Board of Trustees Endorses U.S. Asylum Legislation

In a historic first, the Board of Trustees of the Christian Reformed Church declared its endorsement of two bills (HR 3590 and S3339) currently before the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

Kyle Schaap is a policy analyst for the CRC’s Office of Social Justice.

The board, which acts on behalf of the denomination between synods, took the unprecedented step after learning of the plight of Indonesian Christians living in New Jersey, including one who has taken sanctuary in the church building of a Reformed Church in America congregation.

The Indonesians fled their country in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the face of religious persecution. Following the September 11 attacks, they registered with the U.S. government as required and have since been targeted for deportation.

The proposed legislation, titled the Indonesian Family Refugee Protection Act, would allow their request for asylum to be heard in court if they apply within the next two years. It does not guarantee asylum or amnesty.

The board endorsed the legislation, noting that it is in direct agreement with the 2010 synod report by the Committee to Study the Migration of Workers. The board also noted that it would allow denominational staff to advocate more clearly with U.S. congressional members and to mobilize CRC members to advocate.

“Our immigration system is really broken,” said Rev. Scott Greenway, a trustee from Caledonia, Mich. “I’m in favor of this group endorsing this.”

Rev. Sheila Holmes, a trustee from New Jersey, agreed. “Every church in our area is concerned about immigration issues.”

Kyu Paek of Cypress, Calif., asked if the bills would help people from Muslim Asian countries. Kyle Schaap, a policy analyst for the CRC’s Office of Social Justice, said that the legislation is specific to those Indonesians who arrived during the years noted, but that it may spark other conversations about immigration.

While previous synods and church leaders have endorsed biblical positions and made declarations on societal issues such as war, abortion, and immigration, they have never before taken the step of supporting specific legislation.

Executive director Rev. Joel Boot noted that this situation is unique. “This is a situation of a sister church aiding people unfairly oppressed by our government. It is our responsibility to do this.”

The Reformed Church in America and the Presbyterian Church-USA endorsed the proposed legislation earlier this year.

About the Author

Gayla Postma is news editor for The Banner.

See comments (10)


Were this policy legislation, I would be fervently opposed this action taken by the Board of Trustees -- which is why the nature of this proposed legislation should be explained.

Most legislation establishes policies -- rules, penalties, budgets, spending authority, government priorities, etc.  Then there is a kind of legislation that is almost judicial in nature, passed in order to remedy a specific wrong usually created as an unintended consequence by larger policy-implementing legislation.  That is the nature of the proposed legislation in this case.

I'm not sure this BOT action was needed -- in fact, I strongly suspect it wasn't need to get the proposed remedial legislation passed, but the legislation does not set policy in any event.  Which is why I'm not fervently opposed to this action, per se.

But I do have a concern is that this "precedent setting" action by the BOT might used as a precedent -- and I suspect it will -- for the BOT to increasingly become a high-powered group of decision makers for the political advocacy organization known as the CRCNA.  We (the CRCNA) already have too much of that and what we already do in the lobbying and political policy worlds should be reduced, not expanded.  Doing otherwise will diminish the competency with which the CRCNA does its essential work (the tasks in its proper sphere) and ultimately reduce the number of biblically oriented disciples the CRCNA, by the work of its local churches, sends out to (competently) do lobbying and political policy work, as well as all the other work the world needs Christians to do from a biblical perspective.

In the legal profession there is a saying, "hard cases make bad law."  That applies here and the BOT should be mindful of that, even if the author of this Banner article wants to trumpet this as historic and precendent setting.

It wasn't needed.  In fact, from what I can see of the politics, it was proposed to address a very specific case - or rather, to appear to certain constituents that one is "fighting" for them.  The original legislation (the house bill) was submitted 7 December 2011.  The Senate version was submitted 24 June 2012.  Both were referred to the judiciary committees of the respective chambers.  There they will sit until this congress is replaced in January and it becomes a moot point.

What is more, if one of the problems is that immigration law is byzantine in its complexity, full of special cases, exceptions, this, that, and the other thing, how is one more piece of legislation adding to those weeds going to help?

Then there's the questio of why only Indonesians?  Why not Filipinos?  Or Iranian Christians?  Or Venezuelans?

Rather than a clear statement of moral principles to help guide those who are in the legislature, we have a group of people on the basis of a single brief video concluding that they need to "get involved" and their "voice needs to be heard".  This is the kind of thing just rife with potential for unintended consequences.

Then, of course, there is the precedent - a horrible precedent that moves exactly the opposite direction the Church (institute) should be going.

Personally, I am grateful to the BOT for taking this step.  Of course, church leaders endorsing specific legislation is a weighty and significant -- and often controversial -- move, and I trust that the BOT did so with great deliberation and prayer.  As the above comment pointed out, the endorsement's political significance on a national stage is admittedly probably rather small (though it may provide additional credibility as some legislators think about the issue).  However, I am still grateful for the following reasons:

1) Such a move expresses ecclesiastical support for our brothers and sisters in Christ whose lives have been torn apart by deportation and immigration laws, and for the local church community which has supported them, provided sanctuary, and authored this legislation;

2) This decision may alert more disciples in the CRCNA (and beyond) to the issue at hand and the larger issue of immigration reform, so that individual believers may feel educated and supported as they advocate for justice on behalf of the oppressed; and

3) This decision demonstrates a commitment on the behalf of our denomination to showing love to our neighbors in a tangible, practical way -- which seems to be one of the essential tasks of the Church. 

Of course, this legislation is an insufficient measure to solve the extraordinarily complicated problems of the broken immigration system in the U.S., but for this particular population (about 8,000 people all across the country) it could make all the difference.  Of course it is important to work on behalf of justice for all people.  But a desire to see justice for everyone should not prevent us from doing justice for those in our own church communities – our most proximate neighbors -- when we have the chance.  I believe that was the intention of this decision, and for that I am grateful.

As for #2, the ol' "raise awareness" meme of so much "social justice" stuff.  I like that bit, too, about inspiring individual believers to "feel educated and supported" - not to actually BE educated and supported, just to feel that way.  It won't raise awareness.  It just feeds the general impression of a denomination willing to jump on whatever leftist political bandwagon happens to be coming down the pike.

Nor does this demonstrate any commitment other than to spout off.  What tangible, practical act; what sacrifice or assistance does this endorsement provide?  None.  It is an emotional response that has no cost to those who engage in it, does nothing to rectify the actual problem (and in its potential for harm might actually worsen it), but it sure does make everybody who endorses it feel better about themselves.  Ultimately it is an act by the BOT in response to an emotional presentation and video that is intended to make the BOT members feel "educated and involved" without effort.  They can all go home feeling they did a "good thing" and forget about it.  Most will, too.

You may trust that the BOT did this with great deliberation and prayer.  I do not.  I highly doubt that anyone at that meeting ventured the slightest objection to endorsing this legislation - the situation was so controlled and set up that to do so would have made such a person appear to be cruelly insensitive to the obvious pain of those caught in this situation.  Who wants to be a heel in that kind of setting?  Everything was orchestrated to elicit precisely that kind of emotional response.

So that leaves only your first reason and endorsing specific legislation is not necessary to it.  Reaffirmation of principles and an endorsement of the individuals and churches in their efforts to apply those principles would be sufficient.

But everybody goes home thinking they "did something" and they feel good about that.  The legislation, meanwhile, will go nowhere and is from all appearances intended to go nowhere.  It is merely a feel-good measure inserted into the record so constituents will believe their legislators "care" and are "fighting" - just like this endorsement is intended to make us think that we care and that we're fighting "for justice on behalf of the oppressed" regardless of whether or not it accomplishes anything.  This is done for us, not them.

Thanks for the reminder that it's important to follow our words with action!  There are a number of tangible ways you can help love your neighbor in this situation.  Please check out this link for some of those options:

Whoa. This is an interesting step for the CRCNA. I'm curious to see where it leads. It must be hard to be presented with such a tangible way to try to support some brothers and sisters in Christ, and to wonder where this now open door of policy support might lead us. Way to go, BOT, for being bold and asking a lot of questions and being very concerned about supporting the bills before actually deciding (I heard that they did this from my good friend Kyle Schaap. Kyle was one of the presenters of these bills to the BOT).

Brother PNR, I noticed that you seem to be pretty sure of things that went on in this decision and how it's going to turn out. Were you involved in the decision process? Could you tell us more about what actually happened as the BOT went through the process of supporting the bills? I'm curious to know more. The certainty of your words led me to think that you must know a lot about that specific decision, and about U.S. legislation in general. I'm saddened by your pessimism that this bill will just flounder in Congress until it's forgotten. Granted, with the current, polarized climate of Congress, I can see why you'd be so pessimistic. I slip into that political pessimism too. But I'm reminded right now that Paul said that love hopes all things in 1 Corinthians 13. What I've taken that to mean lately is just that: Love always hopes. Not just a little hope. Not a flighty hope that disappears when the situation looks rotten (like it does now). Love always hopes.

So I hope (in a big way, since I love you, my brother in Christ) that you can find hope as well. Hope for some folks in the Body of Christ who have tried to escape persecution (like, being killed. Killed for their faith) and were confused by a crazy, complicated immigration system when they got here. And hope for the CRCNA's Board of Trustees to have made a good decision. You seem to really care about the CR Church, but I can't say that your words show a lot of love, and they seemed pretty hope-less. So I hope that you can find love for people when they do things that make you angry, and, rather than criticizing right away, approach them in gentleness and with the intent to understand.

I hope I'm understanding you correctly. If not, let me know.


I confess, Jack O, that I am a cynic.  I have been at too many of these kinds of presentations and too long an observer of Congress to not be.  There is also the fact that I simply do not trust either the BoT or OSJ.  The latter in particular has frequently betrayed long term goals in favor of immediate gratification on specific situations, heedless of the maxim that "hard cases make bad law".  OSJ is also, judging from its output, simply a left-wing political outfit masquerading as a church mission.  There is so little daylight between their stated positions and those of the DNC as to cause one to wonder which organization they're really a part of - the CRC or the Democrat Party.

But I'd be interested to hear if there were serious objections and what they were.  Was there no one The article and other reports I've received indicate the kind of thing I've described - something all too common in church circles.

I am well aware of the confusion of our immigration system, and of those who are persecuted for their faith (at least 2 of the Iraqi Christians I met while deployed were martyred while I was there - there may be others since).  I am not opposed to those churches and individuals seeking to assist victims of both persecution and that immigration "system". The CRC could easily have encouraged the members of those churches so engaged without taking a stand on this legislation itself.  Indeed, in the already endorsed  principles of immigration reform they have a firm basis from which to do so.

On a policy matter, by the way, I fail to see how adding yet more qualifiers, special favors, and what not to our immigration law does anything to rectify the problem of its byzantine, confusing character.  Indeed, quite the reverse.  This bill proposes just such a special carve-out and in the nature of politics will require other favors, carve-outs, and so on if it is ever to be enacted (again, something I highly doubt will ever be or was ever really intended).  It is counter productive if one's objective is a clear, principled, easy-to-understand immigration law and process.

So, to sum up, BoT's action was unnecessary if their objective is to encourage these churches and members, does nothing constructive if their objective is to personally assist these brothers and sisters, was not the least bit bold (it cost them nothing), and may well be counter productive if the objective is to fix our immigration "system".  What is more, it sets a dangerous precedent, further politicizes the church, and adds to an image of a denominational leadership so eager to be "relevant" that it becomes far too easily manipulated.

I find it interesting that HR 3590 was passed in December of 2011.  Which would have meant that the question of "endorsing it" could have been presented to Synod 2012.  So why wouldn't the BOT, or OSJ for that matter, recommend sending the question to Synod instead of making the decision without Synod's involvement.  Certainly, it's not the case that the BOT's action was unimportant, insignificant, or un-historic.  It wasn't merely a ministerial act, or something that "interim committees" would do because there was no opportunity for the larger body to take it up.  The fact that the BOT did this, even while having the time to submit it to Synod suggests that some within the Synod (and apparently a majority of the BOT members) consider we have change the governance structure of the CRCNA by creating a new assembly, called Board of Trustees.  We haven't of course, but still the BOT seems to be acting as if we have.

We still have Articles 28 of our Church Order, which says that all CRC assemblies (including synod) shall deal with ecclesiastical matters only.  And the BOT, OSJ, ED, and other agencies/officers are mere designates of Synod.  Surely, no one would argue that Synod can do what it otherwise can't do by designating someone to do it in its behalf, are they?  Would you argue that Kelly?

OK, so lets assume that we wish to give continuing respect to Article 28 and that because of it, the institutional church (the CRCNA) should stick to "ecclesiastical matters" only.  Is that bad?  I don't think so.  Does that mean (as Kelly's post seems to suggest) that other important work needing to be done in the world cannot or will not get done?  Of course not.  There are Christians, CRC and otherwise, all over the country (and the world) doing lots of good work that needs doing, political work included.  They just aren't doing it within the institutional CRCNA, funded by ministry shares paid within the context of a Church Order rules that constains this insitution's activities to that which is "ecclesiastical."  Why in the world must we now decide that if the CRCNA, as an institution, doesn't do a particular thing, that thing can't or won't be done?

I suspect PNR's core frustration is largely the same as mine, and can be condensed to this simple question: why is this institutional church increasingly deciding, via a handful or two of people, to ignore its own rules in order to become a political lobbyist and advocate in my behalf?  I'm not just talking about this particular endorsement (which is arguably within Article 28 because it is a matter that involves members of this institutional church, or am I wrong on that?)--the question is a broader one, relating to all the actions OSJ and others take that are quite political in nature, involving both lobbying and specific political advocacy.

I think PNR would join me in saying, just who are you, BOT and OSJ (to mention only two bodies), to presume to lobby and advocate for particular political views that we and thousands of other CRCNA members fervently disagree with?  Is not doing so a violation of CO Article 84?

I have asked these two questions repeatedly online and in-person, but have yet to hear an answer.  Can someone who thinks the CRCNA should be a political lobbyist/advocate in behalf of all its members offer answers to these two questions?


Dear Doug and PNR,

Thank you for stating your concerns.  I appreciate your engagement and would like to answer your questions and correct what seem to be a few misperceptions about the process and implications of the BOT’s recent decision.

Let me outline the history of OSJ involvement with Indonesian asylum-seekers. In early August 2012, OSJ staff attended a local pastors’ breakfast to hear about issues facing pastors in our community; this is something we do frequently in an effort to continuously root our actions in the needs of CRC people and churches in various contexts.

At that breakfast, Pastor Seth Kaper-Dale was speaking about his church’s involvement with Indonesian asylum-seekers who had been targeted for deportation.  (The rest of the story is detailed on our website.)  His appeal for assistance and support was compelling to our office – the mandate of the OSJ includes assisting congregations in doing justice, and here was a congregation in the RCA, our sister denomination, asking for help in exactly that.  There are pockets of Indonesian asylum-seekers in areas which also have large CRC populations and the situation was clearly within our mandate (especially as it deals with justice for those affected by a broken immigration system, per our 2010 Synodical mandate), and so, because we care about the persecuted church, family unity, and showing love to our brothers and sisters in Christ, we decided the issue would be worth bringing to the attention of our constituency.  

We received much support from CRC members across the country who were concerned about the issue and wanted to get involved.  We also learned that the RCA general synod endorsed the legislation this summer.  The endorsements of various denominations had proved extremely valuable to Pastor Seth’s church as they worked on behalf of the Indonesians in their community by advocating for legislation that would allow them to re-apply for asylum, having missed the initial one-year deadline to do so, often due to misinformation.  With the strength of denominational support behind them, advocates for HR-3590 and S-3339 were bolstered and encouraged.  In fact, the endorsement of religious leaders helped lead one of the original co-sponsors in the House to sign on to the bill.  Beyond that, the support demonstrated for this community of Indonesians – and for the church which is caring for them -- by our denomination and others has given them the much-needed assurance of support and solidarity in a fight which has been long and tiring.

Unfortunately, the OSJ was not alerted to this issue until August, after Synod.  If we had known earlier, we would certainly have loved to follow proper channels to do bring the issue there.  We would never attempt to short-circuit Synod’s deliberative processes to achieve an “agenda.”  Instead, when we presented our work to the BOT in late September, we included a request for them to consider endorsing this legislation for all the reasons stated in the article and above.  We initially presented to only the American half of the Board, as the two groups separated for a time of deliberation on various country-specific issues.  However, when the two groups reunited, the American group was compelled enough by the case to ask the OSJ to present again to the entire Board.  There was much discussion about the potential implications of such an endorsement, with concern also raised about the lack of bi-nationality, the narrow scope of the bill and its beneficiaries, and various details of U.S. immigration policy.  As far as precedent-setting, the BOT certainly recognized the historic nature of its decision and seriously considered whether or not it was an ecclesial matter.  In the end, however, they reached a unanimous decision that this endorsement was indeed within their role, and that as a matter of ecclesiastical support and Christian love for our brothers and sisters – for people – they would endorse the bills.  We are grateful for their decision, and know that the community of Indonesian asylum-seekers and the church members who support them are also extraordinarily thankful.  It is disingenuous to suggest that this endorsement creates a slippery slope and that the BOT will begin endorsing “left-leaning” legislation willy-nilly; that is not only offensive to the integrity of the BOT’s process and decision, but also to the clarity of this call to demonstrate love to our neighbors. 

Of course, the OSJ recognizes that the United States immigration system is a mess (the Canadian one has its shortcomings too, for that matter).  We are very clear in our support of comprehensive immigration reform, and this is a goal to which we dedicate many resources.  However, in the current political context it is unlikely that comprehensive reform will be enacted, and so while we continue to work for that – and desire to see that system ultimately be less complicated and advantageous to more people -- we are firmly in support of this legislative attempt to do justice for at least one group.  We would love to advocate on the behalf of all those who are in need of justice in our immigration system, and do our best to respond wisely to those cases which are before us.  In the meantime, these are some of the neighbors we are currently working to show love to.  We make no apologies for that.

There is much work left to be done to follow the endorsement of the BOT with substantial action on the part of CRC members who are concerned with the situation.  The OSJ website provides many of those resources, and I encourage you to get personally involved.

One final point: the OSJ does do some political advocacy (though the bulk of our time and effort is spent on education, awareness-raising, research, and resource development).  However, we would never presume to do so on your behalf or to speak for the entire denomination – though I understand that it feels that way.  If you would like to hear more about the way we think about and do direct advocacy, please email us.  One bottom line: we only advocate on issues which have come to us from the wider church (though, of course, we may disagree on the interpretation of our Synodical mandates) – but please believe that we do our best to respond faithfully to the mandates given to us by the deliberative body of our denomination.  In your posts you seemed to demonstrate great trust in Synod, and so I hope that you would respect our desire to adhere to Synod’s “marching orders” for the OSJ, whether or not you personally like those orders.

We believe justice is an ecclesial matter.  We may disagree about some of the particularities of how to pursue justice, but we are open to those conversations when they are truly two-way streets.  But let us be clear that we believe involvement with broken systems – which are so often political – is an integral part (though of course not the only part!) of doing justice.  We simply can’t imagine that God would make His church immune from doing justice within governments that He ordained.  I don’t think that such a distinction has a biblical basis, as the call to do justice in political and societal systems is quite evident in the Bible, especially for the body of Christ.

Please continue to stay in touch.  We’re grateful for the many conversations we’ve had with you both in the past, including our recent visit out to see you, Doug, and we look forward to more dialogue in the future.  However, this is probably not the appropriate forum for a discussion of political philosophies and our agreement or disagreement therin; if you would like to continue that part of this conversation, I suggest you do so by email so that we do not hijack the Banner’s website.  I know many people appreciate the open forum they provide for discussion, and I would like to intentionally refrain from misusing their site for such prolonged conversations.  Please email us if you have other concerns.  Thanks!

I appreciate the response, Kelly.

I still profoundly, and strongly, disagree with the perspective underlying it, with many (if not most) of the political advocacy positions adopted by OSJ, and with this particular decision by an extra-ecclesial body (BoT) on behalf of the denomination for reasons stated earlier.  I continue to be deeply skeptical in regards the BoT, given their history over the last several decades and that has nothing to do with those who are on it but with the dynamics surrounding its establishment, mandate, and culture.  The unanimity of this decision just reinforces that. 

I must also point out that, whether you like it, intend it, or neither, you most assuredly do speak for the denomination and are presumed to do so by those outside it.  It's the whole point of having an OSJ at the denominational level making such statements and carrying out such advocacy.  It is either naive or disingenuous to claim otherwise. Unless OSJ severs its official ties to the denomination (something I would very much like to see), such representation is unavoidable.

But thanks for the response.