ben daniel

ess in Migration 

by Allie Naskret 

“Who is my neighbor?” That is the question that Presbyterian pastor Ben Daniel (M.Div., 1993) sought to answer as he began writing his recent book, Neighbor: Christian Encounters with “Illegal” Immigrants. The book, which was awarded Book of the Year by Foreword Reviews in 2010, offers a Christian framework for addressing immigration issues.

Daniel argues that as Christians, we are called to welcome the strangers in our midst as people who have the potential to bless our lives. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (the story that provided the impetus for Daniel’s book), it is the Samaritan – the despised foreigner – who saves and blesses the man who is wounded by the roadside. In the same way, Daniel acknowledges, undocumented immigrants in this country bless our lives in many ways, from harvesting the food we eat to offering meaningful friendships and diverse perspectives.

Neighbor is a book primarily about people, and not about policy. “I found that the people affected by immigration policy are much more interesting and compelling than the policy itself,” says Daniel. “So I wrote about the people I met.” Daniel says that he hopes his book will help humanize immigrants and dispel the “fear of the other” which often drives the public discussion surrounding immigration.

Ben Daniel’s life and faith has been greatly enriched by his encounters with immigrants. He has lived “either across the street from, next door to, or in the same house as immigrants” since he was a senior in college. Daniel and his family currently reside in a predominately immigrant community in San Jose, California. Their home is across the street from Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church (named after the patron saint of Mexico) and around the corner from the childhood residence of Cesar Chavez (a prominent Mexican American advocate for migrant farm workers’ rights).

Since 1997, Daniel has served as pastor of Foothill Presbyterian Church in San Jose. At Foothill Presbyterian, Pentecost Sunday is truly a multilingual celebration. The church congregation, whose members come from more than twenty countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America, reflects the diversity of the Santa Clara Valley. On Pentecost, church members stand up in the pews and recite the Lord’s Prayer in their native languages; some years, as many as twenty-four different languages are represented.

Immigration is even a part of Daniel’s family. He and his wife, Anne Marie, have three children, two of whom are immigrants from China. They also cared for a foster daughter who was a refugee from Burma and is now graduated from the foster program.

Daniel’s first meaningful encounter with migrants was as a high school student. During his senior year, he helped translate for a family that had fled from the terrible violence and human rights abuses in El Salvador during the 1980s. Daniel’s interaction with this El Salvadoran refugee family opened his eyes to the struggles that many migrants face. It also gave him a sense that he was called to do something about it.

In college, he participated in an urban studies program, working with an Episcopalian ministry in San Francisco that assisted immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Daniel had planned on attending seminary for quite some time, and he enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary immediately after college. “I sensed a call to ministry in the fourth grade,” says Daniel, “and I never questioned it until I got ordained!” Daniel says he chose Princeton in part because he was following a girl he was dating (now his wife), who wanted to attend Westminster Choir College.

Daniel’s first call as a pastor was at Gonzalez Community Presbyterian Church in Gonzalez, California, a largely Mexican community. A few years after accepting that call, he also began working with Presbyterian Border Ministry, an organization that works along the entire length of the U.S./Mexico border and is a partnership between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico.

Daniel describes Presbyterian Border Ministry (PBM) as a “holistic ministry” that is involved in everything from evangelism and church planting to economic development. Daniel served on PBM’s fundraising board from 1995 to 2004, and participated in a delegation that drafted an agreement between churches on either side of the border in 2000.

Even with such an extensive knowledge of border ministries and immigration, Daniel discovered new insights as he did research for his recent book. He admits that the ways in which people are affected by immigration policy are “so much more intricate than I thought.”

Daniel began writing Neighbor, expecting to allude to a handful of biblical references in the book’s introduction. Yet he soon came to realize that the Bible contains more than a few isolated verses about immigration. Rather, “migration is a theme that runs throughout the Bible” – from Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden, to the journeying and exile of the Israelites, to the fullness of time when the city of God is established and we are all living together as immigrants in a new community, he says. “The people of God are constantly on the move . . . faithfulness involves migration.” Therefore, Daniel concludes, “For the church to be faithful, it has to be on the move.”

In Neighbor, Daniel depicts undocumented immigrants as pilgrims on a spiritual journey, pointing out that many seek protection and blessing from God in their travels. He writes, “If God is walking with immigrants as they ford the Rio Grande, if God accompanies undocumented folks through the fiery heat of the desert, then perhaps American Christians need to walk with immigrants as well – not just to influence public policy, but to strengthen our faith and to deepen our spiritual connection to the Divine.”

Daniel, who also regularly blogs for the Huffington Post and contributes to his local NPR station, believes that his Christian faith must be lived out in the public realm. He is currently working on his next book, due to come out next spring, which is about Christian/Muslim relations in the U.S. He hopes that this book, like Neighbor, will help Christians view those who are different from themselves as neighbors whom they are called to walk alongside and to love.

Visit The Thoughtful Christian to purchase Ben's book.