Georgia faith leaders fall on both sides of Muslim ban

A protester prays on the floor of the domestic South Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as other protesters march inside on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017. CORY HANCOCK /FOR THE AJC

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A protester prays on the floor of the domestic South Terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as other protesters march inside on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017. CORY HANCOCK /FOR THE AJC

The Rev. Donna S. Mote talks regularly with refugees traveling through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in her job as an airport chaplain for the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.

Her message is always the same. “What a long journey you have made. Welcome to the United States.”

The Trump administration on Friday executed an executive order restricting immigration and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim nations. President Donald Trump has said he will give priority to Christians.

Mote said her first reaction was the order was not only wrong, but confusing.

“It’s a slap in the face to our history as a nation of immigrants. In my view, there is no way to read Scripture and say that it is not our responsibility and our mandate as Christians to extend hospitality and welcome to refugees,” Mote said. “Unless you are full-blooded Native American Indian, you’re either an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants.”

In Georgia, many faith leaders are as divided on the issue as their flocks.

While some, like Mote, are alarmed by the move, others support the executive order. Trump received a great deal of backing from evangelicals and more conservative leaders, many of whom back the ban.

“I don’t really understand the backlash, especially if it’s temporary and for security,” said the Rev. Tim Millwood of the Rehoboth Baptist Association in Warner Robins, which is made up of 55 churches in Central Georgia. “We saw what happened in Canada over the weekend. I just think it’s a day for caution. That’s not to say that there aren’t some people who have a legitimate interest in our country, and we shouldn’t allow them to be here, but I do think knowing who they are and then coming here legally is important.”

According to CNN, the suspect in the Canadian shootings was identified Alexandre Bissonnette, a man known for his far-right views.

The Rev. Timothy McDonald III, an activist and pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, is dismayed that more Christians have not vigorously opposed the ban.

“It is time for white Republican Christians to give voice to your faith,” McDonald said in a message posted on Facebook. “Your silence is impacting the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

On Sunday, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, expressed similar sentiment.

“Somehow the church has to recapture the revolutionary spirit of the early church because right now there’s too much evil going on in the world, co-signed by those who declare that they are followers of Jesus Christ,” Warnock said.

“I wonder what Bible they are reading. I wonder have they spent much time with the one whom we call Lord and savior. Because if you spend time with Jesus, I don’t know how you crush the poor.”

Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta said Trump would not be the first president to tighten immigration rules.

“My father used to tell me that the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” Lewis said. “In this case, I believe the good intentions are to protect the homeland, so that I understand. I think the program he put into place is flawed. Well intentioned, but flawed, because it didn’t take into consideration those who had green cards.”

He recognizes that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers came from countries not on the list.

“Call it a glaring omission or politically correct, I don’t know,” Lewis said. “Clearly this was dealt with based more on geography than religion or ethnicity.”

Even if some faith leaders don’t feel it’s the right thing to do, Mote figures they may be echoing what they think their congregations want.

“Am I going to shoot myself in the foot?” she asked. “Will people vote with their feet or their pocketbooks?”

Episcopal Bishop Robert Wright says the measure puts America’s identity at stake.

“We have to be careful not to make this just about political personalities,” Wright said. “That’s really too small. This is about American identity and allowing fear to make us something we are not.

"What we are is stated at the base of the Statue of Liberty: 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'

“Are we now as a country willing to erase those words?” Wright asked.