CINCINNATI (Reuters) - He doesn’t speak Spanish and has no idea what America should do about illegal immigration, but Rev. Larry Kreps knows he’s now on a list somewhere of people willing to help illegal immigrants in a time of crisis.
It started out small enough. Months ago, a member of Kreps’ suburban Ohio congregation was looking for a place where local Hispanics could meet, and Kreps offered some space at John Wesley United Methodist Church. A Sunday school lesson on immigration followed in August.
Days later, with just a phone call for warning, dozens of desperate immigrants fleeing a massive raid on a nearby poultry plant turned up on the church’s doorstep, seeking sanctuary.
Kreps let them in, and members of his overwhelmingly white congregation sprang into action. Some brought food, some set up space in the gym and a choir room for the immigrants to sleep.
“Someone slipped me $100 to buy stuff,” Kreps recalled as he stood in the now-quiet church kitchen where the meals were prepared. It was a tense night as scared families and Kreps himself worried police or federal agents might come knocking.
“I wasn’t real clear legally whether authorities could come into a place of worship,” he said. “But we saw it as ‘What would Jesus do?’ in the simplest way -- that you help first and you ask questions later.”
But helping illegal immigrants has become an unpopular business in America. On the presidential campaign trail, Republican and Democratic candidates alike have backed down from any previous support for illegal immigrants, and ordinary Americans are treading just as carefully in the face of a growing backlash against the 12 million people here illegally.
One-third of Americans want to deprive illegal immigrants of social services, including schooling and emergency health care, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll showed this month.
The political stalemate over immigration in America and stepped-up raids to deport undocumented workers has pushed the everyday crisis of illegal immigration into the hands of people like Kreps.
Susan Woodward, 54, helped feed the scared families who stayed at John Wesley church for two days. But she knows not everyone in the congregation thought the church should be helping people they view as illegals. As a result, outreach then and in the days since has been done quietly.
“It’s tricky. Things are being done unobtrusively, gently. The people who feel strong about giving support are doing it, but not drawing attention because they don’t want to create more conflict for the people they are trying to help.”
Sylvia Castellanos, who works for the Coalition for the Rights and Dignity of Immigrants, is slowly working her way through churches in Ohio, offering information sessions for congregations about the plight of illegal immigrants.
She said church leaders so far have all welcomed the dialogue, but churchgoers who attend the sessions are not always as inviting.
“We live in this area which is very conservative and people who come to these events sometimes follow stereotypes,” Castellanos said. “But it is good for them to come with their concerns, to have that dialogue.”
Dialogue can be difficult at First United Methodist Church in Hamilton, Ohio. Just seven miles from John Wesley, First United is within the border of Butler County, home to the poultry plant that was raided.
Debate over immigration has raged in Butler County, where an influx of immigrants has brought Mexican grocery stores and bakeries. Opponents say Hispanics bring crime, put strains on schools or hospitals, and take American jobs.
The First United congregation is conflicted.
“I would say we’re fairly evenly split,” said Rev. Kenn Barton. “We have some people who see it in terms of legality ... ‘They’re illegal so we can’t have them in our church. They don’t have to come to worship because they should be in jail, or back in their country.”’
Barton is trying to broker change through education and a focus on God’s love, but treads carefully. Even discussing the issue is sensitive, and Barton apologizes when members of his congregation opposed to illegal immigration refuse to discuss it with an outsider.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I tend to try to go slow.”
John Wesley pastor Kreps said he, too, is still struggling to reconcile all the issues around illegal immigration as he waits for more scared families to show up on his doorstep. In the meantime, he’s thinking about another long-ago family struggling to find shelter.
“Of course we’re coming into Christmas and the question: ‘Is there room at the inn?',” Kreps said. “I’d rather be someone who makes room somewhere.”
Reporting by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Tim Gaynor and Eddie Evans