Jeff Haanen



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Announcement: Launch of the 5280 Fellowship

Today is a big day.

Today my colleagues and I at Denver Institute for Faith & Work, in partnership with Gordon College, announce the launch of the 5280 Fellowship, a 9 month experience for emerging leaders beginning in the fall of 2016.

After years of planning, design and forging partnerships, each element of the program has fallen into place. And now what we are now offering is, I believe, one of the best faith-based fellowship programs in the US, and perhaps Denver’s premiere leadership experience for young professionals.

I know those are big claims. But I believe the 5280 Fellowship has the potential to deeply impact Denver for generations to come. And I’m not alone.

Some of Denver’s finest pastors – like Robert Gelinas (Colorado Community Church), Brad Strait (Cherry Creek Presbyterian), Rob Brendle (Denver United), Brian Brown (Park Church) and Hunter Beaumont (Fellowship Denver) – believe the Fellowship can be a life-changing experience for young professionals who want to deeply engage themes of calling, work, and culture.

Young professionals like Steven Strott (Cool Planet Energy Systems) and Amy Wofford (The Commons at Champa) see the value of connecting to a community of faithful leaders in Denver and articulate how important work is to the flourishing of a city.

And Dr. Michael Lindsay, the president of Gordon College who has deeply studied the world’s most effective leadership program, the White House Fellowship, believes this program, which has been modeled largely on his research, will give young professionals:

  • “deep relationships that span the city,”
  • a vision for how “the gospel provides a kind of connective tissue, helping us to see how does science and technology relate to the arts and entertainment,”
  • and a “catalyst in your career for the prospering not only of the wider culture, but also your life.”

Needless to say, if you’re asking big questions about the role of Christians in culture; if you’re interested in the relevance of the gospel to all of life; if you’re wondering about your own calling; and if you’re up for a challenge that could catalyze your career — then I encourage you to learn more at an upcoming info session.

Some of you may also be interested why we built the program as we did. On this blog, over the next several weeks, I’d like to peel back the veil on the principles underlying the Fellowship and why we built the program as we did. Blog posts will cover topics like:

  • Why Some Doctors Read the History of Opera: Leadership and Liberal Arts Thinking
  • EQ: Why Being a Good Conversationalist Might Be More Important Than an MBA
  • Why Nothing Before Age 20 Matters (And Why Your 20s-40s are the Most Critical to Career Success)
  • Calling: Learning to Listen to the Caller
  • Spelunking, Cave Formations and Culture Change
  • Our Common Longing: Meaningful Work
  • The Church in the World: Reformation, not Revolution
  • The Future of Higher Education: Friendships and the Information Deluge
  • The Golden Web: Mentors, Networks, and the Hidden Leadership Curriculum
  • Mission: Larger Than A Two Week Trip Overseas
  • Scattered: Being the Church Monday-Saturday
  • Significant Work: Developing a Taste for Tackling Big Problems

The launch of any new educational experience is really just the beginning of a conversation. This is a conversation on what it means to be fully human in this time and this place. I’d like to take the chance to invite you into this community.

I’d love to hear any and all feedback as the conversation grows. I hope you’ll consider joining me on this adventure into our own souls, the life of our city, and the heart of God.


Driving Back the Cloud of Fear: A Christmas Meditation


If there is anything we Americans hold in common this Christmas, it is fear.

I felt it creeping up my neck four weeks ago when my dad called me on the way to work. “Did you hear about San Bernardino?” I confessed I was behind on the news. “The Islamic State is here.”

That same day my wife stopped in to buy jeans at the Gap. A Muslim man was buying a jacket for his wife who was draped in an all-black hijab, showing only her eyes. My wife felt guilty for saying it, but she said what so many of us feel: “Jeff, I was a afraid.”

As Christmas approaches, the thorns of fear quietly infest American soil.

Yet my wife and I hold something in common with many Muslims today. They too are afraid. Since San Bernardino, many American Muslims have feared a backlash. And should they not be afraid? Donald Trump vows to expel Muslims from America, and has even hinted at creating internment camps. Ted Cruz has threatened to carpet bomb Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold in Syria, with little regard for innocent life.

Such indiscriminate fury shows that Pulitzer prize winner author Marilynne Robinson is right: “Contemporary America is full of fear.”

Yet American fear is not just directed toward Islamic jihadists.

I remember the day last year when Mozilla CEO Brandon Eich was forced to resign when news was published about his support of California’s Proposition 8, which sought to define marriage as between a man and a woman. The social media firestorm culminated in a message from OKCupid: “Those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies.”

I hold a traditional view of marriage. When I read those words, I remember thinking, “Could I, too, be sacked for my views of marriage?” I shut my office door. For the first time in my adult life, I felt fear living in America as a person of faith.

Yet again, I share this fear with many in the LGBT community. Many gays fear revealing their sexuality to co-workers will make them a target for exclusion. It’s even harder to be a transgender teen. Though I may disagree with the practice of gay marriage, I share something in common with many in the gay community: a fear of persecution.

Fear has even seeped into race relations. Ta-Nehisi’s heart-breaking letter to his son laments America’s heritage of violence toward African-Americans. Hopelessness among many blacks flows from Ferguson to Fergus Falls.

Conversely, many police officers in racially diverse neighborhoods fear increasing public criticism, wondering if they, too, are now becoming targets.

The ghost of Jacob Marley is roaming through American cities this Christmas, binding us with the chains of suspicion

But we can do something, right? We can be compassionate and show love. We can be different, right?

Over a month ago, I sent an impassioned plea to my congressman, begging him—for the love of God—to allow more refugees to enter the United States. The next day I received an official email reply: “I voted yes on H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act.” Translation: keep out your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We want safety. We are…afraid.

In the past month, I’ve felt a sense of desperation, perhaps best expressed by the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.”

As the fog of fear clouds American life, I’m reminded of a 12th century carol of longing: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” Who of us haven’t felt this captivity? Who of us haven’t longed for someone to “disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and put death’s dark shadows to flight?”

Many Americans will wander into Christmas eve services this year and hear the familiar story of a pregnant Jewish teenager, a nervous father, a baby laying in a feeding trough. And at the center of the story is an angelic announcement: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people (Luke 2:10).”

Do not be afraid? Great joy? How could shepherds – working class and socially marginalized – embrace such a pronouncement? How could Jews, living under Roman oppression, dance again?

The Christmas story suggests there’s only one to antidote to fear: an unexpected gift.

The only way to cut through the uncertainty and anxiety of fear is to meet your enemy not with plans to defend ourselves, but with a particular sign of generous love.

Can we drive back the cloud of American fear? Yes. But not through higher walls, larger defense budgets, or by “taking back America” from them – whoever they are. The path forward is to move from hostility to hospitality. The path forward is to welcome the stranger into our homes, neighborhoods and workplaces.

Fear in American life is real. But grace drives out fear. Fear is crushed through generosity; it is dissolved through fellowship. Thorns may infest the ground from New York to Los Angeles, but “he comes to make his blessings flow, as far as the curse is found.”

To be a Christian in a time of dread means to direct all our hope toward a baby laying in a manger, of whom John the apostle would lone day write, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Jeff Haanen is the executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work. Connect with him on Twitter @JeffHaanen

A version of this essay first appeared on the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission website



Let Them Eat Chicken: Religious Intolerance Is Bad for Business


by Chris Horst and Jeff Haanen

Denver is on the rise. Construction cranes line the streets around Union Station. New residents arrive faster than we can house them. But as Denver surges, will our city be a place where religious people are permitted to live and work? Given the recent news, it’s a fair question to ask.

Last month, a Denver federal appeals court ruled against Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic ministry serving low-income elderly and dying people in Colorado and around the world. The nuns believe new federal health care requirements force them to violate their faith by mandating they pay for abortion-inducing drugs for employees. Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, one of the nuns serving at Little Sisters of the Poor,  said, “We… simply cannot choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith.”  

Then, last month, the Denver City Council impeded the approval of a new restaurant lease at Denver International Airport (DIA). The “normally routine” approval process met a roadblock when several members of the Council decided the religious and political views of the restaurant’s owner — Dan Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A — did not meet their approval. To our knowledge, the Council has not interrogated the religious views of any other entrepreneur attempting to do business in Denver, nor has it defined which religious views are permissible.

Councilman Jolon Clark said Denver “can do better” than working with Chick-fil-A. Councilman Paul Lopez said his opposition to Cathy’s religious views is “really, truly a moral issue on the city.”

These two events illustrate a new hostility some Colorado lawmakers have toward religious expression. It’s important to clarify exactly what these lawmakers find inappropriate. 

The Little Sisters of the Poor operate dozens of nursing homes worldwide for “the neediest elderly of every race and religion.” They do not discriminate in who they serve and only ask our government to allow them to provide health care plans to their employees that do not violate their most deeply held beliefs.

Chick-fil-A is in the restaurant business and is rated America’s favorite fast food. The Denver City Council has chosen to hold hostage the popular restaurant’s entrance into DIA not because the company has a history of discrimination towards its employees or customers. Consistently, Chick-fil-A outperforms its peers in these areas. It is solely because of the religious beliefs expressed by the company’s owner in 2012.

A year later, LGBT activist Shane Windmeye publically defended Cathy and Chick-fil-A in a Huffington Post article that described their friendship. Recently, The Denver Post Editorial Board rightly criticized the Council’s decision, asking, “Are corporate executives supposed to muzzle all opinion, or make sure their views mesh with the predominant outlook of politicians in cities where they’d like to do business?”

Denver celebrates its inclusiveness. But does our inclusiveness have room for religious people? To be clear, we do not believe these actions by the Council are akin to religious persecution, but we do believe they are unwise if we want our state to be hospitable to people of all religious perspectives — including views that differ from those of Little Sisters of the Poor and Cathy. 

In 2007, anti-Muslim sentiment lead to the beating and robbery of an Iranian-American salon owner in Long Island. Her attackers said, “Your kind isn’t welcome here. You don’t belong here.” Colorado should continue to be a place where all people feel welcome. We want Colorado to live up to the sentiment captured by acclaimed writer Marilynne Robinson: 

“Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement.”

The American experiment hinges on this very definition of democracy, on our ability to live peacefully with our neighbors with whom we hold divergent views. If the recent actions of our lawmakers are any indication, our inclusiveness only has room for views approved by whomever currently holds office.

Colorado has long been a beacon of freedom for people of diverse ethnicities, creeds and religious traditions. For now, the spirit of the West lives on. Two weeks after the Council’s initial delay of Chick-fil-A’s airport lease, a committee unanimously approved it. The construction crews are busy at work in Denver for now, but unchecked intolerance toward people of faith will not keep them here for long. It’s bad for business and bad for Colorado.

This post first appeared on 

Jeff Haanen is the executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work (@jeffhaanen). Chris Horst is the author of Mission Drift and vice president of development at HOPE International (@chrishorst).

Featured photo of the Denver City & County building by Boston Public Library on Flickr, used under this Creative Commons  license.


Interview with Michael Lindsay


As I sat down for lunch at The Broadmoor, a historic, five-star resort in Colorado Springs, it quickly became clear I was among the elite. White linen table clothes, waiters in black ties, and a view of the rolling green golf course nestled at the foot of the Rockies. I was glad, then, when Michael Lindsay, the President of Gordon College, joined me. His wide smile, gracious disposition and articulate brilliance exuded confidence and calmed my middle class nerves. He had been among the powerful before.

In 2008, Lindsay published his Pulitzer-nominated Faith in the Halls of Power, an unprecedented look at influential evangelicals from Washington DC to Wall Street. His latest book, View from the Top (Wiley, 2014), is the result of a 10 year study of “Platinum Leaders,” 550 elite politicians, CEOs and nonprofit executives who hold many of the most significant positions of leadership in the world. Over lunch we had the chance to discuss the White House Fellows, a liberal arts view of life, the power of elite networks, influence through institutions, the perspective of top-level leaders, and why he wants more Christians in positions of power.

Michael Lindsay and Jeff Haanen

An edited version of this interview was published recently in Christianity Today. Here is the uncut, unedited version of the June 2, 2014 interview in its entirety. It includes all the original details and my candid responses to Michael’s findings in View From the Top. 

It’s longer than your typical blog post, but Michael offers a deeply insightful look into the highest levels of global leadership. It was a conversation I won’t soon forget.

Let’s talk about institutions. I think most Americans are very skeptical of large institutions, but the leaders you found in View from the Top are drawn to institutional leadership. Why?

It’s the locus of power in our culture.  I started out thinking that individuals would have a lot of say. The way in which I went about my data was focusing on individuals. I got about two-thirds of the way through and I thought, “These people sit at the top of institutions. And that’s were there’s power. That’s how things get done.” You can see that within the private sector. You can see it in nonprofits. And you can certainly see it in government. It became a way in which I could understand what was taking place. Institutions matter significantly.

It’s interesting. The current generation of college students have a love-hate relationship with institutions. They hate bureaucracy, and they hate the machinations of big organizations. But they are real builders. They believe in starting things, and they want to build them up to make a real difference.

So, one of the hopes of the books is to help them to see [that] if you really want to make a difference long-term, you have to be connected to an institution.

One of your chapters is entitled, “Act Institutionally, Think Personally,” but I think many personality-driven churches and para-church organizations are really quite the opposite. We think about the celebrity at the head but rarely think about the institution itself. What can evangelicals do to change that bias?

Here’s one way to process this. Max Weber describes it as the routinization of charisma. Weber has this theory about different forms of authority.

Traditional authority, which is what the Queen of England has. You inherit it from your parents. Rational-legal authority, which is the authority President Obama has, which is, you’re on top of a major bureaucracy and that’s how you get things done. And charismatic authority. This is the authority that Billy Graham had, for a while. It’s the authority that Jesus had for a while. It’s the authority that gathers and collects around an outstanding individual, a persona.

But in order for that person to have lasting impact, Weber says, it has to be routinized. It has to be transferred from the authority of a charismatic individual, and has to be transferred into a rational-legal bureaucracy. So, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a great example of the routinization of charisma. After Billy Graham is gone, you’re going to still have his ministry continue. Chuck Colson died two years ago. Much of the work of Charles Colson is continuing on in Prison Fellowship even though the founder is no longer there.

So, while it is true that evangelicalism does prize the personality, and there is a cult of celebrity in the church, what we are witnessing is evangelicals coming to appreciate the importance and the primacy of institutions.

Let’s think about leadership. You found almost all the leaders in View From the Top had a “leadership catalyst” experience. For many of them, it was a program called the White House Fellows. You’ve studied other leadership programs. What was the key to the White House Fellows that set it apart from the rest?

They did four things very, very well. I studied this deeply because I care about developing leaders at Gordon. One, it uses a cohort approach. Most of the research today will show that leadership development works the best in group settings. Leadership is as much caught as it is taught. So that’s very important.

Second, they were given substantive work assignments. If you have a program for leadership development, but there’s no real work assignment, it lacks the teeth, it lacks responsibility and accountability and the feedback loop that’s really important. So you don’t really know if you’ve done it or not.

Third is the importance of a broadening education. So, you have to expose emerging leaders to senior leaders. They have to be able to rub shoulders, get to know them up close. And those senior leaders also have to be willing to speak honestly and off the record. So it’s really important that you not just bring in talking heads but that you also find people who can be real.

The fourth element that the White House Fellows program does well, that other effective leadership development programs do well, is public recognition. So you have to be able to say, “These are really special people.” And we’re singling them out to say that they are worth our investment of time and energy.

Those are four things I’ve found that make a huge difference.

Is that what the Presidential Fellows program at Gordon College looks like?

Yes, the Gordon Presidential Fellows program is exactly modeled on that. So, we take a competitive group of students that come from all different majors, all different backgrounds, and we choose a cohort of 10 students. They have the chance to work directly with one cabinet officer. I require them to literally sit in the office of the cabinet officer. Each cabinet office has a little conference table in their office. That’s where the student works. The idea is that they will pick up on things, even when they’re doing their own work.

So, the students I work with will hear me interview people, talk with donors on the telephone, think about strategy. All kinds of things. And then we’ll have a chance to debrief. And then I have lunch with my fellows usually on Saturdays. And so that’s an intentional strategy.

We bring to campus about ten guest speakers per year. And so we ask the speakers to meet with the Presidential Fellows over breakfast or lunch. And then we do give them public recognition. We often take them on travel with me or with the college. We single them out. They meet with the trustee. It’s clearly our top leadership cohort on campus.

Tell me about the difference you see between the evangelicals you interviewed in Faith in the Halls of Power and those in View From the Top. Did you see a difference between evangelicals and their non-believing counterparts?

So, 70% of the people in View From the Top are Christian.

Seventy percent?

Now, they are not all practicing Christians, and they’re not all serious about their faith. Faith in the Halls of Power drew a larger constituency of serious Christians. So if I compare the 70% of Christians in View from the Top with those who are not, then in general, Christians who I interviewed tended to be more grounded. They tended to be more oriented toward relationships in the workplace. They tended to be less frazzled with disappointment or failure occurs. Now, that’s not to say that’s true for everyone. I’m speaking in broad generalities.

In your book, you mentioned these leaders have a “liberal arts” view of life. How do average folks cultivate this generalist perspective in their work – a teacher, a mid-level manager. What does that look like for us?

It’s all about how we live our lives. It’s how we build certain practices in our lives. So, I find that you have to be intentional to develop that liberal arts approach to life. It doesn’t occur naturally because we tend to be in pretty homogenous groups. We tend to get the news from the circles of people that agree with us. We tend to not challenge ourselves.

So, the people in View From the Top, part of the reason they got to the top is that they had cultivated this liberal arts approach when they were 20. It’s generally not something you do when you’re 70. It’s something you develop.

Is this a reading diet? People you spend time with?

Yes, it’s about reading. Where do you get your information from? Do you have a regular practice of checking news sources that don’t align with your own philosophy? So, I tell my students one of the best things they can do is get a subscription to Christianity Today and The Economist. The Economist is really important. It’s different – you’re getting a more European-centered view of the world, not American centered. So, you’re able to get a broader vantage point.

I tell my liberal students they need to watch Fox News once a week. And I tell my conservative students they need to watch MSNBC once a week. You have to get to a place where you have a wider diet of input.

It also means cultivating a habit of attending lectures, being exposed to experiences that are different than their own vantage point.

One of the persons who most impressed me was this guy named John Mendelsohn who just stepped down as the head of the MD Anderson Cancer Center. He was a world class cancer researcher. Really a top flight scientist. When I was doing the interview, he was reading a book on the history of opera. What does the history of opera have anything to do with leading the world’s leading cancer center?

It’s so rare to find people like that.

But it’s not among these people! They develop a lifestyle that has that kind of breadth. They’re great conversationalists. They make connections. Now not everybody is reading about the history of opera. But they’re intentionally building practices in their life that give them a wide variety of experiences.

This is why the preaching of Tim Keller is so popular among these individuals. Because he’s so widely read. If you haven’t read classical literature since college, you can get snippets of it in Tim Keller’s preaching. And so, how do you get those kind of experiences? Those are the kind of things I’m interested in.

Tell me about the “leapfrog method.” In 2003-2004 you started interviewing prominent evangelical leaders, and in ten years, you were able to meet some of the most powerful leaders in the world. Tell me about how you were able to open up these networks over time.

In social science, the two methods for selecting informants in a study of elites is the reputational method, where somebody recommends an individual, or the positional method, which is to say, “I’m only going to talk to CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies and that’s it.”

The kind of research I was interested in doing was a little more textured than the pure positional method would allow. I was interested in the kind of data I’d get if I interviewed a former President of the United States or a former Cabinet Secretary who’s no longer in office. I was less interested in “What do you think about President Obama?” and more interested in how you get things done. So, you didn’t have to be an office holder for that to work. I decided I wanted to do a combination of those two approaches.

In middle of doing that, I realized I needed a networks-based approach. To get access to the really top level folks, you need somebody to say, “Hey, this guy is okay.” What I did at the early part of the process was I set up appointments with 100 early informants who then made recommendations of those at a much higher level. So, Rich Mouw, the President of Fuller Seminary, says, look, you need to go see Ralph Winter, who’s a Hollywood producer – very successful. I never would have gotten to Ralph if I would not have first talked with Rich.

So, the leapfrog method allowed me to jump over a number of different hurdles which allowed me to get there. But then I modified it slightly as I had some measure of success reaching people. I no longer needed somebody to help recommend someone. I needed a council of advisors who could help me say, “There are all these CEOs you could go interview, but you really need to go and figure out who’s most strategic,” and give me some help. So I built a board of advisors.

Networks. This is obviously a big reason why people got to the top. But I could see people misconstruing this and think, “The way I get to the top is to know the right people and that way I can climb the ladder.” It feels like people, then, become almost instrumental. They have value only because we can use them. I wonder, how do we avoid this temptation as people of Christian faith?

I’m absolutely persuaded that for evangelicals to have influence, they must be in the room when decisions are made. You must. And I can point to countless examples of how individuals at a particular moment are in the room and are able to change history.

One example I think I used in the book is Condoleezza Rice’s story. She was in the room when the decision about PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] was made. Condoleezza Rice was serving as National Security Advisor. There were two big camps. The compassionate conservative crowd, which is some of the evangelical network: Michael Gerson, Karen Hughes, that kind of crowd. Then there was the Neo-Con crowd: Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney. Condoleezza Rice was one of the few individuals who straddled both of those worlds.

There had been a conversation that had been going for about a year, where the President’s compassionate conservative agenda is being put to the test. What if the US government made an amazing commitment to address the AIDS pandemic is Sub-saharan Africa by making an allocation of $15 billion of US aid to extend the life of AIDS patients?

There were having the final meeting. It was called the principals meeting with about 15 folks in the oval office. So they turn to Condoleezza Rice to give her speech. Basically they’re asking, “Is this a good use of money just to extend lives for $15 billion?” She tells the story of how her mother, who battled cancer, was able to have her life extended for about 15 years from the moment she was diagnosed until the moment she died. During that time, Condoleezza Rice went to high school, went to the University of Denver, decided to change her passion from being a concert pianist to being an expert in the Soviet Union, earned a degree from Notre Dame, got a teaching job, and was well on her way at Stanford University. And Rice said, “It changed my life that my mother was able to be involved in that 15 years. If we can do that for an entire continent, and don’t do it, it’s a moral failure.”  That one moment swayed human history in a significant way.

In order for evangelicals to have influence on key decisions that affect millions of people, you have to be in the room. Elite networks matter.

The difference, however, is that the gospel compels us to not live our lives to curry the favor of those in authority. Jesus is clearly not spending his ministry trying to get the Roman authorities to believe his position. And yet, not once does he curse the Roman authorities. The harshest thing he says about Rome is “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” That is certainly not a condemnation, and his disciples were begging him to condemn Rome. Just begging him, and he never does.

Why? Jesus recognizes that a lot of good can come when people committed to God are in positions of responsibility. What we have missed in the evangelical community over the last ten years is an insight that a social thinker named J.P. Nettl has advocated. He says social movements are akin to stalactite rock formations, which come from the top down, and stalagmite rock formations, which come from the bottom up. The column is most powerful, he says, when those formations meet. If we want cultural change, we have to attend to both grassroots movements as well as top down efforts.

What would that look like for evangelicals? What would it look like to build the top-down structure, since we’ve historically worked with the poor and weak? Does this mean seeking more positions of authority?

Think about the mobilization of concern we’ve seen for international justice in the last 15 years. It’s a wonderful example of how an organization like IJM has engaged policy makers, folks at very high levels. So, Gary Haugen speaks literally at Davos. That is where the world’s power elite exist. Gary is not repudiating it. Gary’s actually speaking there. He wants to be a part of it. It makes a real difference. At the same time, Gary is trying to get college students, who are really far from Davos, interested in international justice. They’re doing things in the local churches.

That’s a great example of how you can engage both top-down and bottom-up and can actually work a coordinated effort that can make a lasting impact.

Let’s change the pace a bit. I think many Americans see leaders at the top and they seem incredibly disconnected from the rest of us. True or not? If so, what should change?

It’s both true and false. It’s true in that there is a plurality, not a majority, who lead gilded lives, far removed from the everyday concerns of ordinary people.

But the people who are in these positions don’t stay there their whole lives. They don’t even stay there for 10 years. They move out. So the people who are in very powerful positions in the White House are at most in those powerful positions for 10 years. They don’t have a life that is so disconnected from everyday experiences forever.

So they have opportunities to reconnect. But when they’re in the top seat?

When they’re in the top seat, it’s very hard. It’s hard to know what’s happening in your organization much less what’s going on outside your organization.

You see our current political discourse, and I would say it’s become nearly sport for both conservatives and liberals to cast “the elite” onto the rocks. 

Even though they’re both the elite!

Yeah, ironic. What would you say to that mentality, that pent up frustration against elites that I think permeates much of our public discourse? What would you say to those who are just watching the news, and joining in to say, “Yes, it’s their fault”?

The moment of the greatest cultural angst against elites occurred in the wake of the financial meltdown, where certain industries, like finance, seemed to be above the fray, and not really experiencing the country’s challenges. I will say, it is difficult when you are making an unbelievable amount of money to stay grounded. It’s really hard.

The people that really impressed me were the people who had willingly given up compensation they had come into because it was a way that they practiced generosity. But it was also a way in which they could bridle ambition, consumerism, and all the things I think we need to be attentive to for those who have power and privilege.

So it is unjustified that these few thousand people who have an enormous amount of influence on our culture and on the world? It is unjustified that there be such a frustration? Does the average guy voting really have any influence on, for example, the making of policy? 

There’s a guy named Robert Michels who studied what everybody believed was the most democratic of all forms of social organization: socialist political parties in early 20th century in Europe. If anybody is going to have an egalitarian ethos, where nobody is above anybody else, it’s this group. He went into that expecting to find justification for this belief.

His most famous concept is the Iron Law of Oligarchy, which is to say, at the moment a group begins to organize, an oligarchy forms. In order to get things done, you are always going to have a small group of people with disproportionate privilege and power. It is how we work together in public life.

The reason I care deeply about having more serious Christians in positions of responsibility is because there are very few world views that preach a gospel of self-sacrifice, and none that are built around the very concept of self-sacrifice, like the Christian gospel.

The antidote to the pernicious effects of power is giving up power. It is sacrifice. Why, then, would we not want more people who believe in that, and that say these are their values? Why would we not want more people like that setting the example in the upper reaches of society?


Immigration Video Series & Curriculum

Update: This last week, the small group curriculum for this immigration video series was released. This .pdf is a great resource to go along with videos, and is structured around facilitating a small group discussion. Feel free to use and share as needed. Here it is. 

Today I travel to Washington D.C. My friend Michelle Warren, with the Evangelical Immigration Table, is flying several of us from Colorado to the capitol to meet with Congressman about immigration reform.

Because of budget battles, immigration reform is long overdue. The US hasn’t updated its immigration laws for almost a generation, and the situation has become dire. But the right solution has evaded many. Should there be a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants? How about immigrants should we admit on family visas, high skilled visas, low skilled visas? These are all foundational questions, but for me, the most important starting point is: What does my Christian faith have to say about immigrants and immigration?

Last Spring I helped to organize a conference on the topic of immigration, and we now have a set of 5 videos that were produced by both Phil Mildren at Denver Media House and the Evangelical Immigration Forum. In my opinion, they might be the best video introduction to the topic of immigration for anybody with honest questions. Who are immigrants? Why do so many come illegally? Aren’t they a drain on the economy? Doesn’t the Bible tell us to obey the laws of the land?

I’ve included videos that answer many of these questions, along with their descriptions. They’re perfect for discussion in a church small group or even with your family. The five titles are “Stepping Into the Story of an Immigrant”, “Migration as a Metaphor for the Christian Life: What Does the Bible Have to Say?” “Immigration as an Opportunity for the American Church; What does the American Church Need to Know?”, “Stephan Bauman, God’s Heart for the Vulnerable; 10 Reasons Why Immigration is Good” and “Answering Some Frequently Asked Questions About Immigration.” For the conference, we had top flight speakers, including Dr. Daniel Carroll, Professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary, Stephan Bauman, CEO of World Relief, and Dr. Carlos Campo, former President of Regent University.

If you have time, watch one or two this week. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

(Side note: to some this will seem like an aside from my main topic on this blog: the integration of faith and work. But I suppose this depends how you look at it: millions of immigrants have exercised the deepest levels of faith on their journey to the US. Others are employers who are simply looking for enough hands to pick grapes, clean rooms, and cook dinners. Ironically enough, the current immigration crisis has been caused by a combination of demand for labor and a political system that hasn’t adjusted to current needs. So, is this an aside from conversations about the integration of faith and work? Well, not for most of my Latino friends.)

Listening to the stories of immigrants strengthens one’s ability to engage in the immigration conversation on a more personal level. This video segment is designed to explore a few of the millions of stories behind the issue of immigration getting beyond the strident and divisive tones of the national debate.

In this segment, Dr. Daniel Carroll R. encourages Christians to “let the Bible orient us so that we can capture the heart of the metaphor of being a migrant and as we do that, to capture the heart of what it means to be a Christian.” Highlighting the Old Testament stories of Abraham, Joseph, Ruth and Daniel to reveal God’s heart for the foreigner, Dr. Carroll helps listeners understand why people migrate and how they assimilate. He reminds Christians about their responsibility to care for the vulnerable, encourages them to start with scripture when approaching the immigration issue, refuse to oversimplify the discussion, and to pray that God would use the church to be a voice for compassion, truth, and order — for the good of the immigrant and for our country.

In this segment, Matthew Soerens of World Relief highlights ways in which Evangelicals in the United States can take a fresh, biblically grounded look at the immigration debate and engage with immigrants in their communities. As Christians we have responsibility to both love and provide for the widow, orphan, immigrant, and the poor. Citing research from Pew, personal experience, the Founding Fathers, and scripture, Matthew exhorts listeners to see immigrants as an opportunity and blessing — for our communities, our country, and for the Gospel.

In this segment, World Relief CEO Stephan Bauman shares ten reasons why Christians must welcome the stranger. Beginning with a reminder of God’s heart for the vulnerable, he encourages Christians to act on behalf of the less fortunate neighbor while touching on economic considerations, justice, American values, and God’s presence. Viewers are ultimately reminded of Jesus’ words that “whatever we do for the least of these you do for me.”

This video segment helps answer some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding immigration in our country today.

The videos in this series were recorded at the G92 Conference on April 26-27 2013, hosted by Front Range Christian School in Littleton, Colorado. G92 is a culture-shaping movement seeking to equip and inspire the next generation of Christian leaders for an effective, biblical response to immigration.


Political Polarization: Healing the Great Divide


Perhaps the most concerning matter of public life today is our political polarization. Right and left seem to be speaking almost in completely different languages, and our leaders have reached what seems like a perpetual impasse.

Exhibit A: Government Shutdown. For the first time in nearly 18 years, the US government has furloughed nearly 800,000 employees because it could not pass a budget for the next fiscal year.  Neither side will negotiate. The Left has blamed the Right for not negotiating and trying to de-fund (or destroy) Obamacare as a part of a budget deal. The Right has blamed the Left for perpetual overspending and, now, for not being willing to negotiate. (Actually both sides heap condemnation on the other for an unwillingness to negotiate.) Gridlock has become such a way of life that shutting down basic government services has become preferable to compromise. And as I write, the greater concern by far is the coming battle over raising the debt ceiling. If the national debt ceiling is not raised, the US will default on its debt obligations for the first time in 225 years. Market watchers like Warren Buffet have said this would be equivalent to an economic “nuclear bomb.”

Exhibit B: Colorado Politics. Colorado has reflected national trends and is now also a national leader in polarized politics. Earlier this year Conservatives revolted when the Democratic-run Legislature passed several gun laws – to the degree that voters gathered signatures to have two senators (John Morse of Colorado Springs, and Angela Giron of Pueblo) recalled, a measure usually reserved for extreme abuses of power, not disagreeable policy decisions. A recent article in The Economist points out that since the 1990s, the Right has become even more Conservative, and because of less of a moderate middle, Colorado has voted in more Liberal congressman of late. And Liberals, who control both the House and the Senate, wasted no time in jamming through traditionally “liberal” laws that “allow gay civil unions, require more use of renewable energy, lower tuition fees for illegal immigrants, allow voters to register on polling day and abolish the death penalty.” Let’s toss in the legalization of marijuana to this list. The result? Six counties in conservative Northeast Colorado recently had ballot measures to secede from the state of Colorado.

And so political polarization grows – and the noise gets noisier. Media sources over time have aligned with either right or left, and even Christians tend to identify primarily with rigid political ideologies, casting doubt on the genuine nature of faith of those from another party.

My question is two fold: (1) How did we get here? (2) What do we do about it?

How did we get here?

Two weeks ago I was discussing this problem with my two friends Dave Strunk, a pastor at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Englewood, Colorado, and Andrew Wolgemuth, a literary agent. Over a beer at Great Northern one afternoon (we meet every other week to discuss theological classics), Strunk said, in essence, the reason for our current impasse isn’t because of political division, but instead because everybody is a libertarian. That is, Coloradoans (and Americans in general) have become so highly individualistic, defending their own freedom at any costs, that compromise has become unthinkable because it violates their perceived personal rights.

Hugh Heclo, author of the masterful On Thinking Institutionally, put it like this: “Our moral polestar amounts to this central idea: the correct way to get on in life is to recognize that each of us has the right to live as he or she pleases so long as we do not interfere with the right of other people to do likewise.” Heclo argues that inherent in the American story is a defense of personal rights – and a “tolerance” to not interfere with others. The upshot of this ethos is that when other people “interfere” (have different political views), we cry injustice, call for liberty, and dig in our heels.

I recently dusted off my copy of Truth to Tell by Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin goes back to foundations to see why our political polarization has come to such an impasse. At the Enlightenment, language of duty (the duty owed to God, neighbor, state) was scrapped in favor of the language of rights. What must be defended, and even the reason for government, are the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The problem comes when must decide on which rights take priority. Newbigin writes,

“Both sides in the argument use the language of rights of the individual. On the one side there is the right of every individual to do what he wants with what he has lawfully earned. On the other side there is the right of every individual to have her needs met.”

And so the impasse becomes truly impassable. The Left defends the “right” to have needs met, and the Right defends the “right” keep what you earn without government intrusion. But the problem, as Newbigin explains, is that we have no way to adjudicate the difference between a “right” and a “need” apart from questions of purpose. “In a society which has no accepted public doctrine about the purpose for which all things and all persons exist,” Newbigin writes, “there is no basis for adjudicating between needs and wants.”

Because questions like, “For what purpose is a human being made?” were essentially stricken from public dialogue during the Enlightenment, it becomes almost impossible to agree on a shared vision for our political life. As the Christian story becomes less pervasive in our public discourse, society becomes comprised of millions of individuals, each with his or her own purpose (and history, culture, and religion), with little if any “duty” to either neighbor, community or country. Neighbor love become a good reason for community barbeques, but loses all authority when we consider how to deal with political opponents.

So, our political polarization is a result, at least in part, of elements of Western culture that have now reached their extremes. We’re left with the question: What do we do about it?

What do we do about it?

Let’s address this question by way of example. Let’s imagine two people who could not be more politically opposite: an environmentalist and an oil executive. One sees the fundamental issue as the health of the flora and fauna of the planet. The other sees providing affordable energy for our economy as preeminent. Green Peace and Exxon Mobil, for example, could not be further down opposing roads.

However, the biblical story has a vision for both a healthy environment and a flourishing human community, one that needs energy to survive. Actually, the Bible verses are side by side. On the one hand, humans are to care for creation by ruling “over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves in the ground” (Gen. 1:28). Hence, the proliferation of “creation care” ministries. Yet humans are also supposed to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Filling the earth requires development of the social world – including sources of energy necessary for human flourishing. Thus, my friend Chris Horst can write an article for Christianity Today (to be published this Fall) about Christian oil executives serving God in their roles by providing energy for our economy.

The point is this: the church holds within herself a biblical vision of redemption that can bring Right and Left together. She sees the value of both working hard to earn your keep and providing for the needs of the poor. Or in the immigration debate, she sees the direct need for compassion for foreigners and immigrants, but she also sees the God-ordained role of the state to uphold laws and justice. The gospel, when properly understood, pushes against both Right and Left, but also can bring warring parties to the same table of brotherhood. And even more importantly, the gospel can help us decide on the proper purpose of both individuals and governments, which the prevailing quasi-religious attitude of “I-have-the-right-to-live-as-I-please-as-long-as-I-don’t-interfere-with-others” simply can’t answer.

The action point is this: in America, we need churches, pastors, and laity to provide communal places where Christians can come together and reorient the vision of Conservatives and Liberals around God’s purpose for human history. Whether these be small groups, forums, or conferences, these events can be a good starting point for opening up our ears again to listen to our political opponents. And they do need to be events – actually gatherings of human beings. We can’t do it with online articles, books, or podcasts alone. Different results happen when people gather around a single table. When we look an opponent in the eye, if we look hard enough we can generally see a glimmer of ourselves in them. We may even see a brother in Christ.

I believe healing of our deeply polarized political environment begins with the church convening Christians from both Right and Left to discuss not just the common good, but God’s ultimate good for human life – and then how that plays out in our various industries, whether that be politics, business, technology, law or economics. Proximate justice begins with Christians taking personal responsibility to set the plates, forks and knives at the table of fellowship amidst competing visions of the good. And in doing so, the church can gently show a divided political culture a better way for living together in peace.


The Real Reason for Evangelical Interest in Immigration Reform


Today evangelical Christians flocked to Washington D.C. for an “Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform.” Believers from across the US, 15 from Colorado, gathered for worship, press conferences, and meetings with members of Congress. The event, well timed to overlap with the recent release of a proposed immigration overhaul, represents a growing groundswell of support for immigration reform among conservative evangelicals.

But what has caused this growing consensus among evangelicals? Was it the beating Republicans took at the polls last November from minorities, especially Hispanics? Or how about the growing number of heart-wrenching stories from the nations’ nearly 11 undocumented immigrants who are living in legal limbo? Or was it, as a recent TIME cover story pointed out, the growing realization that “they” (our immigrant neighbors) are increasingly “us” (evangelical Christians)? These are all central reasons. But the media has generally overlooked a central truth:  The Bible is the real reason behind evangelical interest in immigration reform.

Colorado presents an interesting case study. In 2008, Dr. Daniel Carroll, a professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary, published Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible. Tired of mere partisan bickering, he set out to re-frame the immigration debate by looking to Scripture. He unearthed ancient wisdom from Israel’s past. For example, God commands Israel, “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them…Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).  Carroll reminded the evangelical community that Abraham was an immigrant from Ur, Joseph became a refugee when his brothers sold him into slavery, Daniel lived as a “resident alien” among the Persians, and Jesus himself became an immigrant when Joseph and Mary fled Egypt to escape persecution.

Dr. Carroll’s theology was instrumental in forming the Evangelical Immigration Table, a national group of college presidents, mega-church pastors, and leaders of evangelical organizations calling for a bipartisan solution on immigration based on biblical principles. In January, the organization launched the “I Was a Stranger” Challenge, calling for churches to read selected Bible passages related to immigrants for 40 days. To date, over 700 churches nationwide have participated. On April 24, Michelle Warren, a Colorado representative for the Evangelical Immigration Table, is organizing a night of prayer for immigration reform for seven churches in Colorado, located in each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts.

As interest in churches has grown, key evangelical leaders in Colorado have voiced their support for immigration reform. In a June 2012 Christianity Today interview, Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family, publicly voiced his support of immigration reform. Colorado pastors like Nick Lilo of Waterstone Church, Tom Melton of Greenwood Community Church, and Mike Romberger of Mission Hills Church all have voiced support for immigration reform based on biblical convictions.

Even Christian high schools are joining the movement. On April 26-27, Front Range Christian School in Littleton will host the “G92 Conference,” a reference to the 92 occurrences of the Hebrew word ger – foreigner, sojourner, immigrant – in the Old Testament. Leading evangelical voices such as Dr. Carlos Campo, President of Regent University, and Stephan Bauman, CEO of World Relief, will speak on the conference’s theme: “Welcoming the Stranger: Exploring a Biblical View of Immigration.” Ironically, the conference will take place in the former congressional district of Tom Tancredo, a name synonymous with anti-immigrant fervor.

In the coming weeks, congress will debate visas, border security, and paths to citizenship. And as they do, evangelicals will add their noisy political voice because they believe God cares for immigrants.  Although evangelicals aren’t the only ones interested in immigration reform (left and right, liberal and conservative have worked on reshaping the system), they may be key to winning the GOP dominated House of Representatives. But even if reform isn’t successful, it’s a breath of fresh air to see the Bible being used in politics as it was always intended: to defend the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant.


Interview with Matthew Soerens


Change is afoot. The evangelical response to the national immigration debate has swelled, and for the first time since 1986, comprehensive immigration reform is a real possibility. Behind the scenes, many have been laboring for years. My friends in Colorado (Dr. Danniel Carroll of Denver Seminary and Michelle Warren of the Evangelical Immigration Table) have brought a deeply biblical perspective to the generally politically-driven conversation. One of the unsung heroes of the push for immigration reform is Matthew Soerens, co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate.

Matthew’s book is one of the best introductions to the thorny immigration debate available on the market. He not only gives a very human perspective to the issue (he’s served as legal aide for undocumented immigrants for years), but he also gives a great introduction to the history of immigration, what the Bible says about immigration, the policy debate, and how Christians can practically “welcome the stranger” in their communities.

During the interview, I asked Matthew four questions:

1. In your book, you speak a bit about your personal journey. How did you become interested in the topic of immigration?

2. You’ve done a lot of work with undocumented immigrants. Let me ask you a tough question: Why don’t they just come the legal way?

3. What does the Bible have to say about immigration?

4. What can local churches do to “welcome the stranger?”

Matthew will be speaking at the upcoming G92 Conference in Denver, along with Danny Carroll, and Dr. Carlos Campo, President of Regent University. If you have a chance, come and check it out.

This blog is about faith and work, and rarely delves into issues of politics. Having served as a pastor of a Latino church, I have a personal interest in the issue. But more than that, immigrants affect all aspects of American life. America is unimaginable without immigrants. And in a heated national debate, especially one on which the Scriptures are not silent, I believe its incumbent upon each Christian to examine the words of Scripture for truth. This movement is a supreme example of directly applying the Christian faith to the issues of our day; it is applying the gospel to the work building a just society.

Discussion question: What is your opinion of immigration?


Disadvantage yourself to advantage others


The leader of Mexico’s powerful teacher’s union, Elba Esther Gordillo, was recently arrested on charges of embezzling millions of dollars. The details are still coming out, but apparently Gordillo used public money to fund houses in California, cosmetic surgery, and even a hefty Neiman Marcus account. The numbers vary widely, but authorities were recently tipped off when a suspicious transfer of $200 million dollars funded the personal accounts of 3 individuals in the teachers union.

Now, what’s astounding about this story is the sheer volume of money. Authorities believe that over Gordillo’s 20 years in Mexican politics, she may have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars. This is no single Rolex watch, or even the theft of $750,000 dollars for personal expenses (like Jesse Jackson Jr recently pleaded to). This is widespread, institutional corruption. Figures like Gordillo, one of Latin America’s most powerful women, are rarely if ever called out for their crimes. Gordillo was a “kingmaker” for her ability to turn out votes on election day; yet she was also the figure who systematically blocked education reform for nearly two decades.

For those who work in development, corruption is often the impossible barrier. My friend recently did a job creation project in Haiti. Having worked previously in other parts of Latin American, he had to ask why shipping a container to the US costs 5 times more in Haiti than in does from the much-farther Colombia. From Asia to Africa, the diverting of public funds for personal use is often the single biggest challenge to those working in economic development. Vibrant economies need roads, sewer lines, and electricity, as well as transparent rules for business. When corruption takes place, people suffer.

Biblical scholar Bruce Waltke points out that the very definition of righteous people is that they disadvantage themselves to advantage others, while “the wicked…are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.”

This definition of righteousness is useful. First, it is public in nature. Being righteous is not just about private morality (though that’s there as well); it involves a relationship to the community. Second, it is deeply Christian. On the cross, Jesus “disadvantaged himself” by sacrificing his life that others might be “advantaged” – eternally. The wicked (Ms. Gordillo would be a good example) take from the community to advantage themselves.

Last week I had breakfast with a man who could be Ms. Gordillo’s opposite. Mario Hernandez is the Director of Public Affairs for Western Union. He’s originally from Taxco, Mexico. He rose to prominence through education (his did his masters at the London School of Economics, and is ABD at the University of Denver in International Affairs). He’s worked tirelessly to promote economic opportunities for immigrants in the US. He also spearheaded Mexico’s innovative 4+1 Program. The 4+1 Program combines public money from the Mexican government with private money (primarily from Mexican immigrants who want to send money home to help their family) to build social infrastructure. Through this program, literally thousands of jobs have been created in Mexico, thus providing opportunities to those who otherwise would likely emigrate to find jobs. Mario Hernandez is a modern day Nehemiah, using his position of influence to go back and “rebuild the walls.”

What if the idea of “disadvantaging yourself to advantage others” became the simple code for political leaders, both abroad and in America? This would redefine public service. Self-glorifying campaigns would focus on the issues, much needed social welfare programs would become sustainable, and communities would flourish. Yet perhaps there’s a better question:

Discussion Question: In your company or organization, what would it look like to “disadvantage yourself in order to advantage others?”



Review: Migration Miracle

ImageWho doesn’t love a good adventure story? In my opinion, there are few contemporary stories filled with more hope and tragedy than those of Central Americans and Mexicans taking their chances and migrating north to America. I recently published a review of Jacqueline Maria Hagan’s Migration Miracle: Faith, Hope and Meaning on the Undocumented Journey (Harvard Press, 2012, paperback) in The Review of Faith and International Affairs. Here it is:

Suffocating from the sweltering heat, Cecelia, a migrant from Puebla, Mexico, crammed into the back seat of a sealed van. She and a dozen other women and children dared not speak, despite the lack of oxygen, because their coyote insisted immigration officials were close behind. During the seemingly eternal trip across the U.S. Border, in tears Cecelia remembered, “I prayed in silence to God and pleaded with him to let me live.”

Compelled by stories like Cecilia’s, sociologist Jacqueline Maria Hagan tells the harrowing tales of undocumented migrants traveling from Central America and Mexico to the United States in Migration Miracle: Faith, Hope and Meaning on the Undocumented Journey (Harvard University Press, 2008). In contrast to books that explain immigration solely in social or economic terms, Hagan sets out to investigate the central role of religion in migration. From Pentecostal ayunos (fasts) in the Guatemalan highlands to the shrines of Catholics saints checkered along the desert journey, Hagan gives voice to stories of faith among these “desperate and dignified people,” and so attempts to put a human face on the immigration debate.

Hope on the Border

Drawing on interviews with over 300 migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Migration Miracle elucidates the importance of religion from making the decision to migrate through arrival.  Margot, an evangelical from Guatemala, fasted and read her Bible for a “sign” from God as she agonized over whether to leave her family. She prayed that if a local coyote (a guide who transports migrants across the border for money) would accept the $1500 payment after she arrived in the U.S., she would accept it as a divine sign. When the coyote agreed, and Margot’s pastor confirmed the sign, she decided to leave. Though sociologists tend to bristle at attributing human behavior to the supernatural, Hagan rightly notes signs are “powerful agents of action” that are “real in their consequences.”  Migrants like Margot not only look for divine signs but also pray, fast, consult clergy and even make pledges of reciprocity (called la promesa) to saints in exchange for safe travels. The study found that 9 out 10 migrants sought spiritual guidance from God before making the final decision to journey north.

To ward off danger, many migrants turn to shrines and images, such as Guatemala’s popular El Cristo Negro (Black Christ) de Esquilipas, a darkened wood image revered for its miraculous powers. Miguel, who left Honduras in 2001, purchased a medallion of El Cristo Negro and promised not to remove it until it fell off his neck. He credits his safe arrival in the U.S. to the image.  Nearly 90% of Mexicans self-identify as Catholic, and devotion to saints and icons deeply shapes their migration experience.

Perhaps the keynote of the discordant migrant song is an undying hope. One group of migrants sought a priestly blessing before crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.  Apprehended by U.S. Border patrol officials, they were brought back to Mexico. They promptly returned to the priest for another blessing. With a touch of irony, the priest asked “So the blessing didn’t help you that much, did it?” One of the young men responded with genuine devotion: “Father forgive me if I contradict you, but with that blessing we arrived as far as Houston. If we had not had your blessing, who knows how far we might have gone? Probably not even to the border.”

Religion is not only important on a personal level, but institutions also help to pave the migrant trail. Churches, nonprofits and humanitarian organizations form a transnational network of advocacy and aid. Among the most notable are the Scalabrianian Missionaries, a Roman Catholic order of priests and nuns whose primary mission is to provide pastoral care to migrants and refugees. Their international network bandages wounds, provides water and food, and gives spiritual guidance to thousands – their Casa del Migrante in Tapachula, Mexico sees as many as 500 migrants a day. The Scalabrianian missionaries stand squarely in the camp of Catholic social theology which practices a theology of solidarity, advocacy and hospitality, defending migration as a fundamental human right for those those who cannot find employment in their own countries to support their families.

Even smaller Protestant organizations contribute to the international aid network.  Humane Borders, Inc., has placed dozens of water tanks in the arid Arizona desert for migrants on foot suffering from dehydration. Father Bob Carney, founder of the interfaith organization Healing Our Borders, commented, “The gospel demands that we act…We must respond to what we are witnessing along the border. If not, one day our Savior will ask why we didn’t do anything in the face of death.” Many Protestant and Catholic leaders view the vulnerable migrant as a stranger they are commanded to serve as if he was Christ himself (Matthew 25:44; cf. Luke 25:15-16).

A Humane Sociology

Jacqueline Maria Hagan’s panoply of first-hand testimonies successfully brings a human face to immigration. One mother prayed for her child’s forgiveness for leaving without first waking him to say good-bye.  Another migrant remembered the soul-convulsing guilt of leaving a teenage girl behind because she could not keep up with the group. The stories are heart-wrenching.  Even the surprising anecdotes of hope—like the virtuous coyote who took his human cargo to an Arizona emergency room to be treated for dehydration—have a way of humanizing an otherwise political issue. It is difficult to read this book and remain detached from the harsh realities of immigration.

Yet the book also succeeds sociologically; her depiction of migrant religious practice is both fascinating if not bizarre. For example, legend has it that Juan Castillo Morales, a private in the Mexican army wrongly accused of murder, was told he would be freed if he could run across a marked line. Although he was killed by his commanding officer, he came to represent immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, seen by outsiders as a criminal, but by the faithful as a saint. Today Juan Soldado (as he’s known) is revered in Tijuana among migrants. As such, travelers stock up on Juan Soldado trinkets, beseeching his favor before crossing over to California. Similarly, thousands flock to the shrine of St. Toribio in Jalisco, Mexico each year. Known as the “coyote saint,” St. Toribio is worshiped for the reported miracles he has granted to migrants in peril. Hagan’s religious survey manages to strike a balance between compassion for migrants and objective sociological research – it’s no wonder Migration Miracle won a prestigious award in 2010 from the American Sociological Association for distinguished research.

Some may criticize Hagan for not offering policy solutions to the perplexing debates surrounding immigration reform (many of which were discussed in the Spring 2011 Issue of The Review of Faith and International Affairs). Issues like security, the American labor force, and social integration won’t be resolved by this book. But that wasn’t her purpose. Migration Miracle delivers readers a vision of both human suffering and dignity by not so much speaking for or against migrants as speaking to them. Their stories of struggle, hardship and faith make readers ask a simple question: “What if I was in their place?” It wasn’t long ago that European migrants to the U.S. (my ancestors included) were telling similar tales of woe and hope.

Recently a young Mexican man was apprehended by INS in southern Arizona. After being kicked by border patrol agents and attacked by dogs, the crouching migrant was turned over and revealed a Bible pressed desperately to his chest. After seeing the faith of these travelers, perhaps those who set immigration policy, like the border patrol agent, might consider calling off the dogs.

This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article submitted for consideration in the The Review of Faith and International Affairs [copyright Institute for Global Engagement]; The Review of Faith and International Affairs  is available online at

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