a desire to redirect your life and resources to do something about them?
Who in this life makes you feel compassion? Who do you see as vulnerable and needing of your advocacy? Are you willing to pose these questions to the Lord in prayer?
Prayer is indispensable to Christian service in this world. But be careful now. These are the kind of questions whose answers from above may mean a complete transformation of your life and ministry.
Jesus Romero is director of the Immigration Service and Aid Center (ISAAC) project, a collaborative ministry between Baptist University of the AmÃ©ricas (BUA) and the Baptist General Convention of Texas. A version of this article first appeared on the BUA faculty blog and is used with permission.