It’s a tale of twinned journeys: one taken by the pastor; the other, by his congregation. And the path that first led them into their neighborhood to learn what it means to love one’s neighbor eventually landed pastor Mike McClenahan in the Oval Office for a consultation on immigration reform—with President Barack Obama.
For McClenahan and the congregation of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, the journey has been an unexpected one. Advocacy in political issues was just not what they did as an evangelical congregation in one of San Diego’s more upscale, and conservative, neighborhoods.
But that has changed.
It began with a simple question: How might we approach the issue of immigration reform from a biblical point of view rather than a partisan one?
That led to the creation of a task force to study immigration through a biblical lens.
After more than a year of study, two of the most conservative Republicans on the task force came to McClenahan and said, “We have to do something about this.”
They were appalled by the misinformation about immigration that they had discovered. They felt compelled to do their part to correct these false assumptions, many of which they themselves had believed before beginning their study.
“We have a Hispanic congregation that has been meeting in our building for two decades,” McClenahan says. “We realized that the system is broken—and that impacts their daily lives.”
They decided to invite Richard Mouw, president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, to lead a roundtable discussion on immigration reform. Just the thought of it made McClenahan nervous.
“We had never really talked about issues like this—I try to avoid issues that are political,” he says. But he felt that God was calling the congregation and that his role was to continue saying yes. So he did.
The next thing McClenahan knew he was invited to travel to Washington, DC, for a day of prayer and action on immigration reform. He and the other team members visited Capitol Hill and met with members of Congress. Again, McClenahan found himself in new territory.
“They asked me if I would record a radio spot that would play in key congressional districts—and again I said yes.” It was a spot to launch a national campaign for immigration reform. Within two hours he had been quoted in more than 75 different online publications.
“From that,” he says, “I was asked to write an op-ed for the San Diego Union Tribune”—another new experience, another chance to say yes.
Then one Sunday a few weeks ago, he received an email from the White House. At first he thought it was a joke, spam of some sort. But, after checking it out, he discovered that it was a legitimate invitation to a meeting the following Wednesday—a meeting, he discovered, in the Oval Office with President Obama.
By this time McClenahan had learned to say yes.
“I never intended to talk about immigration,” he says. “I wasn’t striving for it, didn’t ask for it, but now that I’m here, I’m just trying to be faithful.”
So he said yes.
The Tuesday night before his trip, he explained at the congregation’s session meeting why he would be leaving early to catch a red-eye flight to Washington, DC. The members of session, mostly Republicans whose vote in the last election was not for the Democratic candidate, laid hands on McClenahan and prayed for the next day’s meeting.
The following day, after changing into his suit in the airport bathroom, McClenahan was invited into the Oval Office. Upon entering, he saw that he was one of eight people there to meet with the president. He wondered why he had been chosen; the others all had national prominence with large constituencies. “I was the only one who is a local pastor. I had no idea why I was there.”
“It was a strategy session,” McClenahan says. “The president talked, and then he listened—for about an hour and a half.”
“I realized I had nothing to contribute in terms of strategy or ideas, but I knew I had to tell my story, our congregation’s story, because that was why I was there.”
Not knowing the protocol for speaking in a meeting with the president of the United States, McClenahan raised his hand and began to share about the journey that he and Solana Beach Presbyterian had found themselves on.
“I’m an unlikely advocate, and these are all firsts for me, for us, so I can’t believe I am here,” he told the group. “But we have been working with Hispanics in our community for two decades, and we are compelled to be a part of this because we are connected by relationship.”
“What I realized,” McClenahan says, “was that [the congregation] might have different opinions about the politics of immigration, but our hearts are with these children that we have raised, these people that we have attached ourselves to.”
“But it is also biblical, and I have learned so much about what the Bible has to say about how we care for the foreigner in our midst. You are to love the foreigner because you too were once a foreigner, a stranger.”
For McClenahan and the congregation, it’s a new journey, and it continues to unfold with each yes they give to God’s invitation to love their neighbor and welcome the stranger.
“I’m grateful that this is happening,” says J. Herbert Nelson, director of Public Witness for the PC(USA). “Out of our faith reality, we are called to enjoy and invite the immigrant or the sojourner into our midst.”
“We have for too long allowed ourselves to be pigeonholed into categories which have been established by the political system to divide us, but these issues of liberal, moderate, conservative, Tea Party really don’t have meaning in the larger scheme and our creation by God.”
“We have to tell these stories of our own conversion,” Nelson says, “to tell them out of the eyes of what we now see—that we were lost and now we are found.”
For McClenahan and the people of Solana Beach Presbyterian, it truly has been an amazing journey.