By MIRIAM JORDAN
IRVINE, Calif.—Senior pastor Kenton Beshore said the first sermons on the plight of illegal immigrants didn’t go over well with many members of his evangelical church, which sits on a 50-acre campus in Orange County and has a 3,400-seat sanctuary, sports facilities, restaurant and a man-made lake.
But much has changed in the two years since—both at Mr. Beshore’s 14,000-member Mariners Church and at conservative evangelical congregations around the U.S.
After decades of sitting on the sidelines of the debate, evangelical Christians are prodding Republican lawmakers to support a path to U.S. citizenship for the nation’s illegal immigrants, based on their reading of Bible teachings. Evangelical pastors from pulpits across the U.S. cite Scriptures about welcoming strangers. Some compare illegal immigrants with modern-day lepers, who should be treated with compassion by Christians.
An estimated 300 evangelical leaders, including Mr. Beshore, plan to convene in Washington next week to lobby lawmakers of both parties for an immigration policy overhaul, an issue that has divided voters, lawmakers and church congregations.
A bipartisan Senate group working on the issue could introduce legislation as early as this week. Supporters of an immigration overhaul hope the grass-roots movement by evangelical Christians, which has included meetings with local GOP leaders, will help swing the debate.
“Republican lawmakers take guidance from evangelical America on social policy issues,” said Ali Noorani, head of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy organization. “That evangelicals have taken on immigration bodes well for passage of comprehensive reform.”
Evangelical leaders have met with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Virginia), who is chairman of the judiciary committee that will shape the House proposal.
“We have been encouraging of folks like Marco Rubio and provided them with critical cover,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Christian Coalition and now head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “What really changed the political calculus was the introduction of a religious, spiritual and compassionate case for immigration reform.”
The emerging evangelical position on immigration is a dramatic shift for a socially conservative movement that places a high premium on law and order. It comes as many evangelical churches, much like the Republican Party, see an opportunity to add members from the swelling Hispanic population.
“They are making themselves heard,” said U.S. Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma, Republican Policy Committee chairman, who also has met with evangelical pastors. “Their case is built on compassion and justice: ‘How can we deal with this and resolve it?'”
U.S. Rep Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who has opposed legalization, said people should be careful about citing Scriptures in the debate.
“The Bible contains numerous passages that do not necessarily support amnesty and instead support the rule of law,” he said. “The Scriptures clearly indicate that God charges civil authorities with preserving order, protecting citizens and punishing wrongdoers.”
Mr. Beshore said some members accused the church of taking a political position that flouted U.S. law after preaching about immigration in the fall.
“I tell my people they need the poor far more than the poor need them. That’s what a follower of Christ should do,” said Mr. Beshore, 59 years old, whose wife, Laurie, also is a pastor at Mariners Church.
Many of Mr. Beshore’s church members, as well as some Republican leaders, have since warmed to the idea of helping the estimated 11 million people, mostly from Mexico, who live in the U.S. without permission.
The loss in November by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was blamed, in part, on his suggestions for “self-deportation” that alienated many Latino voters.
High-profile evangelical leaders stayed out of the debate over the landmark 1986 immigration law signed by President Ronald Reagan that allowed legal status to some three million immigrants. They also steered clear of the Bush administration’s unsuccessful push for an overhaul in 2006 and 2007.
This time, the National Association of Evangelicals is taking a lead role, drawing on a membership of 45,000 congregations from 40 denominations.
The new focus began around 2009, with the book “Welcoming the Stranger,” by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang of the group’s humanitarian arm. It offered a Christian argument for changes to immigration law and was distributed to thousands of pastors.
Not all church members agree that an immigration overhaul is part of their Christian duties, and many pastors avoid the issue. But polls show views are shifting quickly.
A Pew survey last month found that 55% of white evangelical Christians believed immigrants were a burden on the U.S., compared with 66% who held that view in 2010. Overall, 41% of Americans believe the newcomers are a burden, polls said, down from 50% three years ago.
Some Mariner church members said their attitudes changed after performing hands-on Christian service. The church has long offered free after-school tutoring and English classes in Orange County neighborhoods of Southeast Asian refugees and recent Latino immigrants.
John Hornburg, a wealthy real-estate developer and self-described conservative, is one of the volunteers who teaches English to immigrants at a Mariners center. “As I learned their stories,” he said, “I started to look at these folks through a prism of humanity and my heart just opened up.”
Many Mariner congregants live in Newport Beach, where per capita income is $81,000. The church runs volunteer programs in nearby Santa Ana, where per capita income is $16,600. Stephen Hueber, 30 years old, said tutoring in Santa Ana “put a whole new face on the immigration issue.”
Since taking the helm at Mariners in 1983, Mr. Beshore has urged members to serve the needy but stayed away from illegal immigration. “This is stepping into quick sand,” he recalled thinking.
That began to change in October 2011, when he and his wife joined 100 evangelical leaders in Chicago to coordinate a “Christian response” to illegal immigration. On the flight there, Mr. Beshore read “Welcoming the Stranger.”
In Chicago, Mr. Soerens, of the National Association of Evangelicals, interviewed Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, about the emergence of immigration as a spiritual theme at his Illinois megachurch.
The pastor described the growing Spanish-language Sunday service at the church attended by immigrants, many living in the U.S. illegally. He said he decided Willow Creek couldn’t ignore their plight.
Some members left. But Mr. Hybels recounted that he took solace in Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in.”
Mr. Beshore said the exchange between Messrs. Hybels and Soerens left him convinced of “a biblical obligation” to address immigration at Mariners. He invited Mr. Soerens to lead two sessions—one to pastors, staff and elders of the church, and another for members.
When the pastor announced a “Conversation on Immigration” at a Sunday service in March last year, the church campus erupted in chatter, recalled Fred Gladney, an associate elder: “People were asking each other, ‘Why are we doing this? Why do we need this? Is there a position the church is going to drive?'”
The event drew several hundred members and a dozen or so activists who oppose illegal immigration. “If immigrants are our neighbors, then we are called biblically to love them in interpersonal interaction and the public policy side we support,” Mr. Soerens said at the meeting. “We have a very duplicitous system, a help-wanted sign next to a no-trespassing sign.”
During a question-and-answer session, one person said illegal immigrants were stealing work from Americans. Mr. Beshore later got emails from members who said the discussion was insulting, one-sided and anti-patriotic. “I lost enthusiasm” for the church, said Mark McCracken, a member of 20 years.
Others left the meeting with a new view. “It opened our eyes to see the issue more broadly and biblically,” said Mr. Gladney, the associate church elder who works as an executive coach in Newport Beach.
In June 2012, evangelical leaders announced the creation of the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition to advance an immigration reform message and build support from congregations. In November, the umbrella group of conservative and liberal evangelical organizations told lawmakers that an immigration overhaul needed to account for family unity, human dignity, border security and fairness to taxpayers.
Early this year, the evangelical coalition launched a national campaign to encourage pastors to study 40 biblical passages related to immigration with their congregants and begin lobbying their elected officials. Last month, the evangelical coalition announced it backed giving immigrants a path to citizenship and launched an ad campaign on Christian radio stations.
“The good news is everyone in Washington seems to be getting on the same page,” said Mr. Beshore. “No political party owns this issue anymore.”
—James Oberman contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared April 9, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal.